Thursday, 17 January 2013

Review: John Coltrane - Om

I've listened to a lot of John Coltrane a lot of the time in the last 15 years. He produced a huge volume of work for someone whose solo career effectively ran for just a mere ten years, and played across so many different styles and changed his own sound so often and so suddenly that for many keeping up at the time was near impossible. Now with his entire recorded works easily available to any listener, nothing has changed, and his multiple different sounds can to many still be as alienating as they always had the potential to do. Case in point, my least favourite Coltrane, 'Om'...
Issued in 1965, Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’ was another stunning yet forceful, almost to the point of blunt trauma, innovation in his constantly accelerating career, that again gained solid critical notices – as well as for the nth time dividing fans who struggled to keep up. ‘Om’, recorded soon after in the same year, but suffering the fate of being delayed for release until a year after Coltrane’s death in ‘68, is more often than not set upon as being his worst album; an opinion which, even with the benefit of hindsight, is still very much agreed upon.

In truth, this negative opinion does stem from as much as being a genuinely lesser effort as it does from a poor comparison to the record (and records) that preceeded it, but it is not completely without its strengths. It does in truth fare very badly if taken with ‘Ascension’ as, despite the seemingly assault-like feeling of Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders on that recording, there were some incredible contributions from many fine musicians, including the classic quartet members McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, as well as the swaggeringly muscular playing of Indianapolis golden boy Freddie Hubbard.

Here though the majority of the seven-piece band is near-utterly buried in the cacophony of competing noise, with the usually excellent Jones and his much-touted polyrhythmic sound swamped, and Tyner disappointingly not given any real space to shine at all – save one tiny piercing moment of light that manages to shine through. Garrison too doesn’t really get any time to himself, and frankly he is so anonymous here, it could really be anyone playing bass.

Similarly guest bass clarinetist Donald Rafael Garrett is clearly no Eric Dolphy (who passed away a year earlier in 1964) and doesn’t really offer anything of note, and Joe Brazil’s flute gives the recording some interesting colour, but ultimately does very little. Sometimes ‘Trane himself manages to break out from the sonic wall of noise and deliver some occasionally strong themes that sound reminiscent of his earlier and more obviously spiritual work – easily denouncing the unsubstantiated rumours that JC and the band were on LSD when this was recorded - but ultimately far too little.

‘Om’ sounds like a combined and forced expression of energy, but with all the energy all at once and without any particular guiding voice to lead or focus the chaos. Aiming for passion and emotional yearning, there is some music of note here, but the flow is disjointed and too much of an attempt at being ‘spiritual and in the moment’ leads instead to merely loud and unguided.

True, it probably shouldn’t have been one of the first posthumous releases, especially given the sheer quality of some of the sessions that came out over the next thirty years, but it doesn’t deserve quite the critical roasting it usually receives. Yes it opens and reveals smaller charms over its mere thirty minutes, and with repeated listens, but it really is only for the truly dedicated ‘Trane-heads or anyone academically studying the development of free-jazz. For anyone but the cult few though, the best moment really is going to be the moment it ends.

Hell, even the artwork is terrible.


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