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John Coltrane: The Olatunji Concert

November 17, 2010

Today’s roll: 4 – 6 – 11.
Result: The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording by John Coltrane.

I was beginning to doubt my 1d4 was ever going to roll a four. I’m glad it finally did because CD tower #4 is where all my jazz, world music and hip-hop is located and it’s nice to write about it for a change. Now that I think about it, my CD filing system kind of smacks of segregation or apartheid or ghettoization. Well, I tried to mix my CDs in the past and it didn’t really work. That doesn’t make me a racist. Just a little OCD.

But themes of ghettoization and segregation are fitting for this review. The last recorded live performance of John Coltrane (before succumbing to liver cancer in 1967) was captured at the newly opened Olatunji Center for African Culture in New York. Here, Coltrane’s “second quartet” are in their prime and they’re playing as if the sheer force of their music could raise every black man, woman and child up from under oppression across America and the globe.

It should be noted part of the “heat ” on the disc is created, not by the musicians, but by fledgling audio engineer, Bernard Drayton, recording everything too hot. It’s easily the one of the rawest, dirtiest Trane recordings in existence. His sax is in the red for most of the set and, where this might have been a disaster at another point in his career, it adds a ferocious fire that is suitable to the album.

Drummer Rashied Ali‘s cymbals are compressed into a glaring white noise and at times Jimmy Garrison‘s bass sounds like it’s being run through a Fuzzface stompbox. These are good things in the context of the music.

Again, if the performances weren’t so impassioned, this might not be a virtue. Microphones drop in and out, creating odd, intermintent panning and phasing effects. From a technical standpoint the recording is a fiasco. It’s doubtful, if this weren’t the final live testament of John Coltrane, that these recordings would have seen the light of day outside of the bootleg circuit.

On the other hand, at this point in his career, Trane was still pushing his music further and further into the cosmos. It would have been interesting to see where the 1970s might have taken him. Maybe fuzz and wah-wah pedals would have become part of his gear as they did for Miles Davis. Or would he have mellowed and reverted to a more traditional jazz approach, perhaps akin to Wynton Marsalis?

The latter seems doubtful, at least in the immediate future, as the records his wife, Alice Coltrane, issued after his death were adventurous and innovative. One has to wonder what further collaboration between the two giants might have spawned.

Something wonderful judging by her piano solo starting at the ten-minute mark of “Ogunde“. It’s one of the highlights of this disc. Fluid and scorching like a river molten rock, it twists and flows over the next six minutes, burning everything in its path. Perhaps the only thing hotter on the album is Pharoah Sanders‘ skronking tenor solos which sound especially brutal here against Trane’s more finessed improvisations.

The Olatunji Concert certainly isn’t the best of the many Coltrane albums produced in his final months, but it’s a wonderful document of where the second quartet was at and hint at where they might have gone. Technical flaws in the recording really only add a visceral immediacy to the listening experience. Unlike with a Bob Thiele or Rudy Van Gelder recording, you won’t be able to close your eyes and imagine you’re there. But you’ll feel like you were when it’s over, scorched eardrums and all.

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