One Final Offering From John Coltrane

Oct 7, 2014

In November 1966, eight months before he died of cancer, John Coltrane played a concert at Temple University in Philadelphia. It was not a financial success --only 700 people showed up — and the band's high-energy music proved too much for some listeners. That concert recording is now officially out for the first time. It got Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead thinking about what Coltrane was up to.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In November 1966, 8 months before he died of cancer, John Coltrane played a concert at Temple University in Philadelphia. It was not a financial success, only 700 people showed up, and the band's high-energy music proved too much for some listeners. That concert recording is now officially out for the first time. It got our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead thinking about what Coltrane was up to.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE SONG)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: John Coltrane's 1966 Philadelphia concert wasn't quite as legendary as folks now claim, to judge by the scant attention his biographers have given it. But the double CD "Offering: Live At Temple University" spotlights an aspect of Coltrane's late period more heard about than heard, how his generosity of spirit led him to share his stage with lesser-known players. Drop-ins here include a gaggle of local percussionists he'd been jamming with.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Coltrane's vocal outbursts in Philly lend credence to the idea his saxophone was an extension of his voice, just as soprano sax extended the range of his tenor. But Coltrane was fascinated by the saxophone itself and ways to animate the mechanism. His breath liberated the saxophone's life force. He was concerned with getting the instrument to sound, to feel as well as hear the dance of a vibrating air column inside the metal tube. Some fans had given up on Coltrane by 1966, but in a way his priorities hadn't changed. Playing standards in the '50s, he had that same love of setting the horn vibrating with a busy line. Here he is in '57.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE SONG)

WHITEHEAD: In 1966, John Coltrane still had that proudly even tone on tenor, but the context had changed a lot. Now he was playing modal tunes where chords change so seldom, the music had seemed to jog in place, but he still made every note ring like a tuning fork.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Coltrane hammers those low notes like a honking rhythm-and-blues saxophonist and partly for the same reason - the physical force of the sound is a thrill in itself. His featured guest at Temple '66 was fellow tenor Pharoah Sanders, a master of saxophone texture. He could really make complex vibrations bounce around.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHAROAH SANDERS SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Pharaoh Sanders. Some old-timers describe the fast, complex playing John Coltrane excelled at as blowing snakes. The term has an uncertain derivation, but I make a connection with snake-handling, where riving forces of nature take on a religious function. Coltrane's hymn-like pieces and titles like "Offering" or "Peace On Earth" make plain how spiritual concerns are central to his art. There's a church name for him, after all. For Coltrane, literally or metaphorically, playing saxophone was a religious act, a communion with powerful, but invisible forces was the heart of his spiritual practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE SONG)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and Wondering Sound and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed John Coltrane "Offering: Live At Temple University" on the Resonance Label. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.