John Coltrane - Offering: Live at Temple University
(Impulse! / Resonance Records B1963202. 2CDs. CD review by Andy Boeckstaens)
John Coltrane’s appearance at Mitten Hall, Temple University in Philadelphia on 11th November 1966 has achieved legendary status, partly because the recording has previously been available only on very lo-fi bootlegs, and also, arguably, because the leader sings for a couple of minutes.
The concert hall (just a few miles from the house that Coltrane bought in the late 1940s) was populated to just 40% of its capacity. The audience included university students, members of the black radical organization The Revolutionary Action Movement, old friends of Coltrane, and local fans and musicians. One of them was an 18-year-old Michael Brecker.
The opening Naima is not complete, because the engineer missed the start. Coltrane is already teasing his way towards the stately theme, but before he gets there his improvisation reaches full flight, with long runs, short clusters of notes and the occasional squeak. We hear Alice Coltrane’s dense piano chords and sweeping arpeggios, and Rashied Ali provides dramatic, arhythmic colour at the drums. With angular scales and honks, Coltrane returns and eventually plays the melody. Exploratory as it is, Naima is the most conventional track apart from the sparse, hymnal Offering, which is essentially a duet for tenor and piano.
The tranquil line of Crescent is stated clearly by Coltrane, then – as it gradually develops - the piece becomes brilliantly convoluted. Pharoah Sanders takes a visceral solo that shudders and twitters in the upper register, and percussionists including Umar Ali, Robert Kenyatta, Charles Brown and Angie DeWitt clatter away during the piano interlude. Altoist Arnold Joyner – a local player known to the musicians, but not invited to play – takes the stand and makes a contribution that is entirely in keeping with the proceedings. The rest is dominated by Coltrane, who incorporates a wide variety of motifs, complex flurries, quotations and repetitions, and he tops it off with a beautiful logic leading to the recapitulation.
Leo is different again. A fast, staccato figure by Coltrane is followed by Sanders’ squealing; we hear Coltrane briefly on soprano sax and flute, and there is a lengthy drum solo. In the background behind Sanders, Coltrane starts to sing. His wordless howls and impassioned outpourings are heard more prominently and at greater length a little later alongside Ali, and have evoked much conjecture. Is he expanding his spectrum of expression? Has he been consumed by the spirit? Has he no more to say on the saxophone? Has he lost his mind...? Whatever’s behind it, Coltrane’s singing closely resembles his instrumental conception; when he picks up the tenor once more he continues in similar vein until the tape runs out.
The closing My Favorite Things begins with a bass solo by Sonny Johnson (who is largely inaudible for much of the CD). Coltrane, accompanied predominantly by drums and percussion, is featured on soprano, but the song disappears in brilliant cascades of piano during Alice Coltrane’s unusually forceful solo. Alto saxophonist Steve Knoblauch produces a wild, Marshall Allen-like wail that merely hints at reference-points. (His presence is remarkable because – arriving at the hall with a saxophone case – the young musician was presumed to be a member of the band and ushered to the dressing room. Coltrane let him stay, sat him at the side of the stage and asked him up for a blow mid-way through the last number). There is fast, searing soprano from Coltrane, then – over Sanders’ piccolo - he sings again for a few moments, chanting a mainly five-note phrase that he repeats on saxophone. After a terrific final salvo, the well-known melody returns and the intensity subsides as the 90-minute concert ends.
Due to the frequently-changing personnel, the variety of instruments and occasionally indistinct sound, Ashley Kahn’s excellent sleeve-notes are invaluable in deciphering what’s happening. Reminiscences and quotations from observers and scholars including Francis Davis and Ravi Coltrane provide a fascinating insight into Coltrane’s rapid and radical development through the last phase of his astounding career.
However familiar we might be with Coltrane’s work, there is always room for more of his wonderful music. Offering: Live at Temple University is exhausting and uplifting, and documents a massive slice of emotional, raw and sometimes frenzied jazz.