Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

I’ve had a complicated history with jazz, with many false starts, disappointing attempts to divine the pantheon and forays into stuff I absolutely hated. In college I made a concerted effort to get out there on the hustings and figure the whole thing out, and unfortunately (but understandably) began with what my dope-smoking, wise-beyond-their-years peers considered the coolest – JOHN COLTRANE’s insane late period, ALBERT AYLER’s braying and snorting and ORNETTE COLEMAN’s free jazz squealing. Unimpressed, I fled from the entire form for a few years (note: I now know what people see in these gentlemens’ late 60s stuff; it just wasn’t for me at the time). Not knowing where to go when I became brave and curious enough to get going again, I asked around. I have to thank RF, a smart guy who patiently explained to me about a decade ago that the best way to figure out if a jazz record was any good or not was to study the players on the back of the sleeve/CD. If names like “Coltrane”, “Dolphy”, “Tyner” and “Jones” showed up, you were likely in exceptionally good hands. That revelation ten years ago led me to the single jazz CD that I credit for kicking off my entire and still-developing love of the genre, JOHN COLTRANE’s 1961 masterpiece “Ole”.

Sure, I think I can objectively admit that there are “better” jazz classics even within Coltrane’s own discography, but I put this on at least three times a year and stand back and hear it soar. It’s where the beyond-mortals genius of Coltrane also clicked for me, and the one that led me off into Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon and even Charlie Parker. I’m now sporting a respectable 100 or so jazz CDs, all of them quality, and growing carefully and methodically so as not to upset the delicate balance of what can be a perplexing and oft-times infuriating art form.

Why “Ole”? Well, let’s start with the 18-minute monster track #1: “Ole”. This is the piece de resistance of what was originally a 3-song LP (the CD adds a very sweet and slow-burn love ballad, “To Her Ladyship”), and contains some of the most entrancing music you’ll ever hear. Coltrane is on soprano sax for this one, and the unit he hastily assembled for the session are just locked down and humming, each soloing in turn and helping the others to shine. It’s got an Eric Dolphy flute solo (flute!) that is just out of this world. And if you can ever single a bass player out of a song for commendation, and I know it’s rare, it’s here: and that’s likely because there are two low-end slappers present, Art Davis and Reggie Workman. "Dahomey Dance," is definitely more relaxed; it has a loping riff dressed up in colorful brass harmonies, and Coltrane's tenor solo sounds heavily influenced by the blues. Finally, there’s "Aisha", which is a romantic ballad penned by McCoy Tyner, lovely as any Coltrane ballad you’ll hear anywhere. Coltrane’s much-vaunted expanding search for “freedom” was already off and flying on "Ole", yet it’s a CD you could play with grandma in the room (and I, in fact, have done just that). You can probably tell that "Ole"'s got a bit of everything – though beautifully wild and untamed in places, it won’t frighten the proverbial horses, and is a must for any burgeoning jazzbo’s collection.