The Circle with a Hole in the Middle

Rare Vinyl Revisited
by
Bill Shoemaker

 

Andrew White
Seven Giant Steps For Coltrane
Andrew’s Music No. 30/SISV-5

Andrew White’s contribution to the understanding of John Coltrane’s music is unparalleled, but it’s not limited to the 701 recorded Coltrane solos he has transcribed. What some call White’s Four Cs critique, published in Down Beat’s On The Beat column in July 1992, is one of the most succinct and compelling analyses of the Coltrane legacy to date. The bulk of his position is contained in four paragraphs (the italics are his):

Trane has been canonized for his supposed God-like configuration as a result of the commercial interest generated by certain titles of his works, such as “A Love Supreme,” “Meditations,” “Dear Lord,” “Psalm,” “Spiritual,” “Song of Praise,” “Peace and After,” “Dearly Beloved,” “Joy” and “Ascent,” among others. As we all know, Coltrane also created a body of work of much more visceral proportions that can stagger the imagination of the most astute jazz scholar, but that hasn’t been the interest of the marketeers who wanted to create a “saint.”

Trane has been classicized by many of his stylistic descendants who have chosen to take parts of his musical legacy and place them in etudinal and recitalized contexts, i.e., playing transcriptions of his melodies and improvisations in music lessons, jazz recitals, and jazz competitions. Nope, as a transcriber of his work, I ain’t responsible for that. I just wanted to share the brilliance of his ingenuity with the world – for study purposes only.

Trane has been commercialized. In addition to the constant reissuing of his recordings in an effort to keep his music alive and well (which is good), his image is also plastered on T-shirts and other merchandise. In one recent TV ad, Trane (or one of any number of Trane clones) can be heard playing his tune “Naima” as the announcer talks of the quality of a jazz artist like John Coltrane, all the while making the association with … selling jeeps.

And jazz has been colonized. But, yeah! My man, John Coltrane was the buck who escaped the commercial jazz plantation and created some of the most revolutionary music we’ve ever had. However, since Trane’s passing the jazz industry has undergone so many structural changes that have redefined, sterilized, sanitized, castrated, and intimidated the creative process that the quirks and devices that made Coltrane so unique in the past now make him sound “politically incorrect.” If Trane were around today, he couldn’t get arrested. There’s no need for him now. Two qualities he stood for in himself and his bandmates, uniqueness and individuality, are qualities the record industry isn’t interested in. It’s all been cleaned up now. No more loose snare heads or rattling E strings.

White has avoided the four Cs by maintaining sole proprietorship over his transcriptions, recordings and books. White could have easily gone another route. His contributions to such early ‘70s recordings as Weather Report’s bellwether Sweetnighter (Columbia) and McCoy Tyner’s Asante (Blue Note) positioned him as an extraordinarily versatile first-call multi-instrumentalist, an overwhelming, envelope-pushing tenor saxophonist and a funky electric bassist with Motown credentials. However, the brisk demand for his transcriptions and the ability to work regularly in local clubs was enough for White to stay rooted in NE DC.

White already had a DC audience when he was still in his teens, when Cannonball Adderley discovered the JFK Quintet and produced their Riverside album, New Jazz Frontiers From Washington. Adderley caught the band at the Bohemian Caverns, where they held forth from its inception in1961 to its dissolution prior to the assassination in ’63. What is interesting about reviews of the album’s 1999 reissue on CD is the consistent mention of White’s up-to-the-moment cognizance of both Coltrane’s and Eric Dolphy’s playing.

A small irony of White’s early history was that he was not in the Caverns the night Coltrane blew so hard that he had an eruptive nose bleed; eyewitnesses were stunned that this has no impact on his solo’s intensity or duration. Upon the conclusion of his solo, Coltrane simply laid down under the piano to stop the bleeding during Tyner’s solo. Since this occasionally happened, Coltrane’s cohorts carried on as usual. The reason for White’s absence at this mythic moment is simple: Coltrane was only booked into the club on the JFK’s week off, during which White would go out of town. Though White saw Coltrane perform more often at the now long-gone Abart’s, he was at the Caverns one closing night when Coltrane left behind a box of reeds, which White retrieved and preserved. Coltrane did hear White play “Giant Steps” once at the Caverns.

The 1968 riots scarred DC’s jazz landscape for decades; it took more than 30 years for the Caverns to be reopened as a jazz venue. But, White adapted to the changes, and began playing regularly at Top O’ Foolery House of Jazz and, later, One Step Down (though he only occasionally played at d.c. space in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, space’s proprietor, producer Bill Warrell, introduced White to Julius Hemphill, who invited White to participate in Hemphill’s Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera, which spawned the ongoing Julius Hemphill Sextet, of which White is still a member). Top O’ Foolery played a particularly significant role in White’s activities through the 1970s as the site for his legendary 24-hour marathons, for which he employed upwards to six rhythm sections.

Though White had a secure a base as DC affords a jazz musician, he did stop traveling altogether. White released albums recorded in Bucharest and at The Ladies’ Fort on his Andrew’s Music label. Still, what are arguably White’s quintessential live dates were recorded in DC: MARATHON ’75 (AM 20), recorded at the Foolery; Bionic Saxophone, taped at space in ’78 (AM 33); and the 4-CD collection, GIGTIME 2000, documenting a stand at the One Step.

In addition to being his only album of unaccompanied solos, Seven Giants Steps For Coltrane is also noteworthy for its combining performances recorded in DC and elsewhere. This provides insight into what types of situations would prompt White to travel. Three of the solos are extracted from performances of White’s large scale “Coltrane Medley,” which was commissioned by the New York Jazz Repertory Company. The earliest solo was recorded in ’74 during White’s Carnegie Hall performance with the NYJRC Orchestra. The second was performed the following year at Town Hall during White’s concert with the Collective Black Artists Ensemble. The third version was recorded at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in ’76, during White’s performance with the university’s Jazz Workshop Band.

White received a second Coltrane-related commission from NYJRC in 1976. “A Newport Tribute to John Coltrane,” which was premiered by the NYJRC Orchestra at Carnegie Hall as part of the Newport Jazz Festival. Dedicated to the recently passed Jimmy Garrison, the piece was conceived basically as a concerto for Tyner and Elvin Jones, whose groups had performed in the concert’s first half. This performance yielded the final track recorded outside of DC. The LP is rounded out with three solos recorded at Top O’ Foolery. The album closes with a rendition of “Theme,” White’s set-closing signature tune, which features his quartet with pianist Donald Waters, bassist Steve Novesel, and drummer Warren Shadd.

Each of the solos is distinctive from the others; additionally, each solo contains passages that veer noticeably away from the rhythmic feel Coltrane employed. It is intriguing that White, who IDs polydiatonicism as Coltrane’s great innovation, would key in on rhythm to get beyond cloning. Still, White obtained this wider set of rhythmic feels while adhering to the contrast of three keys that is the piece’s central structural feature. He didn’t alter the piece wholesale; instead, he took opportunities when he heard them, exploited them, and then returned to the standard rhythm, creating pungent asides about where the piece could go. In a fundamental way, these solos exemplify the paradigm of old school jazz improvisational mastery: demonstrate that you know the material inside out and then actually turn it inside out.

The ever-entrepreneurial White still has stock of Seven Giant Steps For Coltrane and other LPs. He can be reached through Andrew’s Music at: 4830 South Dakota Avenue NE; Washington DC 20017.

Aum Fidelity

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