Sunday, 17 March 2013

Review: John Coltrane - Interstellar Space

My beloved John Coltrane and one of his more experimental posthumous recordings - a very interesting free-form sax and drums duet recording.

'Interstellar Space' is one of many 'in the vault' recordings that initially went unreleased by Impulse records during John Coltrane's short life, but that slowly trickled into public consciousness in the years since. And although not released until 1974, seven years after Coltrane's passing, this is arguably one of the most famous, and certainly one of the most distinctive and intriguing, of the great mans posthumous recordings.

The distinction comes largely from the paired down musicianship on display here, featuring as it does just Coltrane, on tenor saxophone and occasional percussion, and Rashied Ali on drums. And despite the in theory limited options available to such a pairing, each of the four pieces here are full to bursting with ideas, aggressive fire and deep emotion. The near constant invention that comes from each player too is sure to surprise - easily defying any predetermined negative assumptions.

On the downside however, despite the often high emotive power delivered by these two virtuoso musicians, the music remains not so easily accessible. Part of this can be attributed to the often repetitive (and repetitively simple) structures of each piece - Coltrane leads with shimmering percussion and bells, Ali states the rhythm, Coltrane takes the melody, both men lock into a cohesive yet distinctly free movement - but also the fact remains that a duet of just sax and drums is ultimately destined to be limited. The effect of this is that by the time most listeners have heard the otherwise brilliant 'Mars' and 'Venus', and get to 'Jupiter' and 'Saturn', two decidedly stronger and superior pieces, the repetition would easily have set in, lessening the effect. Were each of these individually strong pieces placed in a different context, ie. as part of a break in a quartet session, then they would be surging powerful highlights, but together they instead just form a collection of moments rather than create a cohesive flow.

Throughout Ali is impeccable, but it is Coltrane who shows real chops, skill and true musical handling of his virtuoso playing, alternating between subtle quiet moments and then intense heated sections of unbeatable technique. And while he can clearly improvise without a bass, piano or guitar backing present, the missing instrumentation creates a very spare polarising sound. Both men are at the top of their game and the music they paint together is powerfully rousing, but ultimately too much of their sound is just that, too much. Coltrane fans will love this, as will any real admirer of the passion that can be stirred from music alone, but this is not to be an experience to be entered into lightly.


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