‘My music’, said John Coltrane, ‘is the spiritual expression of what I
am - my faith, my knowledge, my being.’ Music, to Trane, was both a
gift from God and the ultimate offering to Him - a passionate prayer of
unswerving devotion that words alone could never capture. And
listening to Trane let go on his sax is nothing if not divine.
Immaculately structured but deeply passionate, abrasive but never
lacking in soul, his style was utterly, compellingly unique and remains
so to this day. Rarely, as the writer Nat Hentoff put it, ‘has one man
so thoroughly revealed himself within the act of music.’
Indeed, there can be no doubt at all that Trane’s contribution to the
world of jazz is more than worthy of a tribute. Yet scanning down the
track list of Traces of Trane it’s hard to avoid some cynicism. What
can even the finest musicians do to improve these pieces? Is an
updating really appropriate for something as timeless as this?
From the very beginning of ‘My Favourite things’, such fears are laid
to rest. We realise that Peter Herborn’s intention, as arranger of
this ambitious project, is not to emulate Coltrane’s work - or indeed
to attempt to improve upon it - but merely to use it as platform for
his own distinctive vision. Gone is simple, uncluttered clarity of
Coltrane’s alto sax. Gone is the quiet, heady swing of that famous
rhythm section. This is an altogether bolder work, conducted on a
massive canvas. ‘My Favourite Things’ sets the tone for the album, the
simple melody broken down, every possible abstraction and complexity
drawn out, cut up, experimented with... Mild discordance is always
present, but within the context of extreme precision and clear melodic
Bringing such a work to fruition, of course, largely depends on
talented musicians - of which there is no shortage here. Gary Thomas
does an admirable job at filling Coltrane’s shoes, capturing the great
saxophonist’s talent for blistering solo performances, whilst never
being tempted to bulk out his playing with clumsy, superfluous notes.
Robin Eubanks is likewise impressive, displaying a level of virtuosity
rarely heard of on trombone, and working well with his fellow
musicians, expanding their ideas and themes. A modern feel, then, is
emphasised by the inclusion of Marc Ducret on guitar, whose melodic,
experimental approach - relying heavily on strange harmonics and
masterful fret board coverage - adds tremendous intensity. It is,
however, Tom Rainey’s drumming that gives the sound finesse.
Connecting brilliantly with each of the soloists, never faltering on
rhythm changes, Rainey proves himself a master, committed to sheer
perfection. And like all great drummers, in jazz or otherwise, he opts
for subtly rather than showiness, impressing with a well-timed whack of
the high hat, rather than an ostentatious roll.
As a whole, the group work brilliantly together, capturing the essence
of all moods and forms, from the tight orchestration of ‘My Favourite
Things’, to the rhythmical complexity of ‘Impressions’ - even the
soulful intensity of ‘Naima’ is delivered with astonishing delicacy and
feeling. It is hard, however, to avoid disappointment when they tackle
‘A Love Supreme’, a unique work of genius so thoroughly embedded in the
mind of jazz lovers everywhere that any revision or reinterpretation
seems tantamount to sacrilege. The ‘Acknowledgement’ section loses
alot without the inimitable, spine-tingling sound of the splashing
cymbals opening. The famous refrain, likewise - so rich and powerful
on the original - seems too polished and over-rehearsed when arranged
for big band performance. And whilst Frank Chastenier does an
admirable job in his dextrous opening piano solo, we can’t help longing
for the probing sound of Coltrane’s first few notes. Even the small
guitar interludes contrast cruelly with the rawness of the original,
and hence sound somewhat inappropriate and stale.
The problems are even more apparent on ‘Resolution’ - undoubtedly
Trane’s most passionate creation. Whilst pacy, complex and tightly
executed, Herborn’s arrangement sounds relatively bland. The main
theme of the piece - an example, on the original, of pure expression -
is here transformed in to nothing more than a catchy, showy riff...
Ultimately, however, it depends how we look at it. Accepting that the
work of John Coltrane was one of a kind, never to be equalled, we can
view this album as something distinct and, indeed, highly original. It
was Trane himself, after all, who said: ‘I’ve found you’ve got to look
back at the old things and see them in a new light.’ It is this that
Herborn allows us to do - by offering us mere ‘traces’ of Trane, along
with the body of original work those traces largely influenced.
Overall, it’s an immense achievement, certain to delight both
traditionalists and lovers of modern jazz alike. Buy everything
Coltrane ever recorded. Then buy what he inspired.