[JPL] Following, With Ease, in Giant Footsteps

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Sep 25 19:02:43 EDT 2006

September 23, 2006
Music Review
Following, With Ease, in Giant Footsteps 
John Coltrane, who would have turned 80 today,
presents specific challenges to any musician presuming
to pay homage. Because the dimensions of his music
shifted several times, a decision has to be made about
which Coltrane, in effect, to memorialize. And after
that has been settled, there’s the gravitational pull
of his voice as a saxophonist, which can quickly turn
an acknowledgment into a series of impressions. 

These issues don’t seem to faze Joe Lovano, who has
been leading a Coltrane birthday tribute at Birdland
this week. Like many tenor saxophonists of his
generation, Mr. Lovano has internalized Coltrane as
both an instrumental model and a conceptual ideal;
more than most, he has folded those lessons into his
own style. On Thursday night he played a set that was
deferential but un-self-conscious, at ease in its

Mr. Lovano used “Crescent,” the meditative title track
of one of Coltrane’s most rewarding albums, as an
invocation. It also served as a warm-up for the
quartet Mr. Lovano had assembled, with Steve Kuhn on
piano, Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Andrew Cyrille on
drums. (Tonight the bassist Henry Grimes will be a
special guest.) 

After the song wafted from rubato balladry into a
roomy, ambulatory swing, Mr. Lovano took a long and
concentrated solo. It summoned Coltrane structurally,
mostly uncoiling in strands of eighth notes, but Mr.
Lovano adopted a brighter, airier tone. 

Mr. Kuhn, who briefly worked in Coltrane’s quartet,
played crisply and conventionally behind Mr. Lovano,
often using feathery block chords. In his solos he
stayed close to the melody, adding only concise
right-hand filigree. This worked nicely on “Mr. P.
C.,” a minor blues, but on “Spiral” it felt like a
cop-out: Mr. Kuhn never ventured to thread his own
line through the descending harmonic motif that
inspired the song’s title. 

The inclusion of “Countdown” — which, like “Mr. P. C.”
and “Spiral,” comes from the landmark 1959 album
“Giant Steps” — seemed on the surface like a signal
from Mr. Lovano, perhaps making the point that
Coltrane’s most harmonically rigorous period should
also be considered his most accomplished. But Mr.
Lovano’s arrangement of the song, in a polyrhythmic
12/8, and his fervent improvisation, which
compellingly skirted the limits of tonality, both
pointed toward a later period.

With “Seraphic Light,” which Coltrane recorded in
1967, less than six months before his death, Mr.
Lovano addressed that period directly. His
interpretation of the song included open spaces for
Mr. Plaxico and Mr. Cyrille, who each delivered a
dramatic soliloquy; Mr. Cyrille’s solo, largely played
on the rim of his snare drum, included a long stretch
of what sounded like a heated debate in Morse code. 

“Seraphic Light” also reached beyond Coltrane, to the
contemporaneous avant-garde saxophonists Albert Ayler
(whose imploring cries Mr. Lovano echoed) and Ornette
Coleman (whose brand of linear abstraction Mr. Kuhn
explored). And why not?, Mr. Lovano seemed to be
asking. Not even a figure as ascetic as Coltrane
developed his art in isolation. Besides, who wouldn’t
want company on his birthday ? 

The John Coltrane 80th-Birthday Celebration continues
tonight at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street,
Clinton;(212) 581-3080, birdlandjazz.com.


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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