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  1. #1
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    DMK, this Trane's for you (very long)

    I wasn't going to post my review of Cotrane's album " A Love Supreme" just yet but things are starting to get hot and heavy over at the Cable message board and I don't know how much longer I will be posting at this site. So here is the review I promised. I would have liked a chance to reveiew it in detail some more but I'm letting it go as is. Sorry if you don't agree but this is how I see it. BTW, I'm posting it here instead of on the Recordings board because this is where the original discussion came up and where the people who expressed the most interest in it generally post.

    In a thread a few months ago, several people praised this disc as their very favorite to the point where they agreed that if they could have only one disc, this would be it and apparently expected everyone else to agree with them too. Therefore I was lured into making the flip and somewhat crass off the cuff remark that if I were in that situation I would set fire to it. The thought crossed my mind that since I had never heard this music or knew anything about it or the performers, I might not know what the hell I was talking about. So I took up the challenge to hear it for myself and then comment in a review.

    Because so many people apparently find this music so important and to demonstrate that I have given this music a long and careful hearing, I decided to make a detailed analysis of it instead of merely just giving my reaction to it.

    First of all, I wanted very much to like this recording. When I was at Borders buying it, I picked up both the regular version $11.99 and the deluxe 2 disc version for $29.99, and was trying to decide while I was talking to another customer browsing the jazz discs. When I told him that several people on a bulletin board I visit said that this would be the one disc they would want if they were stranded on a desert island with just one recording, he said that it would be a very good choice. That made up my mind for me. If there was a better take or a better dub or a better mix-down, or something that would give me more insight into what this music is about, I wanted to give it every chance and I didnít want to hear from someone else that I would have really enjoyed it so much more if only I had sprung for the deluxe edition. So I did.

    Iím not going to beat around the bush. I really, really donít like this music at all and had I heard it even once before I bought it, I wouldnít have considered buying it. I have heard disc 1 at least 12 times and the more I hear it the more I donít like it. Borderís return policy in the past made it difficult for me to return discs even for exchange when they were defective. So this is mine to keep. Iím sure Iíll discuss it and listen to it with friends who may not see it my way.

    My disappointment began almost from the beginning and my reaction went downhill from there. I will be the first to admit that I am not a maven on saxophone playing virtuosity. I have said and still maintain my opinion that when it comes to serious music by soloists performing alone or accompanied by other musicians, there is a hierarchy in my mind which puts violins, cellos, piano, pipe organs, and human vocalists on a higher plateau than wind and reed instruments. While I can marvel at James Gallwayís amazing technique, I canít get too excited over his music even though he may be playing the same piece arranged for flute as say Heifetz would on violin. I have heard both the greatest xylophonist and the greatest banjo player in the world at live performances, and while it was fun, it wasnít memorable to the point where I can even remember their names. Even so, Coltraneís playing didnít strike me as remarkable either technically or musically although I would say it is certainly technically very competent. However, the overworked terms virtuoso and genius donít seem to fit, at least to my way of thinking as evidenced by this recording. Much of his part consists of rapidly playing short arpeggios and short chromatic and quasi-chromatic scales. He has a generally very reedy nasal tone characteristic of many saxophones that often resembles me with a cold singing through my kazoo. Occasionally, he deliberately cracks up his tone for an effect some might call expressing himself. I can see where some people may find this impressive but I donít. In most other ways, his playing is completely flat with no modulation of dynamics (change in loudness), no modulation in tempo, and does not seem to explore the full range of possibilities of the alto sax, limited as they are. There isnít even a single rubato contrary to the liner notes, in the entire piece. There certainly are no subtleties to his playing. To get a better feel for his playing, play just the left channel with the right channel off.

    If there is one ďstarĒ performer, it appears to be the pianist McCoy Tyner who has a couple of nice solo passages in the second and third movements. Unfortunately, the piano was very poorly recorded being put mostly in the background and it is almost completely drowned out most of the time by the sax and especially the drums. It also has no stage width and either there arenít any bass notes written for the piano part most of the time or when there are, they are lost through poor recording. (People complain Bose 901 makes a piano sound 10 feet wide, this recording makes it sound 2 inches wide.) I listened to these recordings several times through two different pairs of loudspeakers on 2 different systems but mostly through headphones to maximize my concentration.

    As for the music itself, that was the biggest disappointment of all. It is a suite written in four movements for a quartet consisting of alto saxophone, piano, drums, and fingered string bass. Iím going to give a very detailed description of it because I want to explain exactly why I didnít like it. The entire suite seems to be written in several different keys, e flat major (not e major as the liner notes say), e flat minor, and c minor. The tempo is almost constant from one movement to the next except the last, which is slightly slower.

    The first movement ďAcknowledgementĒ in e flat major starts out with Chinese gong and a short flourish on the sax accompanied by piano chords and drum cymbals. If there is a rubato here as the liner notes claim, it isnít much of a rubato. Then a 4 note figure; (f, a flat, f, b flat) I canít really call it a melody or even a phrase, itís just too short for that, is introduced by the bass. The sax then introduces a 6 note figure; (c, g, f- f, c, b flat.) What might pass for a development by the sax continues for two thirds of the rest of the movement but it never goes very far consisting mostly a few runs, arpeggios, and flourishes in different keys. At one point 3:51 to 3:56, Coltrane apparently tries a trill but flubs it. The final part of the movement consists of the sax returning to the 4 note figure with a similar flat development in various keys. Coltraneís voice is overdubbed singing the words ďa love supremeĒ 19 times accompanying the four note figure near the end (what clever lyrics!) and seems to go off key about a half tone flat the last four times. Was this deliberate? In this kind of music, itís often difficult or impossible to tell. The piano part consists of a series of chords and is almost entirely drowned out by the drum cymbals, which play an almost constant unvarying beat. The movement ends with the bass repeating the 4 note figure accompanied by the cymbals.

    The second movement ďResolutionĒ in e flat minor starts with the bass playing a series of 4 similar 3 note figures; (b flat, e flat, e flat-d flat, d flat, d flat-f, f, f- e flat, e flat, e flat) strung together in what really canít be called a melody. You can hear a very brief tape pre-echo of the sax just before it enters with the drums. Coltrane plays the closest thing to a melody in the whole suite but it is really only a phrase; (e flat, b flat, e flat, d flat, b flat, a flat, a,---a flat, g flat, f, e flat, d, b flat, f, g flat, f, f, g flat, g flat, e flat, d flat, e flat.) Its development by the sax drones on flatly in the same way the first movement did but with some syncopation, although still melodically going almost nowhere. The piano gets what may be the only really interesting solo of the whole suite displaying some fine playing in a developmental segment that shows plenty of syncopation and blue notes, some very difficult (three against two?) rhythms accompanied by the drums, the only truly fine jazz segment of the music IMO. Unfortunately the drummersí cymbals are too loud and the piano isnít well recorded. The sax returns with more of the same type of development, which at times does seem to bounce along in tempo but again melodically still goes almost nowhere becoming monotonously repetitive. The movement ends by just sort of rolling to a stop with a short drum roll.

    The third movement ďPursuanceĒ in e flat major begins with a surprisingly anemic if loud drum roll solo that lasts for about 90 seconds. The sax introduces a 6 note figure; (c, e flat, g- g, a flat, b flat) which was actually heard in the first movement as a variant of the original 6 note figure which is followed by a 3 note regression to; (b flat, d flat, e flat.) This is developed in a way that is reminiscent of the first movement. The piano gets another very nice developmental solo but its sound is too muted and the drummerís cymbals are still too loud and are therefore a mere annoying distraction, however, it isnít quite as bad as in the second movement. The sax returns with more of the same as before and although the tempo is fast and there are a lot of notes, it still seems to drone on and on with endless repetition and not going melodically very far. This is followed by another drum roll solo and then the bass plays a variation of the original 4 note figure it introduced in the first movement followed by a long soliloquy which I confess completely baffled me. There may be something like a melody there but it is so low in pitch, it is hard to follow.

    The fourth movement ďPsalmsĒ switches to the key of c minor and proceeds without any interruption from the third movement with the sax playing what suggests a kind of forlorn melody in a minor key at a slow tempo; (c, e flat, c, g- g, f, g, f, e flat, g, c e flat, g flat, f, e flat, d flat, e flat), but it never seems to pull together and becomes just a series of mostly half notes and whole notes strung together without apparent melodic purpose in what may be intended as a funeral dirge. Again it just drones on and on and on and on with the piano playing a series of accompanying chords and the drums adding to the droning. 30 seconds before the end, the engineer overdubbed an additional sax track on the right channel and a drum track on the left adding to the sax normally being on the left channel and the drums on the right. This was very obvious through headphones so try a pair if you have this recording and listen for that. It came as a surprise when the music just suddenly seemed to end. No buildup, no climax, no warning, just a brief drum roll, a few solo notes by the bass and it just stopped.

    The most accurate single word I can think of to describe this music is ďflat.Ē For me, it says nothing and goes nowhere. The utter lack of phrasing, build up of tension and release are two of the elements that run through this music that added to its flatness and my boredom with it. It is fairly abstract having no apparent true melodies anywhere. The closest thing it has to melodies are what I would call figures of several notes repeated again and again sometimes in different keys with slight variations, these figures being mostly different in each movement. It has absolutely no dynamics, playing at almost exactly the same loudness all the way through even though instruments do pop in and out. No matter how loud or soft I played it, it was still boring. It is the audible equivalent of a featureless desert. Does this genre try to portray a sense of unfocused purposeless, aimless emotionless, droning we associate with heroine addicts in a nodding stupor? If it does, it succeeds. Perhaps this suite is a metaphor for the life and death of a heroine addict. In that context, both the title of the music and the names of the movements make perfect sense to me. The music often seems to deliberately have a droning quality especially in the 4th movement Psalms. The sax plays a lot of what I call ďnoodlingĒ which some may think of as interesting and virtuoso like but it isnít.

    IMO, the liner notes as they pertain to the technical aspects of the actual musical descriptions of the composition are pure bull****.

    On my sound systems, the cymbals sounded exactly like metallic cymbals, not aerosol hair spray cans. The sax is recorded OK but I think I would have preferred it slightly closer miked and it sounds a little bass shy in the lower register. As I said, the piano was IMO, too far out of balance and therefore drowned out, its bass tones when they were there are entirely lost (This is not always too apparent because it is usually accompanied by the string bass for reinforcement so listen carefully.) Listening through headphones there are occasional very brief tape dropouts but they are not obvious or even evident listening through speakers. I liked the way the string bass was recorded very much. Even by 1965 standards, overall this was not a well recorded or well mastered job, not at all equal to the better efforts by the major studios.

    There are some musical differences with the live monophonic recording on tracks 2 through 5 on disc two recorded about 7 months later. Some are quibbling, such as the sax instead of the bass introducing the 4 note figure in Acknowledgement. Others are more significant such as an expanded piano section in Resolution although the added part IMO detracts from the better version on disc one. Coltrane experiments with the tone of the sax to a considerably greater extent but it is neither pleasant nor interesting and often no longer recognizable as an alto saxophone but could be a tenor sax or even a clarinet squeaking when the tone cracks up. Coltrane was smart to completely omit his singing solo from the first movement. I liked the drum rolls in Pursuance better in the live performance though.

    It is not necessary to take music apart the way I did to enjoy it but it does help me to understand it better, especially since my reaction to it is so different from so many other people here who wrote about it. It is entirely possible that one day I will change my mind although not at all likely. My reaction, as far as ďA Love SupremeĒ is concerned, all I can say is, to each his own.

  2. #2
    DMK
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    Some comments and a few minor corrections

    First, Trane played only the TENOR saxophone, not the alto. The only time he played alto to my knowledge was a couple of years later on a tour of Japan. He also played the soprano but not on Supreme. But that's a minor correction which, ultimately, won't change your review - and shouldn't.

    As for the four note bass "intro", the word you're looking for is ostinato. In jazz, it's normally called a riff. Jazzspeak for essentially the same thing.

    Even the gold CD which is supposed to have superior mastering and the two disc set you bought (same) do not completely capture the music as the vinyl does. Just my opinion and, again, it ultimately shouldn't make any difference in how the music struck you.

    As for Trane's technique, this disc isn't about technique. He "shows off" more on other discs. The disc is about emotion.

    Regarding whether or not some of Trane's "flubs" are intentional or not, based on what I've read about him, some were and some weren't. He used the saxophone as a means of expression over and above simple music making and note playing. Traditional technique was to be expanded by way of overblowing and false fingering. OTOH, some of his flubs were true flubs. Ever hear the expression "close enough for jazz"? When expressing oneself musically in the jazz genre, you are exploring. Some would call it practicing on the bandstand. With jazz, the point is to play something that is inspired by the moment and is entirely creative as much as possible. Sometimes you hit that mark and sometimes you don't.

    Interesting that you find Tyner to be the closest thing to a "star" performer. Whereas all four were and are revered in the jazz realm, it's Tyner who was the closest thing to a "throwaway". He was largely an accompanist. Jazz saxophonists and drummers for the most part have discovered that they need to come to grips with the playing of Trane and Elvin Jones and Garrison has his followers. Tyner is a great player - no question - but he's a bit of an afterthought among that group.

    By the way, the lyrics were not meant to be "clever". It's based on an African chant-type vocalization, jazz being African inspired. It's also for its emotive strength rather than any attempt at cleverness. Remember that this work is one man's gift to God. If what I've read about God is true, cleverness has no place

    You hit on one interesting truth - the part about it being something of a metaphor for a heroin addict. Trane reportedly gave up the drug years before this disc and this music is a thank you to God for giving him the strength to, among other things, give up heroin.

    "A Love Supreme" is probably the one piece of Trane's that has never been attempted by other musicians, although a few have done one or two of the parts. That isn't because they can't; it's because of its status among the modern jazz musicians as being of almost biblical proportions. I asked you about different versions of the same classical piece not because I disagree but because in jazz, when someone has made the ultimate statement, it's taken seriously by others most of the time. I and most jazz musicians and listeners prefer to listen to the original rather than someone else's version, although the ROVA Saxophone Quartet did a credible job with Trane's "Ascension". With classical, it seems a bit different, probably because if it's not performed today, it becomes a museum piece which would be wrong. BTW, I do NOT recommend you explore Trane further, at least not anything after 1964. Supreme is as accessible as it gets.

    When I said "biblical proportions" I almost forgot to mention this for what it's worth. Trane has achieved sainthood among a flock in San Francisco which has named a (Baptist, I believe) church after him. That's way over the top in my book but it gives you some idea of how literally fanatical jazz fans are with Trane.

    To say that I and millions of highly respected musicologists, other musicians and music enthusiasts strongly disagree with your findings in this music would be the understatement of the ages. But that matters not. What matters is that you listened and gave your honest opinion. No one can expect anything more.

  3. #3
    Forum Regular Woochifer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DMK
    As for Trane's technique, this disc isn't about technique. He "shows off" more on other discs. The disc is about emotion.
    That's really the core of that album in a nutshell. Other great insights on the album as well. Obviously, you've done quite a bit of playing in your time.

    Looking at "A Love Supreme" strictly in terms of the technical aspects of the playing, the structural elements, and basically attempting to distill it down to transcription just misses the point of what makes that album such an overwhelming experience. By breaking apart the album into individual components, focusing on specific passages, yeah there are "flaws" all over the place. But, taken together as a whole, there's something intuitively right, instinctive, and very real about the music.

    That's something that you can never capture by just transcribing the notes and having someone sightread it, or composing and rehearsing every last detail ahead of time. Anyone seeking more technical virtuosity should look at Coltrane's ensemble stuff with Miles Davis or early solo albums like "Blue Train." Those demonstrate his talent with the horn, but not the human vulnerability and emotion that he would display in its rawest form after "A Love Supreme." Just listening to his hour-long version of "Birdland" from "Live In Japan" is an emotional rollercoaster that sucks the audience in and takes them for a ride.

    Classical music revels in structure, technique, and ensemble conformity, while jazz would be totally stifled by such restraints. In fact, at live performances I usually feel that it looks more promising whenever I see a jazz band go on stage with no sheet music (or if they had sheet music, it would consist only of time signatures and keys with no notes). That usually means that they're about to go all out without a net. Some of the best music I've ever heard was jazz bands in rehearsal without an audience. In that context, the playing was bold, the improvising took chances, and the results didn't always work out, but when they did it was a visceral experience. The intuitive interplay between the musicians can be incredible as they look at one another and trade off improvisations, and make changes on the go. To me, that free form and "democratic" structure where any one musician can take the ensemble in a new direction at any given time is the essence of jazz.

    I have heard about that Coltrane church, and in SF (which also spawned the People's Temple) they also have a Church of Sinatra that meets in Haight-Ashbury on Mondays (at the retro bar that's commonly credited with sparking the swing revival starting in the late-80s).

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woochifer
    That's really the core of that album in a nutshell. Other great insights on the album as well. Obviously, you've done quite a bit of playing in your time.

    Looking at "A Love Supreme" strictly in terms of the technical aspects of the playing, the structural elements, and basically attempting to distill it down to transcription just misses the point of what makes that album such an overwhelming experience. By breaking apart the album into individual components, focusing on specific passages, yeah there are "flaws" all over the place. But, taken together as a whole, there's something intuitively right, instinctive, and very real about the music.

    That's something that you can never capture by just transcribing the notes and having someone sightread it, or composing and rehearsing every last detail ahead of time. Anyone seeking more technical virtuosity should look at Coltrane's ensemble stuff with Miles Davis or early solo albums like "Blue Train." Those demonstrate his talent with the horn, but not the human vulnerability and emotion that he would display in its rawest form after "A Love Supreme." Just listening to his hour-long version of "Birdland" from "Live In Japan" is an emotional rollercoaster that sucks the audience in and takes them for a ride.

    Classical music revels in structure, technique, and ensemble conformity, while jazz would be totally stifled by such restraints. In fact, at live performances I usually feel that it looks more promising whenever I see a jazz band go on stage with no sheet music (or if they had sheet music, it would consist only of time signatures and keys with no notes). That usually means that they're about to go all out without a net. Some of the best music I've ever heard was jazz bands in rehearsal without an audience. In that context, the playing was bold, the improvising took chances, and the results didn't always work out, but when they did it was a visceral experience. The intuitive interplay between the musicians can be incredible as they look at one another and trade off improvisations, and make changes on the go. To me, that free form and "democratic" structure where any one musician can take the ensemble in a new direction at any given time is the essence of jazz.

    I have heard about that Coltrane church, and in SF (which also spawned the People's Temple) they also have a Church of Sinatra that meets in Haight-Ashbury on Mondays (at the retro bar that's commonly credited with sparking the swing revival starting in the late-80s).
    There's very little that I can add to the above except to say that listening to jazz with the same mindset as one listens to classical does not work. Woochifer and DMK have done an excellent job with their posts so I won't mess it up. But what "Birdland" tune on Live in Japan??? Not the Coltrane disc of that title as it contains no tune named Birdland on any of its four discs. Can you clarify? Thanks.

  5. #5
    Forum Regular Woochifer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rb122
    There's very little that I can add to the above except to say that listening to jazz with the same mindset as one listens to classical does not work. Woochifer and DMK have done an excellent job with their posts so I won't mess it up. But what "Birdland" tune on Live in Japan??? Not the Coltrane disc of that title as it contains no tune named Birdland on any of its four discs. Can you clarify? Thanks.
    Sorry, my bad! I was thinking of "Afro-Blue" which I always associate with his "Live In Birdland" album.

  6. #6
    DMK
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    That reminds me

    Quote Originally Posted by Woochifer
    Sorry, my bad! I was thinking of "Afro-Blue" which I always associate with his "Live In Birdland" album.
    Pablo put out a double LP called "Afro Blue Impressions" which is the only LP I can think of offhand that sounds better on CD. Doesn't have anything to do with the discussion but it's relevant to the "great debate". The LP was completely vile sounding and the CD is merely terrible.

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