Church of the Glorious Reed | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Church of the Glorious Reed 

Church of the Glorious Reed

John Coltrane

Live In Seattle

(Impulse!)

Charles Gayle

Kingdom Come

(Knitting Factory)

David S. Ware

Earthquation

(DIW)

Phoenixlike, the free-jazz saxophonist continually rises anew from amid his own ashes. In the late 1960s hard-core free blowers like Albert Ayler, Frank Wright, Noah Howard, and Archie Shepp visited uncharted regions of the sonic solar system. Often playing above well-known jazz structures and forms--be they standard changes or modal backdrops--they drew on an extended reed vocabulary developed two decades earlier in rhythm and blues, a lexicon that included multiphonic and overblowing techniques used by saxophonists like Big Jay McNeely, Earl Bostic, and Illinois Jacquet. As Willis "Gator" Jackson, a tenorman of formidable honkological gusto, sang in 1950: "I'm gonna raise me a ruckus, hoot and holler Saturday night!"

But it's a short distance between Saturday night and Sunday morning. The practice of dipping momentarily into the trick bag and out of the chord changes is utilized in another essential part of the black blues matrix: the church. Testifying parishioners signify, wail, maybe even speak in tongues. Thus, those precious moments of ecstatic excess in which the saxophonist screams, shouts, shrieks, clucks, twitters, and otherwise takes leave of his senses relate as much to an instant of transcendence, of revelation, of spiritual release, as they do to the drunken or passionate reveries of a bar walker. Indeed, in free-jazz saxophone music the images of redemption, prophecy, and epiphany often eclipse more earthly images altogether.

It's probably not coincidence, then, that spiritual journeyman John Coltrane chose the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer standard "Out of This World" for his group to play on September 30, 1965. The music on Live in Seattle, just reissued as part of GRP's ongoing campaign to bring the important Impulse! catalog back into circulation, contains some of Coltrane's most forceful free playing, as well as some of co-saxist Pharoah Sanders's most frightening, visionary work on record. Long-term Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner is still in the house, but he sounds increasingly out of his element hammering consonant chords in harmony-hostile environs; Jimmy Garrison and Chicagoan Donald Rafael Garrett are on basses and Elvin Jones is behind the drums.

Leaner than the orchestral ensemble that recorded the legendary Ascension a few months earlier, this group has both the fluidity of a small band and enough firepower to completely raise the roof. The reissue includes two previously unreleased cuts: "Body and Soul" and a 35-minute fragment of an even longer version of "Afro-Blue." What becomes evident listening to these somewhat less adventurous tracks is that Impulse! originally edited out the less extreme material, opting to produce one of the harshest, wildest, most brutally exciting double-record sets theretofore committed to vinyl. Many are the joys of this music: Sanders's growling, tongue-rolling tenor on "Out of This World"; the eerie, drumless, three-horn introduction to "Evolution" (with Garrett on bass clarinet); Coltrane's own jubilant, exuberant, spirit-catching tenor lines on "Cosmos." Though it's not thought of as classic Trane, Live in Seattle sits alongside Albert Ayler's devastating Spiritual Unity (ESP) as one of the most concentrated free jazz records ever made. In 1965 it must have been enough to put the fear of God into you.

Constantly acquiring new faces, the Church of the Glorious Reed has been in operation since the Reverend Coltrane left the planet. One of the most prolific free-jazz men to emerge from it in recent years is New York-based tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Charles Gayle. On Kingdom Come, Gayle teams up with bassist William Parker and 60s drum innovator Sunny Murray. Along with Touchin' on Trane (FMP), a 1991 recording with Parker and that other 60s rhythm rebel, Rashid Ali, Kingdom Come is Gayle at his best. It also features his first recorded piano work (three out of seven cuts), which he approaches with the same authority, conviction, and sense of ultimate purpose that he applies to his horns. On tenor, he often recalls Ayler directly: wide, shaking vibrato; ragged phrasing; lachrymose tone; vicious, acidic screams. A saxophone evangelist, Gayle concerns himself with the dead serious: salvation, redemption, and your soul. Titles like "Lord Lord," "His Crowning Grace," "Anthem to Eternity," and "Redeemed" should clue you in, even if his transporting music doesn't. And like many proselytizers, parts of his agenda are arch-conservative; he'll break away from a blistering solo to preach, convert, and condemn. (Abortion is reputedly a common rant, though I've never had the displeasure of hearing him rail against it.)

Anyone who thinks that all free sax sounds the same, compare Gayle with David S. Ware. After emerging in the 70s as a member of pianist Cecil Taylor's Unit, Ware also played in drummer Andrew Cyrille's fantastic under-recognized group Maono (pick up Metamusician's Stomp on Black Saint for a taste). Since 1992 he has made a series of quartet recordings for the Japanese DIW label. The wonderful critically acclaimed first of these, Flight Of I, was picked up by Columbia Records as part of a domestic distribution deal; predictably (considering the intensity of Ware's music), neither of the following releases has had such support. But Earthquation, the latest, is worth hunting out. The DIW records all follow the same pattern, mixing Ware's compositions with extremely overhauled versions of standards, from "There Will Never Be Another You" to "Autumn Leaves." Earthquation's traditional tuneage includes "Tenderly" and "Canadian Sunset," a composition associated with 50s Chicago blues-jazz tenorist Gene Ammons.

The difference between Gayle and Ware is perhaps reflected in their appearances: Gayle is lanky, wild-eyed, edgy, and quick, while Ware is big, burly, deliberate, and peaceful. Ware's tenor sound, at times blissfully fervent, maintains a solid core; he tends to spend more time working through a given texture or technique. Like Gayle, he shoots for the sky, but he also tries to root himself in the ground. His quartet--the ubiquitous Parker on bass, Whit Dickey on drums, and Matthew Shipp on piano--builds a structurally sound house of worship, swelling joyfully around him between abrupt stops on "Canadian Sunset" and brooding gloomily on "Ideational Blue." On "Tenderly" they push the tune far beyond itself, squeezing something meaningful out of its sickly sweetness. Shipp, who has been busy making terrific records of his own, lays hard on the pedal here, setting down blankets of piano tones and overtones; a sensitive, tuneful player, he adapts consonant harmony to this exaltational, open context more effectively than Tyner often did in Coltrane's late quartets.

From Coltrane to Gayle and Ware stretches a radical strand of gospel apostleship. Like Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams, and the Winans, they seek to poke the listener's soul, to get the spirit to move. Apocalypse or salvation--either way, it's about blowing on through to the other side.

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