John Coltrane Quartet ‘Crescent’ (Impulse!) 5/5

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

john-coltrane-quartetIn the pantheon of Coltrane recordings, ‘Crescent’ is invariably overlooked since it was recorded in 1964, one of only two studio albums by the leader that year, and directly precedes what is by general critical acclaim regarded as his masterpiece, ‘A Love Supreme’. However, ‘Crescent’ is no mere hors d’oeuvre before the plat principal (main course) and the tenorist was already pushing himself towards the outer limits of his musical world. Rather, it is instead indicative of a change in the outlook of John Coltrane towards an infinitely more meditative and indeed spiritual state of mind, and marriage to pianist Alice Coltrane greatly aided him in this endeavour. Yes, previous albums certainly do incorporate elements of the spiritual in parts, but ‘Crescent’ goes that one step further and is meditational in its totality. Moreover, the modal innovations of the masterly ‘Kind of Blue’ are in some respects redeveloped here, and in an equally melancholic mood. It is an important recording secondly because of the sound of the recording that Rudy Van Gelder crafted at Englewood Cliffs and by means of comparison one need only listen to Wayne Shorter’s ‘Speak No Evil’ from the same period to appreciate how skillful a recording engineer Van Gelder could be. Blue Note never sounded more intense and ‘Crescent’ repeated the feeling, albeit with a quasi-religious fervour.

Pride of place on the ‘Crescent’ album goes to ‘Wise One’ that commences as a gentle number, but then develops into a passionate mid-tempo piece with subtle latinisations in the rhythm section provided by master drummer Elvin Jones. Another highlight is the atmospheric drum sound that Jones generates on ‘Lonnie’s Lament’, while a life-time love of the blues, an art form that John Coltrane unquestionably revered, is alluded to on ‘Bessie’s blues’ in homage to the blues singer. Lengthy and brooding are two adjectives that do justice to the album and it is a progression from the 1963 live performance, ‘Live at Birdland’, and a marked departure from the collaborative projects with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman respectively, and the ballad album that is sometimes (wrongly) dismissed as lightweight.

However, it is important to recognise that ‘Crescent’ had stood the test of time remarkably well and has indeed has influenced younger musicians, most notably Pharoah Sanders, who revisited albums tracks on his 1994 quartet outing,’Crescent with Love’, that later in the decade surfaced on Evidence (1999). Sanders saw the continuity in vision between the late Atlantic and mid-period Impulse compositions and creatively grouped together numbers of the calibre of,’After the rain’, ‘Naima’ and even a reading of ‘In a sentimental mood’ that Duke and Trane recorded together (and available on a separate Impulse CD album, ‘Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’) onto a stunning 2 CD set that is required listening for any Coltrane devotee. Revealingly, the parallel with the Miles Davis quintet of the same era is also inescapable and what marvellous music they contributed collectively! In a truly turbulent decade the music of Miles and ‘Trane sought to question the status quo and was in its espousal of black self pride, civil rights struggles and wider struggles for equality while at the same time offering at times a soothing and even a healing antidote to the crushing disappointments and pitfalls of the era.

As an individual CD, ‘Crescent’ was re-mastered for re-issue in 2008, but vinyl re-editions are available.

Tim Stenhouse