Seven layers of heaven

John Coltrane Memorial Concert, Blackman Theatre, September 22, 2007
By JON GARELICK  |  September 24, 2007
proved to be the kind of conceptual and
musical unity John might have appreciated. 

Since its birth in the tiny Friends of Great Black Music Loft in Chinatown 30 years ago, the John Coltrane Memorial Concert has been a grass-roots event, dependent on musicians who volunteer their time and talent. The special guest at Northeastern’s Blackman Theatre last Saturday night (the concluding concert in a week of 30th-anniversary events) was Ravi Coltrane. An organization with greater resources might have commissioned original arrangements that incorporated John’s son, but this isn’t Lincoln Center Jazz. Working on the fly, the organizers created an odd layer cake: two sets of selections from the massive JCMC Ensemble in each half of the three-hour concert, with a crème filling in each from the Ravi Coltrane Quartet. (Poet Amiri Baraka offered a prelude remembrance of John.) Conventional performance hierarchy — one band opening for another — goes against the JCMC’s egalitarian grain. Instead, Ravi did his thing and the JCMC Ensemble did theirs, side by side.

After Baraka’s reading (it ended with him hearing about Coltrane’s death from a jail cell), a horn nonet played Coltrane’s “Welcome.” It was expansive, airy, led by arranger Leonard Brown’s soaring soprano. Another small group played Alice Coltrane’s “Gospel Trane,” with a crowd-pleasing, raucous three-trombone chorus and an arm-blurring George W. Russell Jr. piano solo. The full Ensemble (with three percussionists, three bassists, and three keyboardists) strained to make a unified statement of “India” amid collective improvisation that loosely followed Coltrane’s written scheme and arranger Bill Lowe’s conducting cues. Ravi’s group had an advantage: four players who work together year round. And it’s a great band, with a cohesive sound that joins John’s prayerful modal freedom to Ravi’s latter-day odd-metered forms. The evening’s finale was a majestic “Peace on Earth” played by the Ensemble, with arranger Stan Strickland’s bass clarinet and the bowed basses conjuring Tibetan horns, and Ravi soloing from the sax section. It was the kind of conceptual and musical unity John might have appreciated.

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