Various Artists

John Coltrane 50th Memorial Concert at Café Oto
Confront Recordings Core 07

More than a half-century after his death tributes to saxophonist John Coltrane are still being produced, although the focus has gone from memorials by his contemporaries to tributes by those who have been affected by his music. So it is on this exemplary two-CD set by a group of mostly British improvisers who are fully in Trane’s orbit. On the 50th anniversary of the saxophonist’s death, they created live interpretations of two of Coltrane’s iconic, late-period works, “Sun Ship” and “Ascension”.

While most of the other players are too young to have seen Trane in person, one who did is veteran tenor saxophonist Alan Skidmore, who besides recording many Coltrane compositions over the years has had an inside-outside career working with everyone from John Mayall to John Surman. Howard Cottle, another tenor saxophonist with similar credentials has maintained an exploratory bent, as part of fellow tenor saxophonist Paul Dunmall’s Sun Ship Quartet (SSQ). Dunmall, best known for his membership in Mujician, and the other SSQ members, bassist Olie Brice and American drummer Anthony Bianco are on site as well, although they’re continuously busy with it and other bands. A completely separate aggregation, which joins the others for “Ascension” and plays an introductory tune as a trio are percussionists Mark Wastell from London and Ståle Liavik Solberg from Norway along with Danish flutist Julie Kjær.

Rather like an amuse-gueule for the Coltrane feast that’s about to commence, the Kjær- Solberg-Wastell original, “May There Be Peace And Love And Perfection Throughout All Creation O God”, is more attuned to the reductionist sounds of the 21st Century than any Trane-isms. Still, the dual percussionists’ dexterous ability to create unique and rhythmically compelling noises from a collection of cogwheel ratchets, darbuka-like echoes, bell peals, cymbal vibrations and drum set shuffles aligns with Kjær’s aviary breaths as a moderato harbinger of the fiery activities to come. Also considering the transformative textures that later invigorate the sets featuring first two then three tenor saxophonists, the truncated version of “Ascension” that closes the program is almost tame. Fully polyphonic, with scope for three drummers to fluidly smash out pumps and rolls, for tougher slide-whistle-like flute peeps to snake through the busy narrative and with exposure for the reeds’ undulating split tones to make a ferocious statement, it doesn’t reach the transcendent power of the original. More notable are the three SSQ tracks and the two where the quartet is augmented by Skidmore.

Familiar enough with the material to expand and toughen it, with more reed voices replacing the piano of the original recording, Dunmall and Cottle divide up multiphonics and modulations. At times, as on “Sun Ship”, their interaction almost resemble a Free Jazz Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis duo, but that’s soon dispersed with as staccato drum beats and tremolo string punches from the bassist encourages multi-pitch tongue stops and honking echoes from the saxophones. In fact if anyone’s playing stands out during the two-CD set, it’s Brice’s, whose multi-stopping grounded rhythms are matched by his nimble command of extended arco and pizzicato techniques. His power thumps, node pops or pressured vibrations make it possible for the two tenors to express themselves fluidly on the SSQ tracks. Also contributing are Bianco’s sly cymbal sizzles and drum patterns that go from shuffles to snaps. Phrases that could have come from Pharoah Sanders tenure with Trane are screamed out, splintered and masticated by the saxophonists at times, as are muscular chest tones and high-pitched snarls. At the same time whether they’re speaking-in-tongues or moderating lines, Cottle and Dunmall never lose control of the material.

The magisterial theme of “Attaining” marks Skidmore joining the quartet, and his fulsome tones intensifies the exposition still further. On that track as well as “Ascent” the reed blasts call on all the acumen created by double bass thumps and in-the-pocket drum demands to keep the narratives flowing chromatically, as the saxophonists’ output slither from altissimo to renal tones, and to rococo variations before recapping the theme. Quicker and more pointed “Ascent” is particularly notable since Dunmall’s soprano saxophone squeezes in a lick from “My Favorite Things” during an extended tripartite excursion into flutter tongued multiphonics. That playing encompasses triple counterpoint and responsive vamps plus dog-whistles and nephritic growls.

Conformation once again of John Coltrane’s lasting power and influence, this memorial concert truly honors his contributions in fine style while showcasing the skills of three tenorists and their associates who continue to build on Trane’s legacy.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc I Set One: 1. May There Be Peace And Love And Perfection Throughout All Creation O God* Set Two: 2. Amen+ 3. Dearly Beloved+ 4. Sun Ship+ Disc II: 1. Attaining+^ 2. Ascent+^ 3. Ascension*+^

Personnel: Julie Kjær (flute)*; Paul Dunmall+, Alan Skidmore^ and Howard Cottle+ (tenor saxophone); Olie Brice (bass)+; Anthony Bianco (drums)+; Ståle Liavik Solberg* and Mark Wastell* (percussion)