Review Summary: Noisy, abrasive, violent. But it's the tight playing and the remnants of melody that give Coltrane's only duo recording its unique character.
John Coltrane is one of my favorite jazz performers, if not my overall fave. His mesmerizing sax playing, combined with his talent for improvisation (and finding the right players to improvise with) and a good deal of manic creative energy and forward thinking make him stand out from the horn-playin’ crowd. Seriously, I’ve listened to like 10 of his albums now and he’s never disappointed me a single time. One of his albums I hold dearest to my heart is Interstellar Space. This is one of his last recordings, made the year of his sudden (and too early) death in 1967 and not officially released until the mid 70’s.
What do you do when you’re a (avant-minded) jazz performer and you’re gonna record a near-free improv session and you completely lack not only chordal instruments, but also a proper rhythm section? Or, more precisely, what do you do when you have only a tenor sax player and a drummer? Well, if your name is John Coltrane, you just unleash sheets of abrasive noise, combined with “the occasional melody” from your horn. If you go by Rashied Ali on the other hand, you just bang all parts of your drum kit at the same time like there’s no tomorrow. And if you’re both, you just kick up a tightly-played ***in’ storm.
Each of the four lengthy improvisations on here (plus one bonus track on the CD reissue) largely follows the same scheme: They all start out with some sort of bell-like shaker thingy and a bit of drumming, which is followed by Trane playing something you could almost call a “melody” on his tenor and the whole thing gradually turns into an insane free-form sax tour de force, wrapped in a hurricane of percussion that totally defies any normal sense of rhythm. Seriously, this Ali guy is ***ing insane! He plays the drum kit like a solo instrument, hitting like all of his drums at once! Granted, Coltrane and Ali take down the pace a little on Venus and Saturn, making for something slightly less violent, but it’s still not even close to being “quiet” or “lyrical” or any other term you use when it comes to music for sissies (no, no, just kidding of course!).
Now this sounds like some completely random-sounding “free jazz” album (like Sun Ra’s Heliocentric Worlds) you have to listen to two years straight to even get a notion of what’s going on, right? In the harsh reality of our world though, this is pretty much the exact opposite of random. And it’s a unique chance to hear and actually understand free-form interplay. First of all, there’s just two instruments, obviously, so you have absolutely no distraction from the exchanges of the two. Secondly, if you listen to this a few times (and by listening I mean concentrating), you’ll find out that the playing is ultra-tight and that the two show no sign of dicking around. You’ll see how Ali almost magically responds to each of Trane’s odd speed runs and crazy overblowings by always bashing on the right amount and type of drums at the right speed, and never failing a single time. As I said though, the drums are handled like a solo instrument, so get rid of your pathetic little notion of percussion as some sort of human metronome. Just dig the lengthy drum solo that ends the album’s first track, Mars, and you’ll see what I mean. Ali displays a beyond-polyrhythmic range usually not found in jazz drummers.
But Ali’s performance is still only the vehicle for Trane’s exploratory, uncompromising and dominant playing that really makes this album shine. As I said earlier, there’s lots of abrasive overblowings here, alternating between unnerving, high screeches and low, grinding sounds. Of course it’s nowhere near the grungy noise assault of, say, Pharoah Sanders (who Johnny C’s played with a coupla times), but what Trane lacks in ugliness, he makes up in pace and relentless ferocity. You get plenty of semi-atonal lightspeed runs on Interstellar Space’s two “heaviest” tracks, Mars, and the fairly brief Jupiter, sounding a bit like a mutant version of his late 50’s hard-bop era “sheets of sound” soloing. Some pretty aggressive stuff right there.
But another aspect that makes the sax work on here intriguing is the fact that it’s not all noise and speed. Little sequences of typical 60’s Trane melodies are strewn across the whole time span of the album and the closer Saturn actually comes relatively close to “tonal” most of the time. And even though you may not initially notice those small melodies, they’re the stuff that gives Interstellar Space a unique sorta character. Those tiny little melodies poppin’ outta the vortex of violence and noise and bashed-to-all-hell drums make you feel strangely warm and fuzzy inside, add cohesion and make this album a lot less alienating than it could have been if it completely sacrificed any sense of conventional playing.
All in all, Interstellar Space is a violent, heavy, frighteningly tight, masterfully performed series of duo improvisations that uniquely fuses noise and abrasiveness with small remnants of conventional play melody to create a gripping listening experience from start to finish. Definitely one of my jazz faves.