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The John Coltrane Guide

You can buy your Coltrane in bulk these days, and maybe you should. Not just for completists, boxes like The Prestige Recordings , Atlantic/Rhino’s The Heavyweight Champion, and Impulse’s The Classic Quartet assist in
tracking their subject’s path from ’50s journeyman to ’60s avatar. But facsimiles and expanded editions do the job almost as well, plus they’re more affordable and beginner-friendly, and they channel the lure of vinyl originals by miniaturizing the look. You’re missing the story with best-ofs.

Mating Call
[1956, Prestige]

This sideman date with star-crossed bebop pianist and composer Tadd Dameron might not be as essential as the
ones with Miles and Monk you hardly need me to recommend. But I promise you’ll fall for “On a Misty Night,” Coltrane’s most lyrical and dancing recorded solo to that point.

Cattin’ With Coltrane and Quinichette
[1957, Prestige]

Compare and contrast: Already stacking chords and subdividing bebop’s basic eighth-note unit, Coltrane could be playing twice as fast as Prez devotee
Quinichette, even when the rhythm section supplies the same tempo for both.

Traneing In
[1957, OJC]

Folks who were there say the somber and careening blues title track was the first recorded performance to approach the rigorous explorations Coltrane was by then routinely mesmerizing nightclub audiences with. And his closing flourish on “Slow Dance,” a luscious melody by the forgotten Bernstein protégé Alonzo Levister, shows that “Naima”‘s melody was on his mind long before Giant Steps.

The Ultimate Blue Train
[1957, Blue Note]

Although ’50s wisdom had it the difference between Blue Note and Prestige was a day of paid rehearsal, Blue Note’s real edge—and the reason Coltrane, until then seemingly no composer, suddenly blossomed forth with “Moment’s Notice” and the looming title track—was in allowing musicians to retain their publishing. In this case, it may be no more than the reunion with Philly Joe Jones, the drummer most in sync with him before Elvin. Having Lee Morgan as a foil doesn’t hurt, either. The CD-ROM material congratulates you on your good taste in making this purchase.

Coltrane Time
[1958, Blue Note]

Originally issued as Cecil Taylor’s Hard Driving Jazz, it doesn’t work as well as it might have, for which blame sidemen unsympathetic to the pianist. But like the 1954 session by Miles and Monk that produced both “Bags’ Groove” and a fistfight, this is one of those instances in which tension proves its own reward.

Giant Steps
[1959, Atlantic]

The year of Kind of Blue and Ornette Coleman’s Five Spot debut was also the year of Coltrane’s tour de force on the changes of . . . they speed by so quickly no one’s ever been sure if “Giant Steps” is derived from Tin Pan Alley or a Nicolas Slominsky exercise. Only Charlie Parker’s “Ko Ko” presages its dazzle and profundity.

The Avant-Garde
[1960 (1966), Atlantic]

This romp with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell provides the only clue we have of what Coltrane might have sounded like sitting in with Ornette. Coltrane adds another dimension, going for the harmony that isn’t there.

My Favorite Things
[1960, Atlantic]

Coltrane’s greatest hit—though pianist McCoy Tyner is the quartet member who takes to modes as if born seesawing between major and minor.

Coltrane Sound
[1960 (1964), Atlantic]

Late-released leftovers. “Equinox,” a two-chord vamp stretched to the breaking point, shouldn’t have had to wait. Nor should a “Body and Soul” that rivals Coleman Hawkins’s. It’s the first one I bought, and it proved addictive.

The Complete Africa/ Brass Sessions
[1961 (1995), Impulse]

Figures the only Coltrane album produced by Creed Taylor would be orchestral. But the horns hit like an augmented rhythm section—on “Blues Minor,” like a second Elvin Jones.

The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings
[1961 (1997), Impulse]

This four-CD box, which expands the original LP with material from Impressions and the vaults, isn’t the only live Coltrane you’ll ever need, but its three epic versions of “Chasin’ the Trane” are a good start. Plus generous helpings of Eric Dolphy, Coltrane’s musical soulmate and very nearly his match.

Coltrane (Deluxe Edition)
[1962, Impulse]

“The Inch Worm” shows Coltrane wasn’t above fishing for another modal, three-quarter-time novelty hit. But the reasons for buying this now are the gorgeous “Soul Eyes” and a shattering “Out of This World.”

Live at Birdland
[1963, Impulse]

It’s the one with “Alabama,” his famous requiem for four little girls killed in a church bombing that summer—something of a ringer for being recorded in the studio. The concert highlight is “I Want to Talk About You,” a ballad with an extended cadenza as searing and inventive as any of Coltrane’s uptempo adventures.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
[1963, Impulse]

Coltrane performed a mitzvah by reviving the career of a neglected crooner, while casting himself in the unfamiliar (but not altogether unlikely) role of obbligatist. As perfect as Lester Young with Billie Holiday, and—assuming a certain level of taste and sophistication—still a potent first-date aphrodisiac. Or so I’m told.

Crescent
[1964, Impulse]

Simultaneously a ballad album, a darkly ruminative suite, and a subtle exercise in reconfiguring Latin rhythms into a rubato three-against-four (though not billed as any of those things), this has been a favorite of conservatives from Martin Williams to Wynton Marsalis, who regard it as Coltrane’s quartet peak. Only what’s coming up next stops me from going that far.

A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition)
[1964–65 (2002), Impulse]

“Among the pious I am a scoffer: among the musical, I am religious” —George Bernard Shaw. Try thinking of the holy visitation in the grips of heroin withdrawal that Coltrane describes in the
liner notes as a born-again experience, and this becomes his evangelical testimony. Coltrane’s most celebrated work, and rightly so. (Along with dry runs, the in
valuable bonus disk preserves Coltrane’s only live performance of the work.)

Ascension
[1965, Impulse]

Whenever people talk of Coltrane going off the deep end after A Love Supreme, this squalling tribal gathering organized around raw energy and a handful of chords is inevitably offered as Exhibit A. An artifact in which only the most intrepid will take pleasure, it’s nevertheless essential for providing evidence of how Coltrane helped shaped the ’60s avant-garde and how its rank and file reshaped him.

Live at the Village Vanguard Again
[1966, Impulse]

Released on the heels of Meditations during my junior year in college. The studio album was the one I relied on for catharsis (or just consolation) at the time, but Again is the one I reach for now whenever I want to re-experience the thrill of hearing Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders storm the heavens arm in arm. And I think I realized it was more substantial right from the start.

Interstellar Space
[1967 (1 974), Impulse]

Piano and bass were becoming residual by the last days of Coltrane’s quartet; you braced yourself for the moment he abandoned any pretext of an underlying harmony and went mano a mano with Elvin Jones. These duets with Rashied Ali start there—and the spare compositional guidelines only up the intensity. By turns agitated and calm, loamy and celestial, this magnificent session was held back until ’74—as if to ensure Coltrane’s influence from beyond the grave.

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A Joyful Noise

Whether or not Kieran Hebden—the lanky, curly-haired English lad who records as Four Tet—played guitar in his old, on indefinite hiatus, indie-rock band, Fridge, is irrelevant. Ever since he hopped behind the laptop for his solo debut, 1999’s Dialogue, he’s had a drummer’s mind-set. And a jazzbo’s record collection. With 2003’s Rounds, he broke out with a cyclical album that started with a dog’s heartbeat and ended with squeaks from a joyfully chewed puppy toy. Within were trickling crystalline metallophones, descending harp plucks, Fahey-esque fingerpicking, and (nearly Tori Amos’s) pedally piano, all twirling gently. It was folky idyllictronica, perfect for sunny Saturday shopping ambience and downtempo dining in Soho, even if he stuck Blue Note New Thing-ies in the beats and horn wails of the centerpiece, “Unspoken.” Remixes excised any trace of folk: Both Super Furry Animals and Boom Bip got turned into boppity Five Spot gigs, and Pedro’s “Fear and Resilience” sprawled like a downtown loft jam for 24 minutes.

Roiling floor toms and hissing cymbals introduce Everything Ecstatic, Four Tet’s fourth, as he goes Rashied Ali on our asses for six seconds, flashing practice-tape fills before fixing them in the mix. Furious upright sawing and drilled snares give “A Joy” not just a tumultuous low end but a heightened celerity, which quickly builds till the logjammed signals burn to noise and synapses melt from information overload. Throughout, Hebden clutters up the sampled clatter, then pushes till it breezily swings in the stereo field. Hear how “Smile Around the Face” spins a drum machine dizzy, chirping like Minnie Riperton through a blown Leslie speaker on a careening carousel, pirouetting to the point of exhaustion. Or how saxes exalt with fiery tongues for “Sun Drums and Soil,” levitating the loam through circular breathing. Most ho-hum is “And Then Patterns,” but it at least lopes like some head-nod joints from Diamond D or RZA (who were pretty jazzy anyway).

But it’s not just jazz’s rapture at play. “High Fives” taps tubular bells till they tingle like a feel-good hit from Madchester and “Sleep, Eat Food, Have Visions” gleefully piles monosynths and 303s till they spire and spin out of control, too blotto to hold at the center. Gongs get thrown from the merry-go-round, wind chimes gamelan along, and Hebden finally draws a breath on “You Were There With Me.” Plangent clangors accrue in woozy overtones, wherein he flashes a final beam of light.

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Bhagavad Guitar

Where does music come from? Musicians are like radio receivers, proposes one theory, transforming sounds already zipping through the ether into the sculpted air that eventually tickles our tympanic membranes. Turn ’em on, tune ’em in, and stand back. But besides emanating a certain false modesty, doesn’t this theory subtly shortchange the individual creative spirit? I used to think so, until a friend directed my own antennae toward guitarist Tisziji Muñoz.

A self-taught guitarist who practices rarely, if ever, Tisziji (pronounced tis-see-gee) Muñoz’s musical signature can be recognized clearly in about three notes. It’s an ecstatic yet slightly scratchy singing voice of a guitar sound that borders on feedback like a harmonic disturbance interfering gently with the aforementioned cosmic radio waves. Like John Coltrane, in whose tradition he most definitely lies, Tisziji’s cable connection plugs in directly to the source, the mysterium eternalis, the inner mounting flame from which music doth flow.

Coltrane was the first major Western player to adjust his internal rabbit ears to the universal broadcast spectrum. Guitarists John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, and Allan Holdsworth all eventually hopped on the Trane, extending his modes and metaphysics in a variety of contexts, while the late Sonny Sharrock took Coltrane’s methodology to the harmonic outskirts of an altogether different country. But none of these guitarists’ music ebbs and flows as naturally out of the void, pure spirit, whatever you want to call it, as Tisziji’s.

Most of the time you’ll find Tisziji Muñoz teaching astrology and serving as spiritual guide to a Schenectady sect known as the Illumination Society. “The Bhagavad Guitar Player,” Muñoz wrote in one of his many tracts, “is One Who, born Awake to Being the Sound of Light and the Light of Sound, Is Now Awake as the very Soul and Mind, Feeling and Heart-Source of Music, as That may Represent or Express the simple yet profound Love, Thought, Feeling-Tone and Free Action of One Who Is Its Own Sound.” Muñoz is only invisible insofar as he has managed to avoid critical radar. Since recording Rendezvous With Now for India Navigation in 1978, he has released eight albums and four cassettes. During the past two years, he has been dropping by Rashied Ali’s Survival Studio in Soho, recording hours of material with fellow Coltrane acolytes: drummer Ali, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, bassist Don Pate, and pianists John Hicks and Bernie Senensky. He recently released a trio of albums—River of Blood, Present Without a Trace, and Spirit World—from these sessions (on his own Anami Music label: P.O. Box 712, Schenectady, NY 12301; www.tisziji.com). He expects to release five more in the near future.

A Nuyorican born in Brooklyn in 1946, Muñoz joined percussionist Mongo Santamaria’s rhythm posse at age 13. After leaving the army in the early ’70s, he lived for a while in Toronto, where he became a musical mentor to keyboardist Paul Shaffer, who phoned me unexpectedly on Tisziji’s behalf. “Tisziji’s the real deal,” attests Shaffer, who is all too familiar with the other kind. Muñoz played in Pharoah Sanders’s band for several years during the ’70s. And although he has performed live only sporadically since moving from New York City to Schenectady in 1984, he has gigged since then with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Dave Liebman, Idris Muhammed, and Cecil McBee.

Muñoz’s music hits the ground running. “Ready or not,” says some one at the outset of Present Without a Trace‘s “Dearly Responsible,” as the group erupts into a free-time, “Ascension”-like orgy. Tisziji has described his music as a “divine catastrophe” for good reason: his ultimate goal is to unhinge himself from structure and cruise on undiluted energy. His early recordings pick up where Coltrane left off, eventually circling back in the early ’90s to recapitulate such standards as “My Favorite Things,” “Giant Steps,” and “Kind of Blue.” Having transformed such standards as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “If I Only Had a Brain” into tension-and-release pleasure bombs on 1995’s Spirit Man, Muñoz returned the following year with the portentously titled Death Is a Friend of Mine. My favorite Muñoz album to date, this double CD bids a fond adieu to the past (i.e., other people’s music), most notably in an epic meditation on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” while setting the stage for whatever the hell he’s doing now.

His three new albums contain 25 Muñoz originals spread over four discs (Spirit World‘s a double), most of which he reportedly scribbled down in the studio just prior to the three in tense sessions in which they were recorded. River of Blood‘s title refers to the “racial stream” that provided Muñoz with his affinity for Afro-Cuban and salsa rhythms (he plans to record with pianist Hilton Ruiz soon), and much of the album can be heard as a struggle to escape even those loose fetters. Muñoz spills clusters, often bushels, of rapid notes, which even with his metal pick retain a warmth that quickly rises to a searing sustained heat Ali’s flowing polymetrics dissipate smoothly. The other band members—even Sanders, sounding as though he cares—play solid tech crew to Tisziji’s extended space walks. He’s a man on a mission, and I feel grateful knowing Tisziji Muñoz is out there in the catastrophic cosmos, generating countless megawatts of spiritual power on our collective behalf.

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Holy Squat, Jazzman!

With a century behind it, jazz has had ample time to develop its own hagiography, with stories of its saints too numerous for even the most devout to keep track of. So along comes the Lost Jazz Shrines project— a national,
multiyear series of concerts recalling the music played at legendary venues like the Watts Zanzibar of Philadelphia, the Lincoln Theater
in Washington, San Antonio’s Eastwood, Newark’s Silver Saddle, and other dwelling places of the holy. A week ago, the Shrines project arrived in town for a three-day celebration of the musicians’ lofts of 1969­1979: places like Sam Rivers’s Studio Rivbea on Bond Street, Rashied Ali’s Ali’s Alley on Greene, and John Fischer’s Environ on lower Broadway.

The new jazz of the ’60s had first arrived
on the margins, in coffeehouses and basements. But a better solution turned out to be musician-occupied lofts, which could be rented cheaply (and illegally) and turned into mini­performance areas that came to seem less like clubs than they did church picnics and political rallies. Squatters from out of town like Anthony Braxton, David Murray, and Anthony Davis first found their places in the lofts, as did Stanley Crouch, as drummer, critic, and programmer. Joe Papp opened the Public up to the new music, record labels like India Navigation recorded it, and the clubs finally got the message, only to forget it again the next time the economy took a dive.

The first evening was a major event, a re-creation by his former student, Marty Ehrlich, of the work of the late Julius Hemphill, a fine alto saxophonist with a Southwestern knack for distilling folk and pop materials into high art— including opera, dance, and theater. Half of the night was devoted to Hemphill’s Saxophone Sextet writing. It’s no secret that he was the true force behind the World Saxophone Quartet, and to say that he had found a means of bringing the fire of free jazz collectivity into the saxophone sections of the old swing bands would be true enough, but this fails to capture the variety and richness of Hemphill’s transformations. The compositions played on this evening, for example, ranged from the choirlike purity of “Opening” to the Ornette-ish broken lines and sound sweeps of “Mr. Critical” and the J.B. horn riffs of “Otis’ Groove.”

All six saxophonists were superb, but two were especially surprising: the seldom seen D.C. tenor Andrew White, normally identified with the astringency of John Coltrane, on this night played bar-walking, one-foot-in-thegutter vamps with a vibrato as wide as a storefront Holiness Church; and the new-to-me Aaron Stewart, a young player with a sound as big and authoritative as a tree. (The others were Ehrlich, Sam Furnace, Andy Laster, and the always agreeable baritonist Alex Harding, who gave the group buoyancy and sass.)

In the second half, a 16-piece band re-created Hemphill’s large group compositions of 20 years ago with the confidence of a working band (due, no doubt, to Ehrlich’s centrality Downtown over the years). The diversity of the work was impressive: the hymnlike “Children’s Song,” written for Bill T. Jones’s dance company; the multipart, soaring “Drunk on God,” originally conceived of as a recitative; “Bordertown,” a charming Tex-Mex ballad; and the closer, a terminally funky “Hard Blues.” This was music full of hoots and cries, yet also elegantly structured into barroom elegies and marching-band passacaglias.

On the second night at the Tribeca, Hamiet Bluiett’s Baritone Nation nicely recaptured the sense of a loft concert with a mix of talk, exhortation, joking, and lounging about on chairs and couches, his four-baritone sax line (James Carter, Pablo Cologero, Alex Harding, and himself) defying musical theory (and gravity) to jar to life old jazz standards such as “Broadway” and “Milestones.” When they broke out alto, bass, and contrabass clarinets, Hamiet’s musicians— he called them “low people”— plumbed the sonic depths even further. (At the third event, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom re-created her own loft days with singer Jay Clayton, and then updated some of her recent work with trombonist Julian Priester.)

Lost Jazz Shrines productions are a far sight from the lofts— class affairs with crisp production, beautiful program notes, panel discussions, and tasty buffets for the audience (who, as at the lofts, alas, were in small attendance). Unlike the grim received wisdom about free jazz, these performances reminded us just how in-the-tradition this music really was, how spiritual and physical it could be, and, especially in the case of Hemphill, how successfully the free playing of soloists could be translated to larger ensembles.

In May, the Lost Jazz Shrines project will be back at the Tribeca, this time with a salute to the old Five Spot, with three days of the music of Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and George Russell’s Living Time Orchestra. Enough said?