John Coltrane ‘Sun Ship’ (Impulse!) 5/5

John William Coltrane September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967

john-coltrane-sun-shipIt took me a long time to find the music of John Coltrane, on reflection a lot longer than it should have done. In truth I’m not entirely sure why. OK, let’s discount the first 20 years or so when the music we call Jazz wasn’t really on my radar. For the next two decades however my musical adventures skirted around the edges of Coltrane’s universe, a void encircled by the sounds of his ‘disciples’ playing compositions influenced, written or recorded by him. I guess you could say that during that time I was listening to his music without listening to him playing it.
To start with I don’t think this sin of omission was deliberate but more to do with generational and experiential factors. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, with more music embracing technology, I was more influenced by electrified sounds than acoustic ones. Thus when I started exploring music beyond the confines of the here and now it was in areas that were only one or two steps removed from my taste markers at that time, in to Jazz funk, the music of Strata East, Black Jazz and Muse and then on in to spiritual jazz. Coltrane was a significant cultural and stylistic reference point, but one I was only familiar with through tunes like “Naima” or “My Favourite Things”, tracks I liked but felt a little old-fashioned to me.

I’ve chosen Sun Ship not because it’s my favourite long player of Coltrane’s, but simply because of it’s personal significance as the first album of his that I bought, the starting point of my fascination with the great man’s music.

The facts of the album are these. Recorded on 26 August 1965 this is the penultimate recording of the classic John Coltrane Quartet. This year was extremely fruitful with Coltrane intent on exploring freer, spiritual sounds, but Sun Ship, like Transition, First Meditations and Om were not released until after his death. Like several of these posthumous releases the album isn’t a series of single takes, but was edited under the supervision of his wife, Alice.

At that first listen the sound was quite unusual with drums in my right ear and piano in my left. At times the balance makes it feel like Elvin Jones is in the same room, McCoy Tyner in another room with the door slightly ajar.

Throughout there is an energy and intensity of performance that even now makes it difficult for me to listen in a relaxed state. This is not a negative response, quite the opposite in fact, it’s a reaction to the intense imploring and searching spirit, which demands and gets full attention.

For me that moment of total engagement begins in the opening bars of “Dearly Beloved” and does not switch off until the end of “Ascent”.

Tyner and Jones’s roles in creating this atmosphere is significant, both striving for spiritual elevation, the former through fantastically fast and intricate playing interspersed with strong, accentuated notes and those trademark swirling patterns, the latter with a remarkably powerful and dynamic performance. All of which serves to support Coltrane through contemplation or sorrow to a state of ecstatic rapture as evocative as any vocalist, if not more so. It’s that range of expression that makes late period Coltrane so important for me; it was forward-looking in the 60’s and still has that ability to surprise now.

There are times, such as during Coltrane’s solo on “Sun Ship” where this intensity can turn in to a visceral assault on the auditory sense, coming close but not quite hitting overload.

As well as the big statements there are lots of little moments too, moments like the humming during Tyner’s phenomenal solos on “Sun Ship” and “Amen” or the bowed bass on “Attaining” that I keep finding and just increase the hold this album has over me.

To some it might seem odd that I didn’t find John Coltrane’s music at the start of my spiritual jazz journey, but for me it fits perfectly, reaching the apotheosis at the right time rather than rushing there first.

Andy Hazell July 2016