One week ago at the Jazz Showcase, during the opening set of a four-night engagement, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane played what amounted to two distinctly different programs. And while the second half of this performance had much to recommend it, the first decidedly did not.
Coltrane led the exquisite rhythm section with which he’s about to record a new album: pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer E.J. Strickland, whose vivid accents and technicolor cymbal work provided aggressive support. It’s a rhythm section with bright energy but tight reins, and a it’s primary asset in Coltrane’s music, providing excellent support, whether he’s caressing the delicate tissues of a ballad or pumping juggernaut phrases through the veins of an up-tempo romp.
As I said, the band came alive about halfway into the set, with a version of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” taken at a high simmer; Perdomo’s comparatively light touch, framed by a crisp pulse from the drums, helped highlight the intuitive strengths of the rhythm section. The quartet closed with an unexpectedly fast retelling of Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” subverting the song from a prayerful ballad into something potent and propulsive – a vehicle by which Coltrane could explode and then triumphantly reassemble the piece in his solo.
In between the two Monk tunes, Coltrane’s quartet played a brand-new, still unnamed but quite lovely ballad, featuring a stately, dry-toned solo from Gress. It was the third new song of the set: all the musicians had their eyes glued to the sheet music in front of them. And while this song came off pretty well, the others did not; quite frankly, they weren’t yet ready for prime time.
Therein lies the problem.
I had planned to review that set in this space, to give readers a sense of what to expect from the remaining shows last weekend. But the schizophrenic nature of what I’d heard left me wondering which half of the set fairly represented the band’s presentation. Probably not fair to judge from that, I thought.
So in the spirit of due diligence, I went back the following night, and found the same thing – only more so. Coltrane called one new tune after another; once more, they had the half-baked quality of severely under-rehearsed music. I stayed for a half-hour or so, during which the band played only one song already in their book; as you’d predict, it had a spank and spark that put the others to shame. It showed what we were missing.
When I left, Coltrane’s sidemen had been standing quietly on stage for three or four minutes as the leader searched the pile of papers on his music stand for yet another new composition, which I presumed would sound just as unready as the previous three. And I find that insulting.
Musicians at the level of Coltrane’s band can read through a lead sheet for the first or second time, play all the notes, and get the tune across; as you’d expect, there were no “mistakes.”
But virtually every musician, even of this caliber, needs more than a couple of run-throughs to make a song truly his own – to internalize the notes, the chords, and the form; to absorb the actual soul of the tune. That’s what allows an improviser to go the heart of a composition, instead of just skating on its surface. (And this is all the more true when the new compositions are as complex and challenging as the ones Coltrane sought to present.)
Instead of insight, we got rehearsal; instead of fully-shaped music, we got unassembled compositions. On each of them the band, most notably Coltrane himself, was still experimenting, trying to fit the pieces together to create something more than the sum of the parts. It was a lot less than expected for those who came to hear a working quartet, in working order, led by a major saxophonist.
Let’s be clear about something: this was not billed as some sort of “dress rehearsal” or “jazz workshop” for Coltrane’s upcoming album. Charles Mingus used to lead his band in programs billed as “The Jazz Workshop” in the 50s; these were essentially open rehearsals, and listeners came knowing to expect unfinished music – performances that Mingus often stopped in mid-stream, to advise or berate his sidemen, as they polished the compositions.
Such workshops can provide a fascinating look at the process leading up to the finished product. But if that’s what you plan to present, you owe it to an audience to tell them that. You charge the promoter a smaller fee, and he charges the audience a lower cover charge, and then the audience knowingly attends – if, in fact, they wish to take part in this evolving process.
Much of jazz’s appeal lies in the admirable adventurism of musicians who risk taking the music to new places. Listeners hunger for those sets where we find ourselves in the presence of new creation – where the musicians push the envelope far enough to come out on the other side, whatever the results. And for the same reasons, jazz listeners love to hear a new song before it hits the CD: we love to get a preview of what’s to come.
Again to be clear: that was certainly not the case here. Instead, Coltrane chose to spend half of these sets working through brand-new music, which sounded understandably tentative and unexplored. We didn’t get a “preview” of new tunes as they might sound on disc; or at least, I hope not. I hope these songs will be considerably more defined before get to the studio.
(In fairness, a friend who attended on yet a third night tells me Coltrane performed only two of the new tunes – both of them noticeably weaker than the rest of the repertoire – during the two sets on Saturday.)
Would Ravi Coltrane have played such shows in New York, at the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note in New York? No way; not without fair warning. Would he have given over half of a set to present music this raw in Berlin or Paris, or Monterey, or Tokyo? I doubt it. My first reaction was, “What are we, Alaska?” But then I realized: Alaskan jazz fans shouldn’t receive this treatment, either.
The fact that Coltrane chose to do take this approach here? In the absence of other explanations, I can only surmise that Chicago got the “out-of-town tryout” of new material (but at opening-night prices) – a decision unbecoming to a major artist, and disrespectful of the listeners who help make up one of the world’s major jazz scenes.
And as I said – I find that insulting.