John Coltrane – Offering: Live at Temple University (2 CDs) [TrackList follows] – Impulse/Resonance B0019632-02, (2-CDs) 42:41, 49:08 [9/23/14] ****:
(John Coltrane – soprano and tenor saxophone, flute, vocals; Pharoah Sanders – tenor sax, piccolo; Alice Coltrane – piano; Sonny Johnson – bass; Rashied Ali – drums; Steve Knoblauch, Arnold Joyner – alto sax; Umar Ali, Robert Kenyatta and Charles Brown – congas; Angie DeWitt – bata drums)
It is celebration time for John Coltrane fans, especially those who appreciate the manic music Coltrane created near the end of his life. The two-CD Offering: Live at Temple University is an officially authorized release of an undiscovered, complete Coltrane performance at Philadelphia’s Temple University on November 11, 1966, six weeks after Coltrane’s 40th birthday and nine months before his unfortunate death. While bad bootlegs have circulated for decades, this package has remastered high-fidelity mono audio from recently unearthed master tapes (originally broadcast on WRTI-FM) which vividly capture Coltrane and his quintet: Coltrane on soprano and tenor sax, flute and vocals; Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax and piccolo; Alice Coltrane on piano; Sonny Johnson on bass; and Rashied Ali on drums. Guests include Steve Knoblauch and Arnold Joyner on alto sax; Umar Ali, Robert Kenyatta and Charles Brown on congas; and Angie DeWitt on bata drums. Offering: Live at Temple University is available in both vinyl and CD configurations; this review refers to the compact disc set housed in a soft-cover deluxe digipak.
Offering: Live at Temple University showcases Coltrane at the peak of his free or avant-garde period, when lengthy and sometimes discordant improvisation took the place of recognizable melodies, and when he shaped dense material which could upset some jazz listeners expecting familiarity, traditional structure and unthreatening music. Certainly, this is in evidence on expanded versions of Coltrane numbers such as the 16:28 “Naima” (a perennial selection which dates to 1959) and a 23:18 translation of “My Favorite Things” (the title track for Coltrane’s 1961 LP, My Favorite Things).
The music fades in as the group begins a reorganized “Naima.” Anyone acquainted with the tune Coltrane penned for his first wife may not immediately identify the piece, since Coltrane veers from the well-known melody. Coltrane steers the music into tumultuous territory as his phrasing becomes heavier and vigorous. About seven minutes in, Coltrane steps out and his second wife, Alice, starts an arcing keyboard solo which has a sound somewhat akin to a harp (an instrument she utilized in her subsequent career). Both Johnson and Ali support the curving rhythm. Reportedly some in the audience walked out during this concert, and it is not hard to imagine some might have during this unrestrained juncture. There is a noticeable shift in auditory focus about the 11-minute mark, as the radio engineer brings up the percussion and the piano volume drops. A 26-minute “Crescent” (the title cut from Coltrane’s 1964 record) closes the first CD.
Coltrane commences on tenor sax with the memorable theme, the tune’s minor-key asset upfront. It isn’t long, though, before a darker tone ascends. Sanders takes the spotlight and employs an array of dissonant constructions such as honks, growls, screams and other noises through his horn, done with an assertive attitude. Other band members add backing vocal intonations. During this section, several guests join the group on stage, and supplement the percussive backdrop. Approximately ten minutes in, the volume again changes, as Alice Coltrane initiates an almost five-minute solo accompanied by assorted percussive instruments comprising bata, shekere, cow bell, drums and more. When the keyboard excursion coils to a close, alto saxophonist Arnold Joyner (who unexpectedly showed up to jam with the band) inaugurates a five-minute solo with impressive results. Coltrane, in a full, explorative mood, blows away the crowd during the remaining six minutes and crafts a sonic objet d’art on tenor sax. He proceeds through various motifs, brief melodic units, quotes and phrases, his ideas flowing uninterrupted in a soul-invigorating ending.
CD Two gets going with an unconstrained “Leo,” which Coltrane taped in 1967 (a studio rendition is on the 1974, posthumous album Interstellar Space). Sanders and Coltrane play a staccato theme on the abstract piece. Sanders pushes out an intense improvisation which has piercing phrasing. During the roughly 22-minute workout, Coltrane switches between flute, soprano and tenor sax, and also momentarily offers a vocal chant, although it is nearly drowned in the mix by Sanders’ dominant sax. Afterwards, Ali supplies a muscular drum improvisation which concentrates on toms and snare. Coltrane takes center stage to finish, but the presentation cuts off as the reel-to-reel tape runs out before the tune is complete. A sense of respite, a calm moment in the storm, occurs during the concise, lyrical “Offering.” A more extensive rendering of this was done for 1967’s Expression, Coltrane’s final recording session.
The evening wraps up with the epic “My Favorite Things,” which launches via Johnson’s sublime bass introduction. When Coltrane strides in on soprano sax about five minutes later, there is an empathic involvement. One can practically feel the audience rise in unison as Coltrane instigates the distinguishable theme. Alice Coltrane twists away from the theme during a frenetic solo and is followed by another unforeseen visitor, alto saxophonist Steve Knoblauch. This time, though, according to the liner notes, Coltrane gave Knoblauch the nod to solo. Knoblauch draws from the free jazz he had studied, with lower-register blasts as well as exuberant leaps and bounds on his horn. Later, while Sanders swaps sax for piccolo, Coltrane puts down his sax and intones wordless vocals, echoing melodic concepts he had done on sax. When he returns to the soprano sax, he dramatically brings the elongated piece to a rapturous windup.
Regarding the audio fidelity, there are some things worth noting. The high-resolution transfer from the original half-inch tape to digital is well done, and has been remastered at 96 kHz/24 bit. [But this disc is standard 44.1K/16-bit CD format…Ed.] Regrettably, the concert was recorded with just one primary microphone, placed downstage, which favors the saxophone over the other instruments. The bass is particularly soft in the mix and percussion instruments are only discernable during piano solos. Coltrane’s unanticipated vocal incantations are so low as to be missed by most listeners. As remarked, the student engineers conspicuously adjust the volume when Alice Coltrane is soloing and back again when any horn player is leading. The 24-page supplemental booklet is a significant bonus. There are archival photos as well as finely-written and well-researched liner notes by jazz scholar Ashley Kahn. He includes interviews or anecdotes from participants, spectators such as then-teenage Michael Brecker, and those involved in this legacy project, especially John Coltrane’s son, Ravi Coltrane. He also helpfully arranges the text into sections about the gig, the music, Coltrane’s unique vocalizations, and the concert’s historical importance.
TrackList:CD 1: Naima; Crescent. CD 2: Leo; Offering; My Favorite Things.