Monday, October 10, 2005

Coltrane: Volatile, but Always in Control

In the spring of 1965, John Coltrane's quartet played several gigs at the Half Note Club in Manhattan, some of which were recorded for WABC-FM radio. Tape traders have long known about them, and the music has circulated since the late 1960's, but generally not in complete form, and not sounding nearly as good as they do now.

On "One Down, One Up" (Impulse) - the radio recordings from two nights at the Half Note - we're about six months before the last phase of Coltrane's career, before the moment when he changed his band, stopped for the most part playing in nightclubs and made his music generally more jarring and oceanic. Here his quartet is still intact, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums; as far out as it may get, the internal logic of a great band holds fast.

The album includes four tightly wound performances at the club, which was on Hudson Street near Spring, across from where the Jazz Gallery now stands. Taken as a whole, it amounts to an amazing display of controlled volatility in jazz. This is not the Coltrane of million-selling appeal; it's more fervid and rattling than studio records like "A Love Supreme." But by other measures it is the band at its peak, each member contributing an equal part to the sound, playing hard and loud and at the top of his imagination.

If there was ever a place to marvel at the connection Coltrane had with Jones - a connection that drove the band - this is it. Each of the four pieces is remarkable, but the killer is "One Down, One Up," in which the band reduces to just saxophone and drums for a 15-minute stretch, and then reduces even further because Jones's bass-drum pedal breaks midsong.

It doesn't matter. Coltrane and Jones are singing through their instruments in their own complex, dense language, with Coltrane's rapid, jagged phrasing and Jones's layered rhythm. (To situate it stylistically within Coltrane's work, "One Down, One Up" takes the fast, nearly incantational delivery of his "Chasin' the Trane" improvisation from 1961, a few notches higher.) And though the musicians slip around each other's patterns, weaving and dodging, it's as if an identical sense of time is wiring them together.

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