Thursday, August 12, 2021

Focusing on his first jazz love, John Coltrane, Frank Glover returns to public stage

Frank Glover reconnected with his wonted magic.

One of the matters John Coltrane had to contend with as he moved into his final phase in the 1960s was the perception that his music sounded angry. This put off many of his earlier fans, especially in Britain.

In significant contrast, as readers of Lewis Porter's excellent book on Coltrane know, the pathbreaking saxophonist was anything but angry. But his pushing back the boundaries of tonality and conventional tone production, especially with robustness and intensity on the tenor saxophone, wore out and annoyed many listeners.

Frank Glover also plays the tenor, but his primary instrument of choice is the clarinet. And that's what he brought to the stage in his long-awaited return to the Jazz Kitchen Wednesday night. He headed an all-star quartet, all of whose members are well-known hereabouts: pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps.

It is hard for the clarinet to sound angry, as I hear it. When a player produces a gritty or split tone, notably the immortal Pee Wee Russell,  the result barely registers as irritated or querulous. It's more an indication that the instrument's charm extends well to the outside of its conventional timbre. Glover draws on that charm no matter how he expresses himself on the clarinet. And his facility and energy are a match for the Coltrane manner, which Glover has overlaid for decades with his individual gifts and instincts, schooled harmonically by his longtime mentor, pianist Claude Sifferlen (1940-2010).

It's part of the inherently nuanced expression of the clarinet that probably branded it as relatively inexpressive to the first generation of beboppers. On the other hand, the instrument's open-hearted appeal  and compatibility with others have long made it attractive to classical composers. As a solo instrument, the late-arriving saxophone, particularly the tenor, tends to sound eccentric even when not roughhewn. From Coleman Hawkins through Chris Potter, the tenor has had to work to come across as both aggressive and occasionally intimate. Yet of all the single-line instruments, it is probably the supreme incarnation of the jazz spirit and, as the heart of a section, it's the diapason of big bands.

Coltrane set the standard for saxophone modernism, and indulged his lyrical bent notably with the more dulcet, but hintingly exotic, soprano saxophone. His exploration of scales and modes, with a virtuosity that made everything available to him on a moment's notice (to allude to one of his best early compositions), covers a wide expanse that seems familiar terrain to Glover.

The quartet opened with "India," which took shape after a rubato introduction by all four players in spontaneous improvisation. The theme emerged after the rhythm section set a steady tempo. Individually, the quartet brought to the performance a grounded sense of using the theme's phrases motivically in their solos. You always knew where you were, and Tucker's first solo of the night illustrated everyone's knack for rounding off his time in the spotlight before it moved to someone else. Phelps, who dependably knits together all the patterns he introduces, seemed to pay tribute in "India" to Coltrane mainstay Elvin Jones in what's been called "spread rhythm": The "pulse" remained steady underneath, while the "beat" shifted around on top, complementing the leader.

Tucker's playing was reliably well-rooted and deep-delving while giving him room to soar. Allee's performance was at his personal height of habitual rapport, and in solos he reached out as fruitfully as Glover. His solo in Coltrane's tender "Naima" was exemplary, and creatively underlined by the pungency of Phelps' sticks on rims and tom-toms. This version's quiet ending, after a considerable ruckus, was most effective.

Coltrane wrote several quite distinctive blues, and my memory couldn't quite bring up the title of the one that followed "Naima." But some of the most exciting eight-bar exchanges between piano and clarinet on the one hand, drums on the  other, took place here and in Bronislaw Kaper's "Invitation." That tune, a favorite of Glover's since at least the '90s (it's on his CD "Something Old, Something New"), featured a delicate, single-line solo from Allee as well. 

"Invitation" signaled a temporary swerve away from Coltrane, as the quartet launched into a teasing, funky version of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," with seductive bent notes from the clarinet and a tambourine episode from the percussion section. I was struck by the approach Allee took in his solo, suggesting Count Basie as well as Duke Ellington in a song embedded in the latter's repertoire. As the texture thickened, I happened to think someone could have taken a transcription of this solo and made a big-band chart from it that would have done credit to either ensemble. It reflected Allee's seasoned skill as an arranger.

In the only remarks Glover made from the stage beyond personnel introductions, the clarinetist announced this was the first time he'd played in public for a year-and-a-half. Then he announced the set's finale,  Coltrane's "Impressions," which proceeded with nonstop virtuosity and a so-happy-to-be-here vibe. A clamorous ovation from the COVID-capacity crowd brought back longtime colleagues Glover and Allee for a magical duo encore, "Lush Life." It was the sort of thing that could have you smiling through your tears. Welcome back, Frank!

[Photos by Rob Ambrose]

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