Recording a tribute to John Coltrane has become a mixed between a rite of passage and a cliché that all jazz players have to at some point in time adhere to. And as with many tribute works, some work, and some really don’t (in the pro-camp, witness John McLaughlin, in the against-amp, there’s a whole world of smooth jazz takes on ‘A Love Supreme’ that will just reduce you to tears).
David Murray, also a tenor man (though preferring to double up on bass clarinet rather than ‘Trane’s favoured soprano sax), is in theory perhaps the best placed to take on a whole Coltrane tribute. He’s his own man, plays in a wide variety of settings, frequently changes stylistically, and plays with the same blend of highly musical yet decidedly free. In fact, in print, it has been more than once suggested that Murray is the closest thing to a spiritual successor to ‘Trane.
‘Octet Plays Trane’ straight off is a great idea for a tribute, in that it already starts with a freshness than many other do not. John Coltrane never played in an octet, and Murray, though choosing to tackle five favourite ‘Trane numbers, does not go for the easy approach, going for following ‘in the spirit’ of the great man, rather than following him to the letter.
The core group here is made up of drummer Mark Johnson (not to be confused with Bill Evans alumni Marc Johnson), bassist Jaribu Shahid and pianist D.D. Jackson, with a hot horn section comprised from trombone player Craig Harris, alto sax and flute man James Spaulding, and two trumpets courtesy of Rasul Siddik and Ravi Best. Under Murray’s adept stewardship they are able to play the lighter quieter spaces without sounding cluttered, and yet when required they are also able to generate a sound that usually only big bands three or four the times the size of this line-up can create. Indeed the riotous take on ‘Giant Steps’ here will have you wishing that ‘Trane himself had at some point lead his own take on a plus-size group.
The gorgeous ballad pieces ‘Naima’ and ‘India’ get suitably brilliant treatments that though recognisable as the compositions, sound completely unlike the original versions, and are remade in uniquely Murray-esque way. ‘Lazy Bird’ is big loud fun, and the highly revered classic ‘A Love Supreme: Acknowledgement’ is utterly mesmerising.
Oddly however, snuggled in between the five Coltrane originals, is one of Murray’s new pieces ‘The Crossing’, which seems bizarre given that the title of the album is ‘Octet Plays Trane’. That being said however, it is a great tune and fits in nicely with the ‘Trane originals.
Throughout Murray of course utilises the tenor saxophone for the majority of blowing, but the bass clarinet gets a good workout too, and to great effect – to the extent that you’ll want to hear much more bass clarinet jazz. You’ll want to hear more of Murray’s octet work too, given the tight, full-bodied sound they achieve here. More than just a great Coltrane tribute, it’s a very strong Murray effort too, and will reward anyone looking for good evidence of eithers genius.