Dave Liebman / Joe Lovano: Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane
Resonance Records

Who better to honour John Coltrane on the fiftieth anniversary of his death than two of our greatest modern-day saxophonists, Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano—even if Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane was recorded a decade ago, almost forty years to the day of the legend's passing on July 17, 1967. As members of the Coltrane-based ensemble Saxophone Summit, the outfit the two formed with the late Michael Brecker in 1999 and whose subsequent members have included Ravi Coltrane and Greg Osby, Liebman and Lovano are obviously well-qualified to take on the challenge of doing justice to Coltrane's legacy.

In fact, the original idea for the project was for Saxophone Summit to do the session. In June of 2007, Robert Abel, the producer of the BBC radio program Something Else, contacted Liebman about having the group (or reasonable facsimile) record an all-Coltrane program for the show to mark the fortieth anniversary of his death. Liebman agreed but with the recording date only weeks away was able to recruit regular Saxophone Summit members Lovano, pianist Phil Markowitz, and drummer Billy Hart for the date, plus bassist Ron McClure in place of the unavailable Cecil McBee.

Recorded on June 22, 2007 at the Clinton Recording Studios in NYC, the material is executed with the verve, conviction, and spontaneity that comes naturally to musicians long acquainted with Coltrane's repertoire (in the impressive twenty-four-page booklet that accompanies the release, Hart estimates that the participating musicians have committed more than 200 years collectively to the study of Coltrane's music); one imagines, for example, that each one of the five has played “Locomotion” and “Olé” countless times over the years. That said, the performances are hardly lacking for inspiration; on the contrary, they exude the high energy of an intense jam session, which in a certain sense is what the fifty-two minutes of music are. Each musician sounds genuinely committed to honouring Coltrane with these performances, even if they were laid down with dispatch.

As Liebman notes, Coltrane's music underwent staggering transformations between 1955 and 1967, and the amount of ground covered by the man in his short life is astonishing. For this date, the musicians selected seven compositions that both encompass his recorded legacy and account for the significant creative stages within it, from 1958's Blue Train classic “Locomotion” to “Compassion,” the second movement of his Meditations suite and representative of his late period. A follow-up to Resonance's 2014 Coltrane release Offering: Live at Temple University, Compassion gets full marks on presentation grounds for packing the booklet with essays (by Ashley Kahn and Resonance producer Zev Feldman), photographs, interviews, and statements by the participating musicians.

“Locomotion” proves an effective scene-setter, not only for referencing Coltrane's early period but for the infectiousness of its hard bop attack. After voicing the rousing theme together, Liebman and Lovano deliver robust solos, the two buoyed by Hart's energized charge and the subtle direction of Markowitz and McClure; the pianist's no slouch in the soloing department either, as his playfully inventive turn shows. That opening salvo laid to rest, the focus shifts to a wonderful ballad medley that sees Lovano on tenor waxing lyrically through 1960's “Central Park West” before ceding the stage to Liebman for a tender soprano reading of 1965's “Dear Lord,” Markowitz distinguishing himself here too in bridging the transition with elegant colourations.

Coltrane's interest in world music is referenced during “Olé” when a flamenco-tinged intro features Liebman on wooden recorder, though it eventually settles into a deeply sinuous modal take that Hart powers with the kind of propulsion Elvin Jones brought so regularly to Coltrane's music. Recorded in 1966 but posthumously released on Cosmic Music two years later, “Reverend King” replaces the twin saxes of Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders with Liebman on C flute and Lovano on alto clarinet in a lovely diatonic study notable for its warmth and peaceful tone. Though “Compassion” concludes the set with a late-period piece, it's nowhere near as extreme as some of the blistering material Coltrane played during his final period, even if its emphasis on varying pulse and explorative interaction does mark it as one emblematic of that time. In contrast to the seven-minute original, the version by Liebman and company wends expansively for seventeen minutes through a number of different sections and even features Lovano playing the aulachrome, which binds two soprano saxes together and emits a wild, musette-like wail.

In the booklet, Liebman enumerates many of the things about Coltrane that inspire musicians, among them his technical prowess, improvising genius, evolution as a composer, and dedication to spiritual matters. The musicians' admiration for the man and artist is clearly captured in these performances but even more the pure joy the five express in giving form to a representative sampling of his music. That gratitude is eloquently articulated by Markowitz in stating that “Coltrane's work forces you onto a level of creativity that is nothing short of a blessing.”

July 2017