Coltrane Live at Antibes 1965 – liner notes for Jazz Icons/Mosaic release


1965 was the end of an era in jazz, marked by several exemplary live recordings set in a club atmosphere (best to realize an artist’s true exploratory spirit), featuring three of the greatest saxophonists playing in the jazz tradition as it had evolved to that time. This is a few years before the upheavals of the 1960s when fusion, world music, electronics, and the lingering effects of free jazz began the fragmentation process of the common language of jazz, a trend still firmly in place. Common language means the standard repertoire stemming from the American song book and/or original compositions with similar and predictable harmonic movement, rhythmically set in 4/4 or 3/4 with a swing eighth note feeling. (Mention should be made that in Coltrane’s case he added modality to the mix.)

By this time the harmonic innovations of the 20th century contemporary classical world towards more dissonance had permeated jazz for at least a handful of artists. Pianists like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner in particular were able to incorporate these sounds while still providing a comfortable carpet over which the more advanced horn players could improvise. The recordings I am referring to feature Wayne Shorter with Miles Davis Live at the Plugged Nickel; Sonny Rollins in various chordless trio configurations from Europe, particularly Live at Ronnie Scott’s Club and Coltrane’s Live at the Half Note. This present Antibes performance is another example from 1965 as is Coltrane’s concert a few days later in Belgium, already released on a previous jazz icons DVD.

For Coltrane, 1965 was a pivotal year that marked both an end and a new musical beginning. The intensity and number of both studio and live recordings is remarkable even by Trane’s prolific standards. One can feel a sense of urgency as if time was running out, which in retrospect it was as he passed on two years later at the young age of forty. Traditionally, an artist like Coltrane being signed to a major label like Impulse had a several record per year commitment. Therefore the relationship between a recording’s release and the band’s live performances would likely be noticed not discounting occasional “one-off” exceptions, such as in Trane’s case his recordings of ballads, and in combinations with vocalist Johnny Hartmann and Duke Ellington. Both the official released recordings from 1965, specifically Ascension, Meditationsthe John Coltrane Quartet Plays as well as subsequent posthumous dates…. Sun Ship, Transition, First Meditations, Live in Seattle and the aforementioned Live at the Half Note evidence a growing musical divide among band members McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, who comprised what is now referred to as the Classic Quartet. The group had been together since approximately 1961 and from what Elvin Jones told me, they worked 40 to 45 weeks a year, mostly three sets a night (or more) for six or seven nights at a clip. It is mind boggling to observe how the group evolved considering the stylistic evolution from Coltrane’s initial “hit” album, My Favorite Things (1961) through A Love Supreme released in early 1965, acknowledged contemporaneously as a masterpiece for the ages. Trane’s restless creative spirit was already well established from 1957, but at no time was this energy more apparent than in the music he made in this year under discussion.

Within a few months of this Antibes performance the group’s personnel would change with only Jimmy Garrison remaining on. One could certainly hear that Trane was affected by the burgeoning avant garde movement happening in New York, lead by saxophonists Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, to name a few of the major free jazz protagonists. There was also the looming presence of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor who by that time had established other ways to improvise, freeing the music from pre-conceived harmonic and rhythmic agendas while raising the significance of sound and color per se. (Ornette’s Live at the Golden Circle is another monumental recording from 1965.) It was as if Trane needed to be free, going technically further on the tenor sax, extending his already complex harmonic concepts while at the same time finding a way to break from conventional eighth note rhythmic lines, steady pulse and tradition cadential points. Most of all there appeared to be the desire to invoke a tribal-like, collective and cacophonous ambiance in the band. This sense of freeing things up was something quite the norm for Trane with his “sheets of sound” approach, the famous Giant Steps chord cycles and even more striking, the way he performed on his final European tour with Miles Davis in 1961. You could hear on live recordings from that tour how he seemed to be playing “against” the rhythm section of Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly, employing non stop barrages of notes and superimposed harmonies. These and other musical techniques would find a home in the Classic Quartet for the next few years, leading towards to an intense exploration of modal and chromatic harmony. But once again in 1965….a search for more, for the new, for freshness and change.

The facts of this Antibes Festival performance are well known. The group played two nights which were taped by French TV, but it appears that the Love Supreme performance was erased after the show was broadcast, yet miraculously we have twelve minutes on this DVD as the last selection, fading away during the saxophone solo on “Resolution.” The second evening’s performance comprises the remainder of the DVD. History is replete with stories of hindsight. In this case if someone had only known the importance of that Love Supreme performance for future generations to actually visualize the band playing this epic piece live, only one time from what we know at present….well, as the French say: “C’est la vie!” When you hear the audio version of the Love Supreme suite, fortunately available on Impulse Records as a double CD, the intensity of the Antibes live performance, specifically a duet with Elvin Jones on “Pursuance,” far exceeds the studio recording.

This performance begins with “Naima” on which only Trane solos combining a striking lyrical approach offset by multi-noted, densely packed runs. “Ascension” (wrongly titled “Blue Waltz” over the years) begins with a rubato section followed by Trane playing a little riff I refer to as a “call” which in essence becomes the theme of the improvisations for himself and McCoy’s solos. This “call” format would be frequently heard during this period on live gigs. Jimmy Garrison’s a cappella solo is deeply passionate, employing several sophisticated bass techniques: strumming, pizzicato, arco bowing and harmonics, all embodied in a deep sound in spite of what appears to be a persistent bass rattle. “Impressions”  “Acknowledgement” and “Resolution” spotlight McCoy’s facile technique, fourth based chord accompaniment and several instances of metric modulation. (This technique was relatively rare in those days, though one could hear instances of it in the other great group of this period, the Miles Davis Quintet with the young rhythmical genius Tony Williams on drums.)

All of Coltrane’s solos are extremely intense. Because of the visuals, one can see how as the intensity develops, Coltrane bends more and more over, a rather difficult way to blow into a saxophone at any volume, but apparently a necessary manifestation of the energy output in the moment. This bending towards the ground was quite common on live gigs from 1965 onward, something I can personally attest to witnessing. Technically, Trane beautifully utilizes the ultra-high range (altissimo) of the tenor for great emotional effect offset by booming low pedal tones, as if he is playing duets with himself. Once again, this was another technique which would become well established during this late period. John’s rhythmical flow is quite often against the usual eighth note divisions and often permutated over the bar lines. But he and the band are always completely accurate as far as the forms of the songs are concerned. By this time in the quartet’s evolution the harmonic relationship between McCoy and Coltrane was well established in the “chromatic” realm, implying pitch choices and harmonic movement often quite far from the established key centers of the composition at hand. In total, we get a fairly accurate picture of where Coltrane is heading in the next stage of development. (Saxophonists, note that his embouchure/mouthpiece position is almost absolutely still with little visible movement…. a model of technical efficiency.) Of course, being the engine, Elvin Jones’ intensity rises and falls as needed…and he is always SWINGING!!

There has been some discussion surrounding Coltrane’s choice of repertoire for the second night. Whether it was intimated or actually verbalized to him, it appears that he went a bit more “inside,” playing compositions that his audience might be more familiar with than the Love Supreme suite, relatively new in July, 1965. Besides “Naima” and “Impressions” the group played “My Favorite Things” which as of yet has not surfaced, probably being cut because of broadcast limitations and subsequent erasure. The whole matter of how an artist perceives and reacts to his audience is beyond the scope of these notes, but suffice to say, no man is an island. Somewhere in most performers’ heart of hearts is the desire to be accepted and may I suggest, liked by the public. One can only speculate as to Trane’s motives, but even on that second night with the switch of repertoire to more familiar tunes, he still played the main theme from the recently recorded and quite avant garde Ascension date. This recording was a ground breaking event on all levels, definitely announcing to fans that change was on the way. Sure enough within a few months Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali were in the group. Even the versions of “Naima” and “Impressions” were hardly shall I say, audience friendly being much more intense than any recordings the public might be familiar with at the time.

When I was part of the Elvin Jones Group in the ‘70s, he once remarked to me that the Coltrane quartet played “like there was no tomorrow.” As a teenager growing up in New York and being exposed to jazz clubs, I saw the group often in the ‘60s. These performances are truly the “raison d’etre” for the rest of my life, why I was invited to write these notes or for that matter playing jazz at all. I am sure of this! Seeing the Coltrane Quartet was an epiphany of the highest order and anyone who witnessed a live performance will never forget the impact. The Antibes performance was typical of the group, but remarkable in the sense that in those days concerts and festivals were the exception and not the rule for a group like Coltrane’s. The quartet was a club band for the most part working in America with occasional concert tours of Europe, but amazingly in front of thousands of people on what must’ve been a hot stage (July in France after all), with tuxedos on (note the bowties), the group hits like it is the third set at Birdland in the Apple.

The John Coltrane Quartet shall I say, never took prisoners, no matter how many people present and regardless of response. This Antibes performance, even with some distracting camera work and less than high quality visuals does have excellent sound. The videos of live Coltrane are few. This DVD captures the way the quartet played every night, always taking care of serious business!

(Thanks to Dr. Lewis Porter and Michael Cuscuna for fact checks.)

-Dave Liebman

July 2011

Stroudsburg, PA USA