critic’s pick 241: john coltrane, ‘offering’

coltrane offeringOne enters into the wondrous new archival recording Offering with John Coltrane already at work. That’s the way the jazz titan’s music could often make you feel – like you were arriving late.

The saxophonist starts in an instant – before, in fact, the recording engineers begin to roll tape. There is no intro, no warm-up, no easing in of intent. The music begins full blown with 16 minutes of Naima rushing in like an ocean at low tide. Coltrane’s tenor solo hardly takes a breath for five-and-a-half glorious minutes then disappears under an extended exchange between pianist (and wife) Alice Coltrane and drummer Rashied Ali. He returns in the final minutes for the only reading of the piece’s hymn-like theme, which is played as a brief coda.

Though a vital protégé throughout the performance that follows, Coltrane’s tenor sax partner in crime Pharoah Sanders sits Naima out. Can you blame him?

Offering has been available in bite-sized, bootlegged forms for years. But this new release presents us with the entire 90 minute set. Recorded on a Friday evening in a half-empty Mitten Hall at Temple University in November 1966 (eight months before Coltrane’s death at age 40), Offering is presented as less of a jazz concert and more of a spiritual affirmation.

A 26 minute reading of the 1964 ballad Crescent emphasizes, in somewhat fractured fashion, the full strengths of this unique ensemble. The warm glow of Coltrane’s tenor sax lead briefly states the tune’s luscious melody before surrendering to a scorched earth solo by Sanders. Then a subsequent piano excursion by Alice Coltrane, presented with a lighter variation of the modal mischief summoned years earlier in Coltrane’s quartet by McCoy Tyner, invites four guest percussionists to the spiritual rumble.

But the stuff of legend here is Leo. Opening with a seemingly traditional, boppish run, the music becomes so combustible Coltrane actually sings in a wordless, relenting wail that seems to strive for the notes his horn can’t reach or articulate.

There are sonic limitations to Offering’s source material. As the performance was set up with enough microphones to suit a primitive radio broadcast and not a fully produced recording that would surface nearly half a century later, the sound mix heavily favors whatever soloist was at hand. You can readily hear instruments being quickly amped up and faded out manually. That means guest bassist Sonny Johnson is all but lost outside of his contemplative solo at the onset of My Favorite Things.

But when the mighty Coltrane gains the spotlight with that spectacular tenor tone, you can practically sense the steam rising from the music. That makes Offering an exquisite remembrance of a jazz colossus conversing with the spirits. His language is his own, but all are invited to share in the rapture that ensues.



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