Review: Coltrane Culture




Self-confessed Traneiac Barry Witherden attended the inaugural Coltrane Culture and hopes it will become a regular addition to the London jazz calendar

“I was a desert waiting for the rain.” Thus spake Evan Parker, recalling the time he heard John Coltrane playing at the Granada cinema in Walthamstow, 17 November 1961, as part of one of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic package tours.

That building, now divided internally and awaiting refurbishment at some stage, survives under the name Mirth, Marvel and Maud, with bars, a restaurant and performance spaces (pictured right). On Saturday 17 February one of those areas, carved out of the lower floor, saw Coltrane Culture, a day celebrating Coltrane as a great musician and a special person.

The organising team, led by the apparently tireless partnership of Denys Baptiste (pictured left) and his wife Sian Lord, were anxious that Trane’s personal spiritual dimensions as well as his music should be honoured, so the event began with two sessions of yoga and, prefacing the screening of John Scheinfeld’s documentary Chasing Trane, a few minutes of meditation to get us in the mood.

The film (reviewed in December 2017 by Jazz Journal) features previously unseen Coltrane family home movies, footage of Coltrane and his band in the studio (discovered in a California garage during production of the film) and hundreds of previously unpublished photographs and rare television appearances from around the world. There are interviews with musicians who worked with Coltrane, including Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath and Reggie Workman, other musicians who admire him such as hip-hop artist Common, John Densmore (drummer with The Doors), Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter and Kamasi Washington, and with his children and biographers, and there are some squirm-making contributions from Bill Clinton.

Throughout the film, remarkable performance clips and thoughts Coltrane expressed during print interviews make it clear that he was a supportive colleague and a generous human being. In one section, Lewis Porter commented that when researching his biography of Coltrane he interviewed 250 people and not one had anything bad to say about the man. This gives a clue to why so many of us admire Trane in a way that goes beyond standard musical fandom. (My naïve teenage delusion that great artists were also admirable human beings, and that creators of beautiful music must be nice people did not survive hearing about Charlie Parker’s and Stan Getz’s behaviour towards even their friends and Miles Davis’s treatment of women). Coltrane’s own words are spoken by Denzel Washington, and I can’t think of a better choice. Overall, the film provides a good portrait of Coltrane the man, but the succession of mainly fragmentary music clips fails to give a fully coherent view of his work.

The film was followed by a panel discussion between Parker, Baptiste, DJ Charlie Dark and harpist Alina Bzhezhinska, with Jez Nelson chairing. Parker had commented that he felt all he was doing was scribbling footnotes to Trane’s music and the other panel members felt the same about their own work. They clearly admired Parker’s music as well as deferring to him as the only person in the room who had seen Coltrane live. With all due respect (which is considerable) to Alan Skidmore and Paul Dunmall as Trane disciples, Parker is probably the nearest British equivalent to Coltrane, not so much in his style but in the intensity, individuality, integrity and adventurousness of the evolution of his work over the years.

The performance part of the evening began with a set by Bzhezhinska (pictured right), who had, not unreasonably, flown the flag for Trane’s second wife, Alice Coltrane, during the discussion. Classically trained, she has steeped herself in Alice’s music and, just like Alice, proves the harp can be funky, bluesy, incantatory and genuinely mysterious by turns, freed from the Palm Court image which many people have of the instrument. Although she said she was still learning how to use electronics, here and there she made good use of effects pedals. For Alice’s A Monastic Trio she was joined by bassist Larry Bartley.

Bassist Gary Crosby was scheduled to appear but unfortunately he had a stroke on 29 January, three days after his 63rd birthday. I’m pleased to say that at the time of writing he is recovering well and is receiving physiotherapy. Although absent in body he was very much present in spirit, not least through the latest edition of Tomorrow’s Warriors, the band for young musicians he first established in 1991, who did him proud in their interval set in the bar. Few people have done as much as he has to ensure that British jazz has a viable future through the fostering of new talent.

In what was originally billed as the Gary Crosby-Evan Parker Quartet, John Edwards substituted for Crosby in a scorching, heart-accelerating set alongside Parker, pianist Alexander Hawkins and Moses Boyd, a drummer who can sound elegant even in the most ferocious passages. Their playing throughout, including on an epic One Up One Down, was a stunning tribute to the spirit of Coltrane, and would have been worth my 290-mile round-trip on its own. Some scribbling!

Before the panel discussion Parker had kindly spared me some time to talk, and I asked what he felt about the distinction between being inspired and being influenced. “Coltrane never stood still. He was a very dynamic individual with a creative resourcefulness which was pushing him to find new material all the time. That was the inspiration ... you were never going to be Coltrane at doing that because by the time you’ve worked out what that is he’s moved on. That’s the impulse for finding something of yourself in the music. In the most profound way that was the lesson … find something of your own. For today’s event Denys has asked me to play in a specific context so we’re actually going to play some Coltrane tunes. It’s not something I would propose but it’s in response to an invitation, and we’ll try to find a space and a way to pay homage that also gives us an opportunity to express ourselves, and I’m sure it will. It’s an interesting challenge”. It was a challenge that the quartet rose to in outstanding fashion.

I raised the question of Trane’s marathon performances and Parker commented that, whereas at the time 25 minutes was considered astonishing, attitudes are different now. “With the free way of playing it doesn’t make sense to keep stopping and starting if you’ve nothing to say to the audience … you can’t say ‘This is a track from our new album’. Usually now we play whole sets of 40-45 minutes. You could say it’s just one piece if you want to hear it that way, or you could hear it as 50 pieces. It depends how it breaks down, how it falls: it could be three, four or five sections. So that’s the freedom that was created for us by players like Coltrane, who were prepared to stretch out and treat it more like the art form it is and less like the entertainment for the environment that it was confined to. It doesn’t sit well with trying to sell drinks and that kind of stuff. Coltrane was increasingly talking about that sort of thing toward the end”.

The final live set was based on Baptiste’s 2017 album The Late Trane, which has been nominated as best album in the Jazz FM awards. This was a quartet line-up, with Nikki Yeoh (piano and electronics), Rod Youngs (drums) and Bartley, the only member not on the album, on bass. Despite some recalcitrance on the part of the sampling gizmos that Baptiste used on a couple of numbers, the band brought the performance section of the day to an exhilarating end. Tackling compositions from the last few years of Trane’s life, together with two of Baptiste’s own pieces - Astral Trane and Neptune, adding to Trane and Rashied Ali’s orrery from Interstellar Space - the quartet roamed into contemporary stylistic areas that Coltrane did not live to see and may or may not have engaged with: the panel discussion had inevitably touched on the “what would he be playing if he had lived” issue. Whatever, the session was an appropriate culmination of this celebration of Coltrane’s enduring importance and relevance.

The day ended with DJ sessions by Dark and Nelson. There was also a showcase of Coltrane-inspired art by students at the Big Creative Education project. Sian Lord told me they hope to make this an annual or at least biennial event, depending on finances, and if they can it will be an essential addition to the London jazz calendar. Altogether a glorious day for Traneiacs like me.


post a comment