October 8, 2001
The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording
Impulse! 314 589 120-2
What's probably the most unexpected surprise about this more than 34-year-old music recorded by saxophonist John Coltrane final band at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in Harlem, and finally legitimately released, is just how powerful it is.
Although taped just three months before he died of liver cancer at 40, when the saxophonist was so out of sorts that he had to play sitting down, you'd never realize the extent of his infirmity from this performance.
Coltrane was improvising at the same exalted level on this April afternoon in 1967 as well as he ever he did during most of his short life. With such seem-bursting compatriots as tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali could he have done anything else?
Not that he would have wanted it any other way. Underlying this fearless performance is the conviction that, despite rumors to the contrary, Coltrane was firmly committed to following the exploratory path he had embarked upon a couple of years earlier. Note the performance locale as well. Neo-con revisionists who contend that Trane was going to return to a more simplistic sound had he lived, are the same ones who declares knowingly that most black fans had abandoned his music by end of his life. So who made up the members of the wildly enthusiastic crowd in the club on Manhattan's 125th street that day?
Sanders and Ali's contributions come into stronger focus as well on this date, recorded in sometimes uneven, but mostly professional, sound. With his ceaseless motion and ability to never let the tempo flag, plus his ingenuity in marshalling the other percussionists who clustered around the saxophonist — there's at least one, possibly two more on this date — Ali may really have been Trane's perfect percussion partner. Elvin Jones, famous for defining the sound of the so-called classic Coltrane quartet, subsequently rigidly stuck to that, for him, comfortable format. Compare his subsequent recordings and bands to Ali's and you'll hear a masterful percussionist content to build variations on the Coltrane sound on one hand, as opposed to someone unafraid of different partners or contexts on the other. That's why Ali's in-your face press rolls and constant thrashing is so necessary here; rather than seeking to nudge the saxophonist back into a comfortable position, he's ready to follow him no matter where the spirit leads.
Sanders, admitted Coltrane in interviews, was there to spell him, during the course of the wrenching performances of music like the compositions on this disc, which clock in at either side of half an hour each. Certainly the second saxophonist's ability to seemingly blow his horn apart while producing what could be cries of a wounded predator every time he set out to make a statement made him one of the most exciting performers of the time. You can witness that on "Ogunde" and then marvel at the combination of speedy multiphonics and R&B-style honking he brings to "My Favorite Things". Still, these tendencies point out his inescapable weaknesses as well. Like some over-exuberant Dixieland players blasting out of an ensemble, he usually "gets hot" far too quickly and is left restating his scorched earth offensive over and over again. Too often his soloing resembles that of an operatic tenor in showy recital, straining for those high notes just slightly out of reach.
Like Paul Desmond, who was canny enough to limit his solo forays, Sanders was best heard as the perfect sideman, useful for his sparkplug quantities, but too inconsistent to provide superlative leadership. Is it any wonder that his most memorable sessions since his Trane tenure have seen him playing second banana to his supposed sidemen such as Leon Thomas or Lonnie Liston Smith?
Compare that to Coltrane's performance. Even on "Favorite Things" which he must have played thousands of times by then, he's still elaborating new variations on the theme and keeping his lines and ideas in constant motion. On the other tune he invokes great cascading, middle range horn swoops while the massed percussionists' accent every phrase with cymbal and snare polyrhythms. If split tones are exhibited by the saxophonist, it's without the signs of obvious strain that Sanders seems to display.
Alice Coltrane's and Jimmy Garrison's contributions are simpler to describe. In the pianist's case, once the saxophonists and drummers get started, she almost disappears into the mix, only reappearing as on "Ogunde" for dense, ascending note stairsteps. In truth, her heavily accented modal style doesn't appear to be that different from the method McCoy Tyner developed during his years with Coltrane.
Unheard most of the time, Garrison makes his outstanding — and most audible —contribution in his introduction to "Favorite Things". Did someone shut a window or a door to allow him to be heard, you wonder? His solo is actually a much longer version of
what he played on LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD AGAIN, recorded in the previous year. With only the vaguest of Spanish flamenco modulations, the bassist offers a lucid elaboration of a centred motif. When he turns jauntier at the end, it seems as if he's been creating some breathing space to prepare everyone for Trane's famous soprano flowering.
All in all, rather than being long-rumored splinters of the true cross suddenly on display, this concert CD appears to be merely what a standard nightclub set by the Trane band would be like at the time. Of course, the performance is given added poignancy by his impending death. Moreover, the disc shouldn't be oversold as more than an hour of breathless revelation. It adds little new to what we already know about Trane's reign.
But, considering that most of what Coltrane created was so far superior to other music of that day and this one, it's still a noteworthy and important disc. More to the point, as a musical dispatch from a man who seemed incapable of mediocrity, it's a precious artifact that most jazz fans will want to own.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Introduction by Billy Taylor 2. Ogunde 3. My Favorite Things
Personnel: John Coltrane (tenor and soprano saxophones); Pharoah Sanders (tenor saxophone); Alice Coltrane (piano); Jimmy Garrison (bass); Rashied Ali (drums); Algie DeWitt (bata drum); possibly Jumma Santos (percussion)