John Coltrane – Offering: Live at Temple University (2014)

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Yesterday, John Coltrane would have turned eighty-eight years old but we know that tragically, he’s been dead for longer than he was alive. While the large majority his body of work has been widely dissected, emulated and exalted since his death in July, 1967 from liver cancer, the last couple of years of his art remains so mysterious, so abstract and so out there, that even today it’s not fully understood. It also left many wondering just where was he headed with this final phase of his rapid artistic development. Noted jazz author and music critic Ted Gioia was the latest to ponder this in a recent, thoughtful essay for the Daily Beast, but more questions than answers remain.

Perhaps the closest we’ll get to comprehending the destination Coltrane was aiming for following his sharp shift to the outer regions of avant-garde jazz post-A Love Supreme is through the recordings he made toward the end of his forty years on earth, especially in the final months. Although he was likely rather ill by this time, there’s a lot he left behind both live and from the studio to ponder.

One of those concert documents comes from a show he performed at a mostly empty Mitten Hall (it would soon become emptier once Coltrane and his band started playing) on the Temple University campus in Philadelphia one night on November, 1966. Long circulated as a bootleg, Resonance Records in partnership with Coltrane’s old Impulse! label has finally officially released on his September 23 birthday this visceral account of Coltrane’s state of musical mind toward the end of the last full year of his lifetime.

Offering: Live At Temple University, as it’s called, is just five songs but it takes 2 CD’s/2 LP’s to contain it. The music itself could not be any less contained. If you’ve heard Live At The Village Vanguard Again! or the mondo four-CD set Live In Japan performed a few months earlier, you get a pretty good idea of what’s in store from Offering. Still, there are some differences.

Coltrane brought on stage with him most of his ’65-’67 band consisting of himself, Pharoah Sanders on sax and flute, wife Alice Coltrane on piano and Rashied Ali on drums. Replacing Jimmy Garrison for just this night was local bassist Sonny Johnson, brother of Ascension trumpet player Dewey Johnson. A section of percussionists, cobbled together from the Philadelphia jazz scene, also joined the band on stage. Steve Knoblauch, a young alto sax out-jazz devotee, was invited to play a solo for the last song, “My Favorite Things.” The jazz giant had no prior connection to the local college student, but Knoblauch showed up prior to the concert with his horn and became a beneficiary Coltrane’s open-door policy for young musicians.

Coltrane’s music had by this time had largely been far removed from what nearly anybody considered to be jazz at the time and perhaps the same holds true today. A glance at the set’s repertoire almost makes you think otherwise: “Naima” is followed by “Crescent”, the then-recently recorded “Leo” and the soon-to-be recorded “Offering.” Coltrane’s popular Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune cover “My Favorite Things” served as the closing anthem.

“Naima,” Coltrane’s tone poem for the ages, is delivered with less sentiment and more instinctiveness. Coltrane plays it with little regard for even pacing and begins to increasingly add/substitute notes — Alice Coltrane does this as well during her piano solo — but if you know the melody, you never completely lose track of it. Coltrane opens “Crescent” with its theme clearly delineated, but soon afterwards Sanders’ sax is so tortured for a long stretch, it first sounds as if he achieved the choppy wavering by blowing behind a fan and later simulated a desperate cry for help.

A thunderous drum solo from Ali outdoes even Trane’s inexhaustible sax solo before it during “Leo” but then at about the 15:40 mark, something remarkable happens. Coltrane puts down his sax and begins singing wordlessly and beating his chest. Combined with Ali and the percussion being the only things backing him up, one could think this is derived from African tribal rituals, but he had been studying Buddha around this time and this was probably his attempt at a Buddhist chant. It’s a little bit jolting at first, but it helps to think of it in terms of being an extension of his saxophone playing. He actually had begun singing earlier in the song during Sanders’ unhinged turn at sax but was nearly drowned out by Sanders’ unrelenting squawking. Coltrane would bust out with these incantations one more time, during the last number, before the night was done.

It’s “Offering,” not “Naima” that is the true ballad for this evening, an unaccompanied showcase for Coltrane, and though it’s free, it’s also largely tonal, and even quite lyrical. After a couple of twenty-five minute performances, it gave the band some downtime before launching into the ending number, “My Favorite Things.” After Johnson’s subdued bass solo, Coltrane’s crowd pleaser achieves liftoff and Coltrane gives it a straight-up treatment with his soprano sax, followed by Alice’s fluid explorations and then Knoblauch’s spirited high-low runs. Maybe he wasn’t destined for greatness, but the kid did not embarrass himself on his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

As a long-time listener of John Coltrane’s music, it remains difficult to put this music in its proper place on the jazz grid; it’s probably mandatory to use the word “spiritual” when describing both the music and the man at this late stage of his life and dispense with the limiting genre labels. I’m not sure how much I like this or if that even matters because it’s extremely fascinating to no end. In a year where we first witnessed Pet Sounds, Revolver, and Freak Out!, Coltrane was creating music on the stage that went much farther out from convention than the music celebrated rock visionaries had carefully crafted in the studio.

Offering: Live At Temple University, even as a far-from-perfect recording (it was single-miked) provides a good account of where John Coltrane’s music was situated in the fall of 1966. That doesn’t necessarily suggest where his music might have landed in the fall of 1967 much less the fall of 1970, but by this time he had forced his way to the top of the heap of the so-called New Thing free jazz movement that was happening then. It’s an end-of-life stature affirmed little more than eight months after this concert, when his funeral was opened by the Albert Ayler Quartet and closed by the Ornette Coleman’s quartet. While his soul had entered into another world at that time, it was clear from earlier at Temple University that his music was already there.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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