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Pain, and Peace

A review of John Coltrane's "The Olatunji Concert," by Paul Freedman

My father would hate this album. He would listen to it and hear only grating noise. The screaming of the saxophones, the crashing of the drums, the distortion of the microphone. The experience would be physically painful to him.

There is real pain here, not just flirtation with atonality, but an exploration of pain. But there is peace as well. The pain makes the peace possible.

Impulse Records released Olantunji in the summer of 2001, nearly 34 years after its recording at the Olatunji Center in Manhattan, and months after the death of this saxophone deity. Coltrane lived through pain, joy, beauty, and exploration, and this album is true to all the aspects of his life.

There are two songs on the album. The first, "Ogunde," begins with a single utterance from Coltrane on the tenor saxophone, a call to the spirits, before the exploration and improvisation begin. The melody of both songs is almost forgotten here; the band gets into the solos almost immediately. The solos are uncontrolled, unfettered by jazz or blues scales, rules of harmony, or even, at times, notes. There are moments when it hurts to listen. But the band creates such tension that its resolution at the the end of the song becomes a physical release, for the band and the audience. It is the warm and weary calm after weeping. Alice Coltrane, on the piano, is the bridge between the pain and peace. She is a summer rain storm in the mountains, with big warm drops of rain so sweet you look forward to the smell of the forest afterwards. Only after thoroughly soothing the pain and shock of Sanders' solo does she introduce harmonic complexity of her own, and set the tone for Coltrane to make sense of it all. Here he explores the entire range of his saxophone, the soulful low notes, the wailing breath of the upper notes, and the notes between the notes. In the final moments, he returns to a beautiful and complex cascade. When Trane finally repeats the melody, the band completes its sweep, exhausting the shrieks and frenzy of Pharoah Sanders' tenor and resolving in a profound cascade of cymbals and drums, big bass strings, and open chords on the piano.

In the silence before the second track, the audience wonders where the band will go next. This track, "My Favorite Things," begins where the last left off, in peace. Jimmy Garrison takes an unaccompanied bass journey. When he cues the band to join, the intensity mounts once again. The melody only appears once or twice here, in the midst of Trane's passionate solo, like the North Star shining through a gap in the clouds of a nighttime rain storm.

The recording quality on the album exaggerates the drama of the music. Unlike the classic live recordings of the Coltrane Quartet at the Village Vanguard, the microphones here distort and fade as the musicians overpower them with sound. At times it seems the drums and sax are locked in a struggle for the attention of the tape. To my ears, the raw recording heightens the release I feel at the end of both songs on the album.

This is not driving music. This is not music you would put on for a cocktail party. There are moments of light and beauty here, but it is not pretty music. It is, rather, an urgent demonstration of the power and depth of Coltrane's quest.

The Olatunji Concert is available at music stores and at