Album Released: 27th October 2017 - Label: Fanfare Jazz - Reviewed: December 2017
This year marks the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s death. With the possible exception of Philip Larkin (“metallic and passionless nullity” was one of the nicer things he had to say about him), Coltrane has had a pretty good press. Indeed, in my opinion there is a form of writing about Coltrane whose main characteristic is hyperbolic hagiography rather than sober critical reflection.
You don’t have to buy in to the hyperbole, though, to recognise that Coltrane was a superb and interesting musician whose influence can be seen all over contemporary jazz. There are also many John Coltranes – from the pop lyricism of My Favourite Things, for example, to the hippy spirituality (or “long-winded and portentous demonstrations of religiosity”: Larkin again) of A Love Supreme; from the Blue Note hard bop of Blue Train, to the free jazz of Ascension.
Gilad Atzmon’s new CD, The Spirit of Trane, is a tribute to John Coltrane’s more lyrical side, the Coltrane of ballads, the sentimental Coltrane. Atzmon mainly plays tenor and soprano sax on the album and is joined by Frank Harrison (piano), Yaron Stavi (bass) and Enzo Zirilli (drums). Several of the tracks also feature the Sigamos String Quartet (Ros Stephen and Marianne Hayes (violins), Felix Tanner (viola) and Laura Anstee (cello)).
The album kicks off with Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood. Coltrane played this on his 1962 collaboration with the Duke. Atzmon plays soprano sax, an instrument Coltrane made very much his own. There is a marvellously lush string accompaniment which sounds like a full orchestra rather than a quartet. The whole has a touch of Charlie Parker With Strings about it and, sure enough, it turns out that Bird’s work with strings was an early influence on the young Atzmon. Yaron Stavi plays a short but very effective solo on bass. Atzmon’s timing and dynamics are spot on and the whole is a beautifully conceived piece of music which could be appreciated by jazz and non-jazz fans alike – even P. Larkin might have liked it.
Click here for a video of Atzmon and the other musicians playing In A Sentimental Mood.
Track 2 is another ballad, the Bronislaw Kaper standard, Invitation, which Coltrane played on the album Standard Coltrane. Atzmon takes up the tenor on this one, and there is some notable playing by Frank Harrison on piano. The string arrangement is wonderfully judged – a gentle wash behind the main ensemble.
The third track, Minor Thing, is the longest on the album (11 minutes plus) and also perhaps its centerpiece. It is an original Atzmon composition and pays tribute to the A Love Supreme phase of Coltrane’s career. There is no string accompaniment. Atzmon plays tenor but there are also short multi-instrument interludes – either double tracked or Atzmon 'doing a Roland Kirk'. It has a complex rhythm and the playing is much freer than on the other tracks. Frank Harrison takes a solo in his own distinctive style. Despite its length, the piece is an absorbing one which compels throughout.
The Mal Waldron composition, Soul Eyes, brings in the strings once again in another lush arrangement. A word here for Ros Stephen who wrote all the superb string arrangements on the album. It might be a heresy to say this but Coltrane’s tone could be a little….harsh (“nasty”, according to Larkin). Atzmon’s tone on both tenor and soprano is much smoother, even on his freer improvisations. He still retains, however, something of Coltrane’s technical facility, that ability to race up and down the scales.
Blue Train is one of Coltrane’s more memorable compositions and Atzmon’s version on Track 5 is a worthy homage. It is one of the more upbeat pieces on the album with Atzmon back on soprano – and impressively so – and some nicely judged playing from Harrison.
Another famous Coltrane composition, the ballad, Naima, is the highlight of the whole album with Atzmon’s soprano soaring above yet another beautiful string arrangement. Again, Charlie Parker With Strings comes to mind. The whole piece serves to emphasise what a marvellous tune Naima is.
The third Coltrane composition on the album, Giant Steps, sees both Atzmon and Harrison really stretching out with some brilliant and imaginative improvising. Atzmon never just copies Coltrane but manages to convey, yes, the spirit of Coltrane in his own style.
The final track is the Jimmy McHugh ballad, Say It (Over and Over Again), and is a summary of what makes The Spirit of Trane such a satisfying listen: lush string arrangements, warm but virtuosic playing by Atzmon (on tenor for this track), lyrical piano from Frank Harrison, and discreet, bang-on-the beat from bass and drums.