Carving Coltranes Crescent
John Coltrane’s Live in Japan 4-disc set was released in 1991. Fresh out of college, I was diving with abandon into the excitement of free jazz, and the recordings from Coltrane’s 1966 Japanese tour were more of a treasure trove than I could have hoped for. Compact discs weren’t new, but they were new enough to me that the thick, plastic, double-hinged jewel box was a chest of gold.
Four hours long and only six songs! Coltrane’s signature “My Favorite Things” alone stretched to nearly an hour. On the original LPs, listening meant turning the album over—an academic point as I didn’t know the LPs existed. The four CDs stretched out before me for what seemed like miles of audio.
Coltrane had already been dead 24 years by then. And when a great musical voice is silenced, we can’t help but hold new documents dear. That was the case with Live in Japan and—another 23 years later—that is the case with Offering: Live at Temple University, set for release September 23, on what would have been his 88th birthday.
New Coltrane albums aren’t unheard of in the 21st century. In 2001 we got The Olatunji Concert,and 2005 saw the release of One Down, One Up (Live at the Half Note) and At Carnegie Hall, with Coltrane playing in the Thelonious Monk Quartet, all released (officially, at least) for the first time. There are also bootlegs, dubious issues of radio broadcasts and, of course, a back catalog that can offer a lifetime of rewarding repeat listens. But a new release makes us feel connected, as if in some small way we’re able to interact.
Offering offers a fresh listen to one of the finest saxophonists the world has known—even if it doesn’t offer much more. Recorded with a single microphone for college radio (unlike past bootlegs, this comes from the original tapes and not the broadcast), the rhythm section—Alice Coltrane on piano, Sonny Johnson on bass, and Rashied Ali on drums, along with a group of percussionists recruited from the neighborhood—is nearly lost in the mix much of the time, leaving the twin saxophones of Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders filling most of the sound field. It is, in other words, a way to round out a Coltrane collection, not to start one. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to hear the master’s fluidity anew. His long, logical lines are fresh, as if he were discovering them along with us. There’s a yearning, a drive, that for Coltrane was a spiritual conviction and for us might be that or the sound of being alive.
The set list for the date, November 11, 1966 (Temple University in Philadelphia is not far from the house he had moved into in the 1940s and where his mother still lived), was a common one for the period. There’s “Leo,” a more recent composition, and the title track, clipped when the tape ran out. There’s “My Favorite Things,” of course, and there’s “Naima,” another mainstay from his earlier albums. And then, at 26 minutes long and dominating the first of the two discs, is a rather innocuous tune. It’s not one people talk about, and yet my heart skipped to see it listed on the back of the orange and black cover.
“Crescent” was first recorded in 1964 and released on the album of the same name. Eight other Coltrane albums were released that year, at least three of which (Impressions, Live at Birdland, and Coltrane’s Sound) are better regarded, justly so. But “Crescent” was also included, at a hefty 54´33˝, on Live in Japan. And on that recording, it took my young ears somewhere altogether new.
It’s a strange tune, a rather muscular ballad. The 1964 recording opens with a beautifully plaintive passage before slipping into the innocuous main theme. But within the unremarkable main body of the piece, something happens, four times in the 15 seconds following the five-minute mark: a quick, overblown saxophone phrase, up and halfway back down again and entirely out of place, as if Coltrane were testing the waters. The quick crescendo and decrescendo is repeated twice immediately, and then a few seconds later there’s one final iteration. In hindsight it sounds as if he were pushing himself, trying something new, trying to grow.
Critic Ben Ratliff heard something in the piece as well. In his 2007 book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, he writes that the 1964 recording mixed “ballad playing with urgency, using practiced devices and echoes of older tunes to move him toward rawer, speech-like interjections.” And in Ashley Kahn’s 2002 book about Coltrane’s landmark record, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, veteran producer Michael Cuscuna is quoted as saying that for him, Crescent nearly overshadowed the release it preceded. “I was still so much under its spell that I could digest A Love Supreme for what it was, but it never etched its way into my brain the way Crescent did.” For the most part, however, the song and album have been B-listed in jazz scholarship.
Two years after that first release, the song had grown to more than six times its original length when Coltrane recorded it in Tokyo, and his band had grown from the quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones to the quintet of Sanders, Garrison, Ali, and Alice Coltrane. “Crescent” opens with a lyrical 12-minute bass solo. Once the band comes in, it’s just four minutes before the odd, out-of-place enunciation—that defiant, strangely isolated cry—is heard, a crescendo on an overturned crescent. The words ‘crescent’ and ‘crescendo’ both come from the Latin ‘crescere,’ to grow. It’s hard not to think that something mysterious, more than coincidence, was going on. Coltrane was being led by the light of the crescent moon. Four months later he was at Temple University, and again “Crescent” was on the set list. All told, it’s not as strong a performance. Garrison was unavailable and Coltrane’s generous inclusion of percussionists from the neighborhood may have thrown off their energy. The mysterious phrase here seems submerged, unheard but implicit in the urgency of the playing.
The release of Offering afforded me the opportunity to speak with Ravi Coltrane, a saxophonist himself who has studied his father’s music and oversees the estate, and to ask him about the strange crescent call. The 1964 recording is “almost operatic, really,” he told me. “It’s not anything unusual but it’s a beautiful tune. I think he was moving toward trying to express ideals and ideas with his improvisation to the point where he was almost doing it symbolically.”
Like Ratliff, Ravi Coltrane sees Crescent in terms of the fabled album that followed it. A Love Supreme was built around a simple three-note theme and a poem written by Coltrane and printed on the inside of the album jacket. “Crescent,” he said, may have had similar origins. “It’s not a song you hear live very often,” he explained. “He starts to make this shift in 1964 to another type of expression in his work, first in the material that appears on Crescent and then at the end of 1964 with A Love Supreme. There was some idea that ‘Crescent’ was based on a poem he had written. Most of these poems focused on the storytelling of his spiritual commitment. You go from tunes with titles like ‘Straight Street’ to tunes with one-word titles and spiritual themes, like ‘Joy’ or ‘Offering.’”
Or “Crescent”: a single word packed with meaning and symbolism. Crescents have been given significance since Mesopotamian times. They often appeared in Ottoman Empire iconography and were a mark of honor in medieval France. The shape—a circle with another circle of smaller diameter cut from its edge, making the image of a waxing or waning moon—can still be found on many national flags. Might Coltrane have been thinking along these lines?
“My father was a studier of mathematics and architecture,” Ravi said. “He was trying to use the natural sciences, sound being one of them, to find some universal language. There were groupings of notes that he imbued with meaning, with a subjective message of his own. And somehow we receive it, we intuitively receive that message. It’s heavy. There’s always this beautiful balance between his music and his message. You don’t always have that. But you have that with ‘Crescent,’ that feeling of somebody trying to speak to you.”
But what of that overblown outburst? What of the crescents and crescendos? Of that urgent phrase that since 1991 has seemed like a message meant for me? Might there have been an intentional usage of the Latin? Was this a path for growth he was setting for himself? For all of us? Ravi allowed that I might have, in his words, “broken the code,” but I’m not sure he shared my intrigue. It doesn’t matter, though. As Ravi said, the tune carries the feeling of somebody trying to speak to you, as it spoke to me. Now, from a distant past and a less-than-perfect recording, that crescent call can be heard once more.
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes fiction and about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.