John Coltrane Memorial Concert @ Blackman Auditorium 10.22.11
by Jerry Slutsky (Psychology), published November 27th 2011
photos by Northeastern University
While mustachioed men in skinny jeans were jiving to Matt and Kim in the basement of a Cambridge apartment, I was searching for the lost soul in music at the Blackman Auditorium. I found a showcase remembering John Coltrane, an important figure in the jazz world. Yes, I said jazz, America’s best invention besides deep fried candy bars. People don’t realize that jazz musicians are masters of their instrument, able to bend notes, explore the boundaries of music, and find the essence of what makes us tick. Not just anyone can play jazz. One must master a discipline that requires the ability to discern complex rhythms, recognize impromptu key changes and create new textures and aural aesthetics – all without sheet music! To put it simply, Coltrane could whip the Beatles’ ass any day of the week. It is important to show gratitude to those who pushed jazz further, like John Coltrane, the embodiment of innovation.
This show was strategically scheduled for parents weekend because only old people still appreciate jazz. This tragedy is a complex issue to dissect another time. Regardless, my posse, surrounded by a few hundred proud Husky parents sat comfortably in the newly renovated Blackman Auditorium to see the show.
The 34th annual John Coltrane Memorial opened with John Coltrane’s most recognizable track, “Giant Steps.” This rendition followed the all too banal path of other genres, remixing a classic for minimal effect. The John Coltrane Memorial Group decided to infuse an Afro-Cuban style on the arrangement, foreshadowing a set rife with Latinized renditions of old tunes. The overall concept of “Latinizing” jazz can be exciting, however it has already been done – since the 1950s by greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente. So, trying to add what jazz great Jelly Roll Morton called “The Spanish Tinge” was a bit forced, especially considering John Coltrane was never involved in the Afro-Cuban Jazz movement.
The band did find their groove on the Latin styled “Mr. P.C.”, which featured the shining part of the concert, the self-proclaimed “Bosses of Brass,” the horn section made up of gentlemen from all walks of life. After the “head” (what hip jazz cats call melody), the trombones started off the group solo section. The ‘bones played well off each other, countering punchy, zesty riffs with sassy, seductive overtones. It was a sound reminiscent of fine scotch whiskey (Glenlivet, 12 years aged) with a blend of bite and silky sophistication.
Next, was Carl Atkins, a finely dressed individual who played his soprano sax with the same style: fresh, but smooth. In contrast, two trumpeters who seemed to be dragged out of the New England Conservatory’s practice rooms followed with back-to-back solos that were great technically, but lacked a certain flair. The song climaxed with Ricardo Monzon making President Aoun nervous by nearly burning down the newly renovated Blackman Auditorium with his fiery percussion solo. The parents had to remind themselves not to start dancing the salsa because they know that their kids, who were busy throwing up in a basement at a party on the hill, may have found them embarrassing.
Unfortunately, the intensity of “Mr. P.C.” went unmatched through the remainder of the set. It was apparent that the band was academically driven, focusing on dynamics and nailing every hit to their complex arrangements. Perhaps they could have carried on the Trane’s legacy by dabbling in the waters of free jazz. Perhaps they could have carried on the Trane’s legacy by disregarding what the audience wanted to hear and simply playing what they were feeling. Maybe their goals were in the wrong place, like Syd Smart’s electric drum pad being showcased throughout the set to advertise the university’s cutting edge technology.
Alas, it looks like I may have to sip on some fine scotch whiskey and smoke a Cuban at home on Saturday nights and listen to Miles, Trane, and Dizzy streaming from the Internet the next time I want to hear true classic jazz. Although I am grateful that JCM is alive and kicking, and that the Berklee kids are persistent at trying to make a quality Jazz Fest, I will continue to rely on the classic recordings to keep my passion alive.