Monday, January 26, 2015

A spiritual conquest, a musical milestone: Indy Jazz Fest celebrates 50th anniversary of 'A Love Supreme'

"He that hath ears to hear, let him ear."
 -- Jesus

This is the first blog post I've ever opened with an epigraph from the Bible, but it seems fitting when addressing "A Love Supreme," the John Coltrane masterpiece that enabled him to set a seal upon his spiritual journey away from addiction and his musical journey away from standard musical forms.

Rob Dixon plays "A Love Supreme" (photo by Mark Sheldon)
And the quote also applies to the importance of the tenor saxophonist's outreach to listeners. He was not the only musician in the post-bop era to see the need to reverse the narrowing of the jazz fan base. But he was the most suited to the task — at least in this ambitious sense: "When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups."

Evidence is that the 1965 recording indeed reached well beyond the typical jazz audience, and in fact inspired the establishment of a church in Coltrane's name in San Francisco. However you process its spiritual message, "A Love Supreme" is a successful long-form composition as well as a capacious vehicle for personal improvisation.

Rob Dixon and his colleagues revealed both sides Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen in an Indy Jazz Fest production. The tenor saxophonist led a band including players worthy of paying this golden-anniversary tribute to Coltrane's recording: pianist Steve Allee, bassist Jim Anderson, drummer Steve Houghton — and, expanding the original concept in a manner Coltrane himself toyed with, adding a fifth player, in this case trombonist Wayne Wallace.

The focus was naturally on Dixon as the leader and latter-day representative of the sainted Coltrane. It will be no surprise to report that he did a creditable job of both re-creation and fresh exploration. After his opening rubato cadenza, the band launched into the theme of the first part, "Acknowledgement," wisely foregoing the vocal repetition of the title's gently rocking four-note pattern.

By the time of the prayerful fourth section, "Psalm," it was evident in every phrase that Dixon was a steady pilot whose destination was assured, no detour ahead. He had charged in with gusto after Houghton's splendid solo introduction to "Pursuance," just as focused as he  had been in navigating peaks and valleys earlier, then soaring above the plains below. The combination of freedom and security sometimes took the breath away, as if you were watching one of those IMAX films that put you in the cockpit, zipping around rock formations and skimming the treetops.

Familiar as I am with both the Dixon and Allee styles, it was a treat to hear their well-established personal language tweaked slightly to evoke the styles of both Coltrane and his pianist, McCoy Tyner.
The first reminder from the keyboard was the placement of tremolos behind Wallace's agile solo in "Acknowledgement." In "Pursuance" the pianist got closest to the real McCoy, thickening the texture while keeping a few basic rhythms hard-hitting and full of momentum.

Anderson sometimes had the crowd spellbound with his sensitively wrought, sometimes witty bass solos. Wallace sported a free-floating style, pungent but never overbearing, that made an effective contrast with the forcefulness of Dixon's style.

The evening went beyond "A Love Supreme," whose effective conclusion interpolated the hymnlike "Alabama"  (a good fit with "Psalm").  Two of the extras made a nice pair, and for me the evening could well have ended there: the gentle respite of "Central Park West" (dedicated to the memory of Cynthia Layne) followed by the burning "Impressions." The encore, "Tenor Madness," was a bit of a letdown; but then, encores often are, seeming to cling to the main event for dear life.

"Impressions" featured a smooth but jumping Wallace solo; subtle three-way interaction in the rhythm section, and a well-designed and -executed episode of "trading 8s" with the drummer.

Now about that epigraph. I'll leave to the preachers any conclusive expounding on its meaning. I believe Jesus' direction cuts two ways as far as significant music is concerned. One way is the way of invitation: what is offered to be heard can be heard and understood by everybody.

The other way is more difficult, as so many of Jesus' sayings are: You have no excuse not to get the message in some fashion that suits who you are. Responsibility is involved. You can hear it? Then you can "get it." Barriers down. Go there.

Thus, the open invitation to take in this music also sets up a challenge to hear what it is all about, what it may mean beyond the bounds of entertainment. I think Coltrane is saying that you are free to adopt his spiritual pathway or not; it's made explicit in the poem he wrote for "A Love Supreme." But in some fashion you are charged with absorbing this music into your deepest self. Otherwise, you are not really hearing it. Dixon and his confreres were true to such a mission Sunday night.