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John Coltrane
Offering Dustin Krcatovich , October 28th, 2014 13:34

Even as someone who routinely writes about "difficult" music, words often fail me when it comes to John Coltrane. I'm undoubtedly not alone: Beatles and Dylan aside, essentially nobody has had a more sweeping cross-cultural influence on music as a whole in the last 70 years than Coltrane, and the difference between he and his aforementioned peers (I use the term loosely) is that the masses are still trying to make sense of what Coltrane was on about in his final years on this plane. To deep listeners, records like Interstellar Space, Om, and Ascension may resonate as the next sensible step for their time, but to a big chunk of music fans (including many self-professed Trane fans) they're just a lot of noise. For the less dismissive among us, though, the force and density of that later work, combined with its spiritual fervor and breathtaking virtuosity, is enough to leave one wordless (to say nothing of breathless).

It is with all this in mind that I approach Offering: Live At Temple University, a new release of a 1966 recording that had only previously seen the light of day on poorly executed bootlegs (and even then only partially). The concert captured here has long been discussed in hushed tones: it is legendary mostly for a few sections where Coltrane pulls back on his horn to sing and bellow wordlessly, beating his chest, "a master saxophonist who had essentially used up his instrument". Rashied Ali, the powerhouse drummer on this and many of Coltrane's later dates, put it less romantically when recounting the event for Rolling Stone: The Sixties: "People really thought he'd lost his mind then. He wasn't even playing anything recognisable with the horn".

Much has been made of these vocals, and they certainly do stand out on the recording. That said, any serious listener has heard both precedents and antecedents (Leon Thomas, AMM, about half of both the Nonesuch Explorer and ESP-Disk catalogs) for Coltrane's approach. This is not to say that the end result doesn't sound a good bit weirder and heavier than Giant Steps, or even A Love Supreme, but it's perhaps not as shocking as the marketing suggests.

What of everything else, though? It almost goes without saying that the core of his band (Coltrane's wife Alice on piano, Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax and piccolo, Rashied Ali on drums, and Sonny Johnson covering for Jimmy Garrison on bass) are cataclysmic, even with the disadvantage of a spartan one-microphone setup which obviously favored Coltrane's position onstage. The biggest surprises, then, belong to the guests: Umar Ali, Robert Kenyatta, and Charles Brown sit in on congas for much of the set, with Angie DeWitt on bata drum, adding admirably to the spirited din of the record's freer sections. Obscure alto saxophonist Steve Knoblauch brings some hi-energy soloing to 'My Favorite Things', but fellow alto player Arnold Joyner brings a more sizable shock to the system with his abrasive trilling on 'Crescent'. Joyner was an uninvited guest that night, but not unwelcome: his blurt, rougher and gnarlier (and less virtuosic, admittedly) than his company that night, nonetheless creates a thick bramble of sound that Coltrane is then left to untangle. It's thrilling to hear Trane step up to this challenge, and even more so to hear him conquer it like a damn champ.

In terms of editing and sound, this is admittedly not Coltrane's finest hour. As mentioned previously, this is a simple, one-mic college hall affair; it sounds clean and reasonably clear, but not altogether balanced. Some awkward edits necessitated by tapes running out are a momentary, but pronounced, distraction. These are niggling, circumstantial complaints, though, and they do little to take away from the performance.

When I set out to listen to Offering this morning, I thought for a moment that I was hearing something even more "out" than the sounds I remembered from my first listen: scratching, thumping, electronic gurgles, and the like. It took me a minute to realise that opening my web browser had restarted a stream of another record, a free-improv blast that itself resides somewhere in the swath Coltrane cut for everyone else in his final years. The fact that I initially just accepted this bizarre soundclash as the work of Coltrane and his band is telling: Coltrane's music was out of time, it's eternally fresh, and the listener should be surprised by everything and nothing about it. To say that that's as true of Offering as any of his already-recognised classics almost seems redundant.

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