Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Memory Belongs To Us

Whenever the topic of Keith Jarrett comes up between me and my wife—not an unusual occurrence, given how he is one of the few jazz artists we both love in equal measure—one of us will recall what we remember as one of the most sublime musical experiences we've shared.

It happened at one of the two concerts by Jarrett's Standards Trio we caught together at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal during the time when our older daughter lived in the city's Old Port, just a short, romantic walk from the festival's venues.

Our collective faded memory has shrouded most details of the concert (Was it the time that Jarrett went off on a rant about the francophone media? or Was it the night that we convinced each other that the woman seated in the row in front of us bore a striking resemblance to a notorious serial killer?) but what we both recall with crystal recollection is the version of "You Belong To Me" the trio played.

Did Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock even play on the tune? Who knows. All we recall is the extraordinary improvisation that Jarrett reeled out. I've always enjoyed the Patti Page version of the song, which has been covered by everyone from Dean Martin to Gene Vincent to The Misfits (one of our younger daughter's favourite punk bands), but Jarrett's interpretation took the song far beyond anything that had been recorded in the dozen popular versions.

It was, perhaps—actually, memory says there is no perhaps about it—the most moving thing we've heard Jarrett play, and we have spent no small amount of time listening to him. And yet, a search of Jarrett's database shows that he has never released a version of the song. There are multiple interpretations of various pop standards from the same era, but no "You Belong To Me."

Once, knowing that my friend Nobu Stowe—a Japanese pianist who plays in a style akin to Jarrett's—was interviewing Jarrett for a Japanese publication, I inveigled him to ask why he had never included a version of the song on one of the trio's many live recordings. According to Stowe, Jarrett recalled the Montreal performance and shrugged.

So, without recorded evidence of the brilliance we recall, the performance—Jarrett's stunningly gorgeous inventions and extrapolations of the harmony and melody—haunts us, coming up repeatedly in our conversations.

At this point, we are almost at the point where we don't want to hear it. It could never live up to our memories, and that is so much the essence of great improvisation. It lives in the moment, is enjoyed, forms memories without our even knowing it, and is gone.

Keith: If, by some odd chance, you encounter this, release a version of "You Belong To Me" at your own risk. Our standards are high.

Trane Time

Few artists who attract rabid fans have bifurcated careers that divide those followers like John Coltrane. Even his longtime employer, Miles Davis—who lost legions of fans when he adopted electric music in 1968—won people back late in his career.

A Love Supreme is usually the dividing line for Coltrane listeners. Most who swear allegiance to the saxophonist can't abide the music he made after he replaced pianist McCoy Tyner with Alice Coltrane and Elvin Jones ceded the drum chair to Rashied Ali. The addition of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders—who, at 24, introduced a fury of multiphonic overblowing to the ensemble—sealed the deal. Listeners who were willing to follow Coltrane's explorations on "My Favorite Things" and "Afro-Blue" were not prepared to open their ears for the full-blown sonic onslaught of Live In Seattle or Ascension.

But, for those whose love for Coltrane is unconditional—and I count myself among them, having devoured Live In Seattle with the same gusto as Giant Steps when I was about 18—it is time to rejoice. This year brings a much-discussed 1966 concert to commercial release. A joint project of Universal Music, which now controls the Impulse! imprint, and Resonance Records, Offering: Live At Temple University is 90-plus minutes of Coltrane at his most ecstatic, just eight months before he succumbed to liver cancer. Recorded on November 11, 1966, before about 700 people, the concert features the core of Coltrane's quintet (with Sonny Johnson subbing for Garrison) along with a quartet of Philadelphia percussionists and guest appearances by two local saxophonists.

I have the pleasure of delving into the release from a number of angles for a forthcoming DownBeat magazine feature, which is providing the opportunity to think deeply about Coltrane's musical journey and trade thoughts with some others who have committed significant time to this kind of exploration, including writer/historian Ashley Kahn (who wrote the liner notes for the set), baritone saxophonist and jazz educator David Mott, young saxophonist Jon Irabagon, and others. This week holds promise of the opportunity to discuss the performance with Sanders, the sole remaining principal.

This is intense exploration.

"Coltrane's saxophone sounds like it is about to explode; it's under so much pressure," said Mott, who is no slouch at pumping tremendous volume through his own horn.

"I hear tremendous urgency in his playing," said Kahn, whose books on the recording of A Love Supreme and on the history of Impulse! have provided him with unmatched access to the Coltrane oeuvre.

Seldom have musicians approached music making with as much energy and single-mindedness as Coltrane at this late point in his short life. Although there is a definite 'shape' to the concert (he bookends the performance with "Naima" and "My Favorite Things," two of his best-known vehicles) there is no doubt that it defines what we think about the musician who poured everything he had into every solo and didn't stop playing until he had exhausted the possibilities of expression.

Much is made of Coltrane's vocalizing at this performance, which includes some radical effects created by pounding on his own chest, but that is in keeping with the arc of expression introduced in the first movement of A Love Supreme and the Seattle concert with Sanders. The point to be made from this departure from the saxophone as a means of expression is that this is a man who was fully engaged in the act of communication.

For those whose love of Coltrane extends only as far as 1965, who sometimes find the later works 'unmusical': They may have a point. This is expression beyond music, beyond what anyone had previously done.

It's impossible, of course, to know if Coltrane was aware that death was close at hand, or to know where his muse would've taken him following these final concerts and the few studio sessions held in early '67 had he survived. It is possible, hearing the level of ecstatic release at this Temple University concert to believe that this is a level of ecstatic release and musical/spiritual connection that could never again be attained.