Thursday, August 7, 2014

Opening the Door: The 50th Anniversary of John Coltrane Quartet's Crescent

The John Coltrane Quartet's Crescent [Impulse!] was released 50 years this past June. The anniversary has largely gone unnoticed; much like the record itself did all those years ago, eclipsed by its follow-up masterpiece, A Love Supreme. Crescent has the seeds of all the ideas that are developed on A Love Supreme, but it’s a much more introspective experience. Revisiting the album recently, I was astonished to hear the quartet in the midst of musical change. The record opens with the prayer-like title track, a simple, personal ballad that doubles in tempo after the main theme is established. The playing here is superb, from Elvin Jones steady, unadorned rhythm on drums to McCoy Tyner’s piano drone that pulls the beat along. Coltrane's refined sound on the tenor saxophone sounds magnificent: a tribute to his lyrical and melodic lines. All of that will change by the next recording as if Crescent is opening a door to a more powerful and emotional breakthrough on A Love Supreme. The opening cut is followed up by a piece called, “Wise One,” another introspective work that creates a Zen-like trance in its continuous roll. “Bessie’s Blues”, a brief tribute to Bessie Smith, is its flip side: an unabashed bebop tune, typical of the Coltrane we heard a decade earlier. It’s an accessible song that closes out side one.

It might be said that the album has all the earmarks of the post-JFK era. But I think it would be unfair to label the record as a memorial to Kennedy and his legacy. Coltrane wasn’t that political a musician. Nevertheless one can’t help but think the leader and his band felt differently after their President’s shocking death in 1963. That said, "Lonnie's Lament," which opens side two, is a sober, mid-tempo modal tune, with darker, yet richer musical colours. Jones mixes up the rhythm behind McCoy Tyner's solo when the two lay out completely at the 6-minute mark. Jimmy Garrison provides a straightforward bass solo that carries the theme without veering off too much from the original chord changes. Garrison joined the quartet in 1962 replacing Reggie Workman. He remained with Coltrane until the band leader died in 1967. Like the whole record, there's beauty and simplicity in the compositions and the playing, while Coltrane, who was in his prime, seems sedate without being detached. To my ear, he sounds relaxed, and entirely in the moment. This is particularly evident on the final cut, "The Drum Thing," featuring ideas first explored on the under-recognized, Impressions (Impulse!, 1963). Elvin Jones is the featured soloist whose contribution to the quartet really served the music very well. In many ways, this quartet defined the Coltrane sound, as we know today. That they should record and release, six months later, one of the most important recordings in jazz, A Love Supreme, goes to prove it.

- John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's currently writing a book about Frank Zappa for Backbeat Books.

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