Review Summary: An unforgettable, mind-expanding recording.Live in Japan
is a remarkable set of music. Comprised of four discs documenting two stints in Tokyo in July of ’66, it shows Coltrane with his newest cronies at some absolutely inspired heights of playing. This group (Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders on tenor, soprano and alto saxes; Rashied Ali on drums; Alice Coltrane on piano; and Jimmy Garrison on bass), in the short time since being introduced in 1965’s Meditations
, gelled in an unprecedented manner. Their sound is unlike anything that came before it, fed by the fiery push and shove of the more melodic Coltrane and the fractured torment of Pharoah; Alice C.’s otherworldly piano playing and Rashied Ali’s untraceable flurry of rhythm—powered by the increasingly dissonant, thumping grooves of Garrison’s lowend.
Live in Japan
sees Coltrane climbing towards the height of his gradual evolution, and each document of Coltrane’s journey is seemingly more mind-opening than the last. His explorations into foreign tonal and improvisational ideas with Eric Dolphy on 1962’s Ole Coltrane
planted the seed for his mystical brand of intense soul-searching, only to be expanded upon time and time again until it seemed as if the man were ready to explode with ambition for want a higher state of understanding. Coltrane’s thirst for new sounds is fundamentally intertwined with his desire to see the universe from a new, higher perspective, and this is why his music exudes its spiritual, even cosmic aura.
Arriving in July 1966, Coltrane is only one year away from his untimely death, but his fervor for life is at an all-time high. His stream-of-consciousness investigations are more adventurous than ever, and this record encapsulates brilliantly the heart of what makes jazz music so compelling. The closing cut of this set is a wild retelling of an old favorite that everyone knows: “My Favorite Things.” But not everyone knows this version. The main theme is merely alluded to, putting all the focus on the improvisation; and to see the constant re-invention of such a well-known standard from its humble beginnings on Coltrane’s 1961 release to the hour-long epic majesty as presented to Japan on this night is absolutely extraordinary. It’s a testament to the immortality of jazz as an artform and its room for constant reinvention, solely through the unique sensibilities of the musicians telling their own stories.
There’s almost a sense of competition going on here, with Coltrane bumping up the ferocity to match the atonal shrieks of his sideman. The take on “Leo” here, a cut that originally appeared as a sax-drum duet on Interstellar Space
illustrates the dynamic fury of the ensemble like nothing else. The addition of the extra horn and Alice Coltrane’s piano adds new dimension to the tune in unexpected ways, coloring it with new shades of ethereal chaos. The highlight may still be when all else goes silent, though, and Rashied Ali’s drum solo takes over. He tears open conventional hard bop style and shows me the song’s rhythm through a kaleidoscope, fracturing my sense of time and momentum. There’s unbelievable power behind his playing, his kick drum pounds like the stomp of a warhorse; his fills tumbling, dynamic, atmospheric. Alice C.’s piano solo immediately thereafter spirals through realms of the unreal and climaxes into a full-on imaginative flight from Coltrane and later Pharoah.
A 54+ minute take on “Crescent” is sandwiched between two separate takes of “Peace on Earth,” two necessary moments of respite after the surreal marathon of 40-minute opener “Afro-Blue.” It opens with the well-known head before Coltrane takes a modest soprano sax solo, getting free but restrained, then passing over the reigns to a fervent Pharoah, whose solo takes it to the edge. He wastes no time getting atonal before transforming into a grand, beautiful cascade of multiphonic despair and ecstatic overtones, shrieking for the entire duration of his 12+ minute solo. Alice C.’s piano solo dances freely with ghostly grace and tempered insanity, only to lead into an unbelievable 18-minue solo from Coltrane, whose warped melodicism creates a psychokinetic energy to match the intensity of Pharoahs’s all-out visceral whirlwind. Coltrane’s interaction with Ali is remarkable, the two always feeding off one another and, no matter how free and unrestrained, staying remarkably tight through the windstorm of free-flowing tempo fluctuations, as if their minds were merged in meditation.
Coltrane liked to open his tunes with extended bass solos, which is evident in both of the near-hour long tracks, “Crescent” and “My Favorite Things.” This technique is something I’ve fallen in love with, as Jimmy Garrison’s bass throughout the album adds gravity to the music, nimbly intermingling with Ali’s schizophrenia, somehow navigating the polyrhythms and outlining the groove. But, stripped of all the other elements, Garrison’s bass delineates the atmosphere of the tune with ad-libbed solos that draw the listener into the world of the song before the rest of the band takes flight, beating around connotations and whispers of a hardbop swing, scaling through hints of motifs and building cleverly with tense chords and transient grooves. When the rest of the band comes tumbling in nearly 15 minutes into “My Favorite Things,” the stage has been set, the lights dimmed, the incense burned.
Coltrane’s dive into the avant garde is clearly manifested here, as his group goes to the edge to find the zone and suspend themselves there. The level of intensity, longing, and joy that pervades the collective imagination of this recording gives it a towering stature in the jazz world. At four discs with each disc averaging about an hour long, this is not for the feint of heart, or for those new to Coltrane, but it is an album with a presence that cannot be ignored by any music fan.