In June of 2017 saxophonist Dave Liebman, a member of the original group, Saxophone Summit, a group dedicated to the legacy of John Coltrane, was asked if he could organize that group or something like it to perform on the BBC’s Jazz on 3 radio program, for the 40th anniversary of John Coltrane’s passing on July 17, 2007. The original Saxophone Summit from 1996 was made up of saxophonists Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano and Liebman, as well as the rhythm section of bassist Cecil McBee, pianist Phil Markowitz and drummer Billy Hart. With the passing of Michael Brecker in 2007, the group continued over the years in various iterations that included, at times, saxophonists Greg Osby and later Ravi Coltrane. With time being so tight, Liebman rallied the core of the group; himself, Lovano, Hart and Markowitz for the date. Ravi Coltrane and Cecil McBee, unfortunately, had prior commitments, and so journeyman bassist Ron McClure was enlisted for this recording.
Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane came to life. As Liebman writes in the thoroughly engaging liner notes, Coltrane’s legacy was vast, and spanned so many stylistic , that choosing a suitable repertoire to play would be a challenge unto itself. With the anniversary looming, Lovano and Liebman decided that for this gig, they would perform music from all Coltrane’s periods. The result is an original interpretation of Coltrane’s music, as well as a wonderful homage to a master that these musicians all see as one of their most enduring influences.
The set list includes “Locomotion” from the 1958 classic Blue Train, a blues based song that is representative of Coltrane’s early Blue Note period. The dueling tenors of Liebman with his sharper, more piercing tone and then Lovano’s huskier horn, take turns carrying on this classic, as the throbbing bass of McClure, the dynamic piano of Markowitz and the splashing cymbals of Hart propel this classic.
Coltrane’s more universal appeal was often found through his sensitive playing on ballads, and here Lovano chooses the pensive “Central Park West” as a vehicle of expression. His tenor tone is burnished and lustrous. Markowitz plays a resplendent intro to the diatonic “Dear Lord” that features Liebman on a beautifully realized soprano saxophone solo that hovers like an angle on a cloud.
The Spanish tinged “Ole” represents Coltrane’s excursion into the realm of modal, eastern-influenced music. The sedately paced intro finds the woodwind players conversing, this time with Liebman on wooden recorder and Lovano on Scottish Flute, before switching to soprano saxophone and tenor saxophone respectively. The modal vamp allows the rhythm section to set the roiling groove. Markowitz inventive solo is a highlight, before Lovano enters with his own deep throated voice. Liebman then squeals and squeaks with a flurry on his soprano. As the song progresses, the two horns let loose with a series of high pitched screeches and wails- a precursor to the more avant-garde sounds to come in Coltrane’s music- before McClure takes a pulsing bass solo at the coda.
“Reverend King,” a song dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. from Coltrane’s Cosmic Music album, was originally recorded in 1966 and released posthumously in 1968. This was a period when the saxophonist was experimenting with dialogue between himself and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Lovano and Liebman play on this dialogue with a more subdued alto clarinet and C flute respectively. Hart’s toms accentuating a rolling background with McClure’s Arco bass. The tinkling notes of Markowitz’s piano, Liebman’s fluttering flute, Lovano’s woody alto clarinet and McClure’s bowed bass all create the moody feel of this piece.
“Equinox” was a return to a minor blues format, this time during Coltrane’s Atlantic years, originally recorded in 1960. Lovano and Liebman choose to interpret this as if Coltrane played it in his later years. A looser, more open feeling that was not restricted so much by form or structure. To this end the drummer Billy Hart sets the tone with his distinctively free feel to his rhythmic timekeeping. Liebman’s soprano soars into atmospherics, Markowitz expands the musical palate with a stirring solo of invention and succinctness. Lovano’s tenor is at its most exploratory, a raspy excursion out to the borders of the tune’s boundaries.
The final song is “Compassion” and comes from Meditations, Coltrane’s follow up album to his groundbreaking A Love Supreme. By this point, in his ever-changing search for expression in his music, Coltrane had become his most free and most spiritual. On the original recording Coltrane used two drummers, Elvin Jones and Rashid Ali. Appropriately, master drummer Hart starts this piece off for the first four minutes introducing several different rhythmic variations by his deft use of sticks, toms and cymbals. A pulsing bass line by McClure and some stabbing piano notes by Markowitz lead into the dual tenors stating their lines in unison. Liebman is first to solo, a piercing, cascade of notes that occasionally shriek into plaintive cries. Lovano enters with his aulochrome, a twinned soprano saxophone, with its duality of voice that reminds me of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s ventures into the simultaneous use of multiple horns. Markowitz, McClure and Hart play an intuitive break that is rash, atonal, bombastic and percussive. The two horns re-enter this time with Liebman on soprano and Lovano back to tenor. This free, unstructured rant goes on for seventeen minutes and is , for me, the least enjoyable part of this album. As with some of Coltrane’s later unstructured, avant-garde work it is not for everyone, but true to the spirit of what the master was doing at this point in his career.
As with many of Resonance Records, and producer Zev Fledman’s recent releases, the packaging is rich, the liner notes informative and meaty, the sound quality is good and the music captures a group of master musicians paying homage to one of their greatest influences. For any Coltrane fan this one is a keeper.