As I write, it is 46 years to the day since John Coltrane’s death. In that near half-century, the root has grown stronger, and spread rhizome like into new fields, fresh shoots appearing not just in jazz but in the likes of rock and noise. Yet, despite the proliferation and accompanying mutation, the original source retains its fascination and its unique identity. The saxophonist’s music possesses to my ears an unmistakeably intense feeling of striving for something that remains tantalisingly unattainable. Musically, I hear this in the way he works through scales, builds and rebuilds phrases, plays with sounds, ever trying and discarding, always moving quickly onwards – but perhaps even more so in terms of a serious spirituality; I get the sense of someone reaching up for a light that can’t be grasped.
Given this very particular power, any decision to take on the Coltrane canon directly ranks somewhere between bold and downright foolhardy. Yet earlier this year, the British saxophonist Paul Dunmall and drummer Tony Bianco released a duo album drawn in the main from Coltrane’s more turbulent post-A Love Supreme output. Despite – or more likely because of – their sax/drum set-up, they avoided anything from Coltrane’s “last classic”, his 1967 duo recording with Rashied Ali Interstellar Space, favouring the full band records, a decision which forced them into a more creative space, having to rework rather than copy. On a sizzling night at Café Oto, they were to take these ingredients and more in an attempt to cook up something fresh enough to serve as a tribute to Coltrane.
From the later period Coltrane canon, the likes of opening piece “Ogunde” and “Sunship” were suitably fiery. Bianco plays in a manner reminiscent of Ali, seemingly going everywhere yet nowhere at once, thus affording Dunmall the space to go hunting where he wished, culminating in him gnawing on notes like he was stripping meat from a bone. However they tempered this heat with some surprise set inclusions. A cool “Naima” (first recorded by Coltrane in 1959, an earlier epoch in terms of his progression ) became ever more diffuse, like a river widening and dividing as it reached the sea, straight melodic channels dissolving into a spray. Dunmall’s tone was sublime, emotion-soaked and evocative – the way notes cracked in the upper register was reminiscent of the man himself. Dunmall even turned to the soprano to take a long run at Coltrane’s signature tune “My Favourite Things”, blurring the entire discography as he did into one continuous smear of sound.
“Peace On Earth” began with similar beauty to “Naima”, sax floating on a shimmering sea of cymbals, but the weather soon changed, turning this into a boiling torrent. At one point, a sweat-sodden Dunmall seemed to cut himself up, curtailing his melody with a series of furious rasps, and you got the sense that much was at stake here, both in terms of trying to do the material justice, and of trying to reimagine and reinvigorate it. However, as the storm subsided, the mask slipped, Dunmall puncturing the serious mood with a jocular reference to the track being “another of Coltrane’s hits”. As he did, I was left reflecting that, for all their effort, and as excellent as the playing was, there was perhaps an element of Coltrane’s music that was destined to remain just out of reach to the duo – and that their inability to attain it was, in its own way, an entirely appropriate tribute.