Trios honor Coltrane with differing styles
Strange forces were at work last night at the Westcott Community Center. If not for the sound of chirping crickets drifting through the open door, it would have been easy to believe I was in the heart of New York City – and that John Coltrane was alive.
The aptly named New Thing Productions summoned two startlingly talented New York City trios to celebrate Coltrane’s birthday (he would have turned 77), which they did with command and skill. Steve Swell and Michael Marcus, both well-known scenesters in the cutthroat world of New York City jazz, and each with their respective bassist and drummer, presented programs that seemed stylistically opposite. But each trio’s performance was an appropriate tribute to Coltrane’s life – Swell’s with an experimental, free-form flair and Marcus’s with the technical agility characteristic of Coltrane’s earlier work.
Swell’s session was 55 minutes of sheer, seemingly unstructured improvisation. But not the traditional sort of improvisation where everyone sticks to their own instruments. Quasi-bassist Tom Abbs sometimes played baritone and bass simultaneously. And sometimes, when he felt like it, he would bang on drummer-trumpeter Geoff Mann’s cymbals as Mann sputtered percussive lines on a trumpet while tapping randomly on the bass drum with his foot.
The first section, about 35 minutes long, was a brilliant interplay of Swill’s trombone playing, alternately screeching and melodic, with the drummer and bassist’s creation of improvised departures and returns to Swill’s overall theme. The set was a constant exchange of swelling and relief. Swell and his rhythm/insanity section tried as hard as they could to separate themselves musically until it became too much and they were forced to drift back, slowly and reluctantly, into coherence.
Swell threw in occasional quotes from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Blue Train albums, but mostly went off on his own bipolar tangents – sucking the life out of his trombone with odd percussive noises and then blowing it back into furious licks and disconnected phrases of staccato rage. At points, Swell managed to resurrect Miles Davis, squealing emotional lines from his trombone that sounded remarkably like Davis’s Sketches of Spain. Rare. Melodies escaped from Swell’s horn, but seemed like betrayals of his trio’s overall accomplishment – that is, its disjunction.
Baritone saxophonist Michael Marcus, conversely, honored Coltrane in a more structured way. He opened his set with a self-written ballad and immediately demonstrated his ability to construct phrases out of thin air and pump them full of emotion. The ballad itself was mediocre and forgettable, but Marcus’s soloing made up for it.
The trio’s performance of Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Resolution’ was brilliant and technically astounding. With ‘Giant Steps,’ Coltrane effectively killed bebop, brought it to a logical conclusion – jazz players heard the song and decided it was the best any musician could do with bebop’s structure, so they left it there and went on to something else. Marcus and his cohorts explored that moment in musical history and added to it the theme of Coltrane’s seminal ‘Resolution’ from his 1964 album A Love Supreme with which he changed the outlook of jazz in 1964.
Marus’s encore number (which followed a somewhat inexplicable interperative dance from Dianne Chapitis) was a succesful combination of ‘Resolution’ and Thelonius Monk’s ”Round Midinght,’ on which Marcus’s agility on the barry sax broke out unrestrained.
New Thing Productions should be commended for bringing artists of this caliber to the Syracuse area. Though the Syracuse jazz scene is much better than other comparably sized cities, New Thing adds a different kind of music to the university scene, which it needs desperately. Their next performance is slated to occurr in early October in the Setnor School of Music, and if their work in the past is any indication, students would do well to expand their musical horizons by going.
Last night was evidence of what great synergy can create – the honoring of a musical giant by two groups which he influenced heavily, yet in different ways. Coltrane would have been proud.
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