May 10, 2012

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John Coltrane

The Impluse! Albums: Volume Five

(Hip-O Select/Verve)

In the catalog of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, there are the acknowledged classic masterpieces, such as Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, and then there are the difficult masterpieces of his later period, such as Ascension, that polarized critics and fans by going into free-jazz territory with an avant-garde attitude. The fifth and latest installment of the Coltrane-on-Impulse! re-mastered boxed set reissue series concentrates on Coltrane’s thorny late period, presenting five albums originally released after his death in 1967 with original non-expanded editions.

The aptly titled Transition was recorded by Coltrane’s “classic quartet,” including bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones, and pianist McCoy Tyner, serving as a sort of link between Coltrane’s classic/difficult divide. It has a definite feeling of restlessness and expansion, with Tyner’s relatively conventional chord sequences in sharp contrast with the rest of the band. The same lineup pushed this even further on the equally excellent Sun Ship, with both sensitivity and an aggressive playing style, showing growth from Tyner.

Even more formidable is Coltrane’s lineup featuring tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders on Live in Seattle. Listeners will likely either find this style either wearying or nourishing. Sanders also graces Concert in Japan, which begins with the bustling, yet relatively gentle and restrained 25-minute “Peace on Earth.” Also included is the controversial Infinity, on which Alice Coltrane used posthumous overdubs to enhance several of her husband’s recordings with elements such as a string ensemble, harp runs and bass playing from Charlie Haden. Sacrilege or not, this writer finds it to be tastefully done and an interesting reimagining, particularly for Alice Coltrane aficionados.

During this period, Coltrane expressed an overt spirituality with his music, and he even stated, “I believe in all religions.” The overall feeling on this set is that, with this overwhelming, hard-to-grasp music, the performers are conveying a presence larger than everything—too big to describe with conventional methods.  Completists will want the expanded editions of the live albums, but this boxed set is a tidy package, featuring a generous dose of Coltrane’s mind-expanding, hugely rewarding late period music.

The Unthanks

Diversions Vol. 1

(Rough Trade)

As hinted by its title, Diversions Vol. 1 is a sort of stop-gap measure for the British folk outfit The Unthanks, fronted by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank (yes, that’s their real name), which took a break from the process of recording a new album to tackle a simpler project: covering songs from two acts―Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons.  Recorded live at the Union Chapel in London, this album is a warts-and-all performance with mostly solemn and earnest takes with some amusing between-song banter and exposition; one can hear a false start and a few intonation issues, but there is a sincere reverence for the source material.

The formula almost seems too easy for whipping up an evening of wistful, overcast and gray songs: use basic piano arrangements, add some string flourishes, and feature some pretty female voices.  This recipe does wear a little thin over the course of the album, which could have benefited from more ambitious and varied arrangements.  The take of “Paddy’s Gone” is a little dull and lacking, while a few subtle differences make “Spiralling” a more successful rendition.  Those are two of the Antony & the Johnsons covers, which primarily cover the acclaimed album I Am a Bird Now, handled in a reserved manner without much drama.

The Robert Wyatt covers span three decades of Wyatt’s solo career, and on that half of the album, The Unthanks open up a little, musically.  The album is a bit close to being entirely downcast, barring the oddball “Dondestan” cover ; it’s a sing-songy number with a stripped-down bass and trumpet arrangement, enhanced by hand claps and actual on-stage clogging sounds, creating a disconnect with the song’s lyrics about Palestine.  “Out of the Blue” is also distinguished, with its sharpened, staccato, and pulsing string parts, but the clear highlight is the touching, patient rendition of the beloved “Sea Song.”  It’s a worthy take, using harmonium and piano lines, of Wyatt’s profoundly beautiful, strange, and unsettling love song to a mermaid (or, it’s actually about a wet dream, depending on whom you ask) with a calm, reassuring delivery of unusual endearments such as, “Your madness fits in nicely with my own.”  With a set of plainly arranged numbers delivered lovingly, there’s very little madness on Diversions Vol. 1 but an abundance of comfort.


May 10, 2012

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