I have it from a reliable source that at one point during his speech at the ACRL conference in Indianapolis this past March, Henry Rollins re-emphasized the significant impact on his life of the music of The Clash and of the music of John Coltrane. The latter might be a bit surprising, although Rollins did record Everythingwith Charles Gayleand Rashied Ali in 1996, so Coltrane has been with him all along. He has said that he first heard Coltrane from records his mother owned, but that what he took from Coltrane’s music wasn’t spiritual or even musical, but a kind of directness, a fierce honesty that models intense communication: “I am not a musician. I have written a lot of songs but it’s just to get the words out. I always admired Coltrane for his truth and his purity. He was really going for something. He is inspiring because you can tell every moment he plays is sincere. I have never heard anything like it.” (The same thing might even be said for Joe Strummer’s gruff, insistent, committed vocals.) As far as my own listening goes, I think I have been struggling (or maybe something less agonistic: aspiring) to reconcile the collisions of Coltrane and The Clash, conflicted aesthetics aimed at what I tend to divide into the transcendent and the world-bound, the excessive and the mundane, contemplative restraint and expressive intensity. One conceptual trajectory that might bridge such bifurcations is the idea, and the practice, of what I’d call commitment. It became a key word in my Embouchureproject, and it makes a kind of sense, for me, to re-invoke it here. One of the reasons I have picked up on what Henry Rollins has to say about Coltrane’s music is that his tastes, his preferences, seem to coincide with my own: he says he is most drawn to late Coltrane, post 1964. And he’s consistently skeptical about any all-too-easy professions of enlightenment or poetic transport: he’s no mystic, but a demystifier. That doesn’t make his work any less searching, any less committed to honest, hard engagement with a will to truth, to truthfulness. But it does depend on how you understand what and when and how that truth might be.
The recent release of the “complete” studio recordings for John Coltrane’s Sun Ship – first issued in edited form posthumously, in 1971 – aims materially toward full disclosure of historical and music fact, to paint a vivid, truthful sound-picture of the improvisatory collective creative process of the Coltrane-Tyner-Garrison-Jones quartet by offering for public issue every listenable scrap of music and studio chatter extant on tape. This is definitely a music of plenitudes: the huge swathes of saxophone, the dense piano, the rolling bass-lines and the surging drums characteristic of the quartet’s last days together, and of the music Coltrane made from 1964 until his death in 1967. The session that produces Sun Ship takes place on 28 August 1965, and, apart from a first pass at the “Meditations” suite on September 2 (issued later as First Meditations), this is the last time the “classic” Coltrane quartet will record together as a unit. (McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones will leave in November, replaced by Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali: all of this information is well-known, and well-circulated.) So in so many respects, this music has immense historical value and interest, and every detail is worth hearing. Even the fragments and outtakes can be heard as stunning performances unto themselves. The false starts and apparent missteps overflow with powerful, potent music. Everything happens.
It’s tempting to want to hear what Walter Benjamin might have called a messianic totality in these recordings, a vital archival gathering of historical minutiae – the digital imprint of every essential sonic particle – into an absolute and audible present. We can imagine ourselves there, as we listen – or can imagine the “there” of those searching performances now here, relocated in our own immediate moments. That’s how recording works, sure, but the idea of a “complete” package such as this one is to seem to place us, aurally, in close proximity to the music’s realization. And it works, of course: McCoy Tyner’s solos on both versions of “Sun Ship” are astounding instances of extemporaneous dynamism, but more than that they refuse to settle even on repeated listenings, re-creating the sound of surprise – at each return, they still never sound the same, even though they must be. Historical value collapses into what feels like an exploratory, unsettled present tense. Hearing Jimmy Garrison patiently evolve and re-shape his solo prelude to “Ascent” reaffirms his careful attention to depth of tone, to the rounded resonances of his instrument; in his ensemble work, too, I can hear foreshadows of William Parker’s elastic sense of time and line (in his recordings with David S. Ware or his In Order to Survive quartet). But that influence also seems to dissolve in the palpable immediacy of Garrison’s playing.
What strikes me most about this session both works against and strangely reinforces this idea of a reanimated plenitude, of a musical Jetztzeit. A little of the studio banter was included in the original release of Sun Ship, but now most tracks contain extended snippets of “studio conversation”; rather than mar the music in any way – they don’t, of course – and rather than merely let us hear bits of the musicians’ speaking voices, as if they are with us again in our own sound-spaces, the loose fragments of casual chatter present a stark contrast to the intensities of the performances. The quartet can shift on a dime from chuckling about a track title to overwhelmingly powerful improvisation. How is it, I keep asking myself, that a music of such depth and wonder can co-exist so unproblematically with the casual and the mundane? Though maybe, maybe, that seemingly effortless coexistence is exactly what this music can teach us, can let us overhear.