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The Major Works of John Coltrane
1. ASCENSION - Edition I 38:37
2. OM 28:49
1. ASCENSION - Edition II 40:31
2. KULU SE MAMA 18:57
3. SELFLESSNESS 15:09
All songs composed by John Coltrane (Jowcol Music/BMI) except KULU SE MAMA, written by Juno Lewis (Minor Tone Music/BMI)
Personnel on all tracks:
John Coltrane - tenor saxophone McCoy Tyner - piano
Jimmy Garrison - bass
Elvin Jones - drums
Additionally on ASCENSION:
Archie Shepp & Pharoah Sanders - tenor saxophones
John Tchicai & Marion Brown - alto saxophones
Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson - trumpets
Art Davis - bass
Recorded June 28, 1965 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
Recording engineer: Rudy Van Gelder
Additionally on OM:
Pharoah Sanders - tenor saxophone, percussion
Donald Garrett - bass clarinet, bass, percussion
Joe Brazil - flute, percussion
Recorded October 1, 1965 at Camelot Studios, Lynwood, WA
Recording engineer: Jan Kurtis
Additionally on KULU SE MAMA & SELFLESSNESS:
Pharoah Sanders - tenor saxophone
Donald Garrett - bass clarinet, bass
Frank Butler - drums, percussion
Juno Lewis - percussion, vocal
Recorded October 14, 1965 at Western Recorders, Los Angeles
Original sessions produced by Bob Thiele & John Coltrane
Reissue produced by Michael Cuscuna
Executive Producers: Dave Grusin & Larry Rosen
Audio restoration & digital re-mastering by Paul Elmore & Eric Labson
Post-Production on reissue by Michael Landy & Joseph Doughney at The Review Room/NYC
GRP Production Coordinator: Michael Pollard
Assisted by Doreen Kalcich
Photography by: Charles Stewart
Graphic design: Dan Serrano, David Gibb, Andy Ruggirello, Scott Johnson & Sonny Mediana
GRP Creative Director: Andy Baltimore
Music is a performance art, tied to time, inseparable from Now. In that improvised music, of which John Coltrane was an acknowledged master, the link to the present is that much stronger; so much of what is heard is created at the moment, sculpted by the interaction of a group of performers, each time a little different, always unique; even more so with Coltrane's group performances from the last years of his life, marked by dense ensembles and emotion-charged interplay. The thought was best expressed by a Coltrane associate, Eric Dolphy, in an interview in Holland taped shortly before his death in 1964: "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again." Yet jazz has developed in a technologized world, where time, space, and other physical constraints can often be sidestepped. Dolphy overstated the truth: much is evanescent, but much can still be preserved. Case in point - the five performances in this double-CD package.
1965 was an exceptionally productive year for Coltrane, with an enormous amount of music recorded in a variety of contexts. The year is neatly bracketed by two of his three most important larger works, A LOVE SUPREME (recorded in December 1964) and MEDITATIONS (November, 1965). The third work in the set, ASCENSION, from June 28, 1965, divides the year. It was followed in short succession by two other group works, OM (October 1, 1965) and KULU SE MAMA (October 14, 1965). Those three - ASCENSION, OM and KULU SE MAMA, with SELFLESSNESS, from the KULU SE MAMA session, are collected here in one dual-CD set.
Collection implies commonality, and there are several parallels here beyond the obvious one of Coltrane's presence. All three works are significant parts of the Coltrane legacy, differing from the other recordings of that productive summer and fall in their use of augmented groups (musicians added to the working Coltrane quartet). They show Coltrane as a patron of the emerging New Wave, using his recordings to give exposure to unknown and unrecorded artists the saxophonist and trumpeter on ASCENSION. The Seattle performers added to OM, the singer-percussionist whose song forms the basis for KULU SE MAMA. And these works are single, extended examinations of a single theme, unlike A LOVE SUPREME and MEDITATIONS, both suites.
Technological changes can bring benefits, and there are enhancements from new technology in this package. In 1965 technology did not permit extended works like ASCENSION or OM to be released whole; both were severed in mid-performance to fit the confines of the 33-1/3 rpm long-playing record. Careful surgery has rejoined these artificially separated pieces into a whole again – allowing us to experience them as they were recorded. Technology lets us put both versions of ASCENSION side by side for easy comparisons. In the process of digital remastering, more of the original sound has been captured on these CDs, as well.
ASCENSION – The gifted author A.B. Spellman (Four Lives), in his notes to the original release of ASCENSION, began with a warning to the casual listener, one best summarized as "This is strong stuff." More than a quarter century later it retains its distinctiveness, continues to require that it be approached on its own terms, still demands our undivided attention. It does not lend itself to excerpting, to "Greatest Hits" compilations, or easy assimilation through background playing. It must be experienced in the fullness of its 40 minute playing time, without flinching before its high volumes, with respect for its ferocity and passion.
There are several paths into this maelstrom. Begin with the title. Unlike some of Coltrane's recorded output, ASCENSION was released during Coltrane's lifetime, with a title he had chosen. Like A LOVE SUPREME before it and MEDITATIONS after, it carries a title with considerable spiritual overtones, echoing events central to Christian theology and to other religions. Yet the word "ascension" has other images associated with it as well, images linked to the breath-stopping physical impact of eleven musicians in a windowless brick room in Englewood Cliffs; voices rising in a screaming harmony; images framed by brass instruments pointed up into the air, pulsing with sound; images woven of melodic lines, the chorus phrases of modem jazz, growing together in the air into something unique, different, stronger and more potent than any of the rich individual threads of which it is composed.
Begin with the year, 1965: images of war, across the globe, beginning to flicker into the television-framed American consciousness; images of civil strife, as the social fabric is stretched and reshaped by new ideas and imperatives; images of the music, in flux, being pushed beyond the boundaries set by the bop revolution, beyond the accepted limitations of harmony, of time, of tonality.
Ask the musicians. Spellman did, and their words are preserved in his notes to the original release. Archie Shepp describing the performance: "It achieves a certain kind of unity; it starts at a high level of intensity with the horns playing high and the other pieces playing low. This gets a quality of like male and female voices. It builds in intensity through all the solo passages, brass and reeds, until it gets to the final section where the rhythm section takes over and brings it back down to the level it started at. The idea is similar to the action painters do in that it creates various surfaces of color which push into each other, creates tensions and countertensions, and various fields of energy."
Marion Brown: "We did two takes, and they both had that kind of thing in them that makes people scream. The people who were in the studio were screaming. I don't know how the engineers kept the screams out of the record. Spontaneity was the thing. Trane had obviously thought a lot about what he wanted to do, but he wrote most of it out in the studio. Then he told everybody what he wanted: he played this line and he said that everybody would play that line in the ensembles. Then he said he wanted crescendi until we were together, and then we got into it."
Shepp again: "The emphasis was on textures rather than the making of an organizational unity. There was unity, but it was a unity of sounds and textures rather than, like, an A B A approach. You can hear, in the saxophones especially, a reaching for sound and an exploration of the possibilities of sound."
The best path, finally, is to listen. Open your ears and absorb the powerful joining of voices of these master players.
A few discographical items: There were two complete takes of ASCENSION recorded at this session, They are commonly identified as "Edition I" (the take first released on Impulse A-95 in late 1965) and "Edition II" (the take substituted shortly thereafter at Coltrane's request), On the original long-playing records, Edition II was identified by the words "Edition II" inscribed in the vinyl next to the label.
In a 1968 interview in Coda Magazine (May 1968), producer Bob Thiele offered the following explanation of how both takes came to be released:
"Well, we did 'Ascension' in July, 1965. That piece ran approximately forty minutes and there was absolutely no splicing of tapes involved in the music. What transpired that afternoon was two forty-minute takes and that was it. There were hardly any rundowns. There was just a discussion of solos, with respect to order of appearance and we made two takes.
"After the first take, we listened to it and John said he felt that it was definitely the master. Then he said that he would like to try another and, for the second take, I had run a 7-1/2 inch tape copy which I gave to him to take home and listen to. We discussed the two takes and both agreed that the first was the one that should be issued. Well, a few months passed and we issued the first take. When the album came out, John called me and said, That's not the master.'
"He had begun to enjoy the tape copy of the second one and believed it was greater than the first take. But now, he felt the second take was superior and would like to see it issued.
"John wanted it out as soon as possible and I agreed that it should come out right away. So, rather than delay the issue, we merely inscribed on the second master, 'Edition Number II ... '"
Despite Thiele's remarks, we can't be certain which of the editions actually is the first take and which is the second; in 1978 Thiele told producer Michael Cuscuna that he had been wrong ten years earlier, and Edition II was actually Take 1. The original tape box has long since disappeared, and the internal differences are not strong enough to identify which came first.
The order of soloists on the two editions differs slightly. On Edition I, the order is Coltrane, Johnson, Sanders, Hubbard, Shepp, Tchicai, Brown, Tyner, a bass duet (Davis and Garrison) and a brief drum solo. On Edition II the order is Coltrane, Johnson, Sanders, Hubbard, Brown, Shepp, Tchicai, Tyner, and a bass duet (Davis and Garrison), with no drum solo.
OM - John Coltrane was a busy man in 1965, and for a working jazz musician, busy implies itinerant, The ASCENSION session came while the group was on the East Coast, with appearances at Pep's in Philadelphia and the Village Gate in New York, The group was also constantly in the studio, and we owe our knowledge of the music to those almost biweekly visits to Rudy Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio, The quartet was in Europe in late July/early August; on August 15th, with Archie Shepp added, they
played the Down Beat Jazz Festival in Chicago, ending a long, single-themed performance with a Shepp/Coltrane duet that polarized the crowd into two halves (one that stayed, cheering, and one that left, booing). After a return to the East Coast, Coltrane worked his way west, playing first San Francisco and, at the end of September, Seattle.
By late September, Coltrane was regularly adding additional players to the basic quartet. At Seattle's Penthouse (where they were recorded on September 30th), the group was a sextet, with Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison, and Jones joined by Raphael Donald Garrett on bass clarinet and bass and Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone. The following day, at a studio in suburban Lynwood, Washington, with Joe Brazil added on flute, Coltrane recorded OM.
Om. The word comes from the Hindu religion, where it is the mystic equivalent of the name of the Deity. It can also mean the essence of spirituality. Coltrane elaborated in comments included in Nat Hentoffs original liner notes:
"Om means the first vibration - that sound, that spirit that sets everything else into being. It is The Word from which all men and everything else comes, including all possible sounds that man can make vocally. It is the first syllable, the primal word, the word of power." Hentoff also remarked on the Buddhist phrase "Om mani padme hum", which translates as "Om, the jewel, is in the lotus, amen."
OM, the performance, begins then with the word, symbolized by a brief incantation recited by Coltrane and several others among the group. Behind the incantation there are rustlings of rhythm and the sound of Brazil's flute. What follows is a further exploration of the textures and sounds of ASCENSION, starting with a torrent of saxophony, followed by Tyner's dancing keyboard lines and a combination of flute and bass clarinet, at once Oriental and tropical rain forest. At the end, the incantation is repeated, over the same quiet background. Throughout most of this performance, Garrett plays bass; when asked why two bassists, Coltrane told Hentoff, "Because I want more of the sense of the expansion of time. I want the time to be more plastic." That plasticity is evident in the ongoing tension created by the juxtaposition of Jones's propulsive time with the free interplay of the two bassists.
KULU SE MAMA - From Seattle, Coltrane and the group moved down the West Coast to Los Angeles, where they settled in for an appearance at the It Club. While in Los Angeles, on October 14th, Coltrane took another augmented group into the studio to record the two compositions which close this package: KULU SE MAMA and SELFLESSNESS.
KULU SE MAMA is the only composition in this set not actually composed by Coltrane; it was written by a singer and drummer named Juno Lewis. Lewis was in his early thirties in 1965; born in New Orleans, he was a resident of Los Angeles when Coltrane brought his group to the It Club. He evidently met Coltrane through mutual friends (according to information in Nat Hentoffs original liner notes), and as a result, was invited to record with Coltrane. The original notes included a transcription of the poem "Kulu Se Mama (Juno Se MaMa)", which Lewis wrote. Lewis described it as a ritual dedicated to his mother, sung in an Afro-Creole dialect he identified as Entobes.
Lewis also adds an element of Africa in his use of a variety of drums, including the Juolulu, water drums, the Doom Dahka, bells and a conch shell. The group also included L.A. drummer Frank Butler and the members of the sextet. What became of Lewis after this one encounter is not known, and whether he was successful in establishing an Afro-American Art Center is not recorded. But the chanting, the percussion and the ritualistic emotions of this work does much to give KULU SE MAMA its unusual flavor.
SELFLESSNESS is a Coltrane composition, closer to the normal theme and free exposition of the unaugmented Coltrane group at the time. The additional percussionists add thickness to the rhythmic pulse; above them, Coltrane and Sanders create the swirl of lines and sounds characteristic of the group's fall performances. (It was originally released as half of a record which also featured part of the 1963 Newport performance by Coltrane. KULU SE MAMA was originally released as half of a record which also featured a quartet and duo performance from the June 1965 quartet recordings. This is their first appearance together.)
Jazz was, is, and always will be of the moment, a product of the instant interaction of players, something that will never be repeated exactly. In these performances, most obviously in ASCENSION and OM, there is something more: an emotional undercurrent, a physical quality, a level of human interaction, which could not be captured on an endless ribbon of oxidized tape passing between electromagnets. In that sense Dolphy was right – what really took place at these sessions is only hinted at in the recording. What we have then is an incomplete replica, a snapshot, something preserved only in black and white when the reality was in vivid, emotional color.
Yet what was captured is enough.
We have the sounds, captured by the machine and faithfully reproduced. Like words on paper, they are sufficient to fire the imagination, to evoke the emotions, the sensations and feelings of the live performance. Through the listener, then, the improvised essence of this music can reach beyond the confines of the studios where those sounds were made, can touch us more than a quarter century later with the impact those in the studio must have felt. The only requirement is to listen, with open ears, to become a participant, to recreate that which could not be captured, in the mind's ear. With that one effort we can reach beyond the imperfect recordings to touch the spirits that made them, to experience the ritual dance that is KULU SE MAMA, to feel the endless instant of OM, the primal word, to hear the rising, screaming voices of ASCENSION. – David Wild
Author/pianist David Wild is a past contributor to Down Beat, Coda, and other publications, a contributor to the Grove Dictionary of Jazz, and author of The Recordings of John Coltrane: A Discography. Wild currently lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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