By Martin Smith | 15 October 2014
I have had a busy and exciting month and have had no time to write up my tracks of the month, so apologies for the delay.
But what a month for music it has been, rather than write up my 10 favourite albums, I have just decided to cut to the chase and review four exquisite releases.
They are all experimental and spiritual in their own way, John Coltrane and Sun Ra from the past and Aphex Twin and Flying Lotus from the present.
They all consciously attempt to create a world a million miles from the car crash we live in right now.
John Coltrane, ‘Offering: Live At Temple University‘ (Impulse 2014) CD/Vinyl
This stunning album documents a legendary concert by John Coltrane at Temple University in his hometown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 11 November 1966.
It’s legendary for collectors of Coltrane, because previously it was only available as a muffled bootleg. I have a copy on a TDK 120 cassette tape, with artwork by yours truly. Now it has been re-mastered and given an official release.
The concert captures Coltrane in the last phase of his musical journey. Tragically he only had nine more months to live.
This is intense, inventive and intelligent music. The nucleus of this, his last band, was Alice Coltrane on piano; Pharoah Sanders on reeds and flute and Rashied Ali on drums. Sonny Johnson replaces Jimmy Garrison on bass and a cohort of percussionists join Coltrane on this gig. They create a sonic storming of the heavens.
The music is simply staggering, light years away from his early offerings on Impulse just six years earlier.
There are versions of Coltrane’s 1960 hits “Naima” and “My Favorite Things“.
Coltrane once said, “Music is universal, it is all connected, the saxophone, the drum, even the bagpipes”. And on “Naima”, he proves his theory by playing the bagpipes! Again the version of “My Favourite Things” is a complete rework of their classic standard.
Coltrane was a spiritual man. This is evident in this recording, he was also interested in Martin Luther King, he would feature a picture of King on the inside cover of his last album “Cosmic Music” and one of the tracks was titled Reverend King.
I was fortunate enough to interview Coltrane’s Drummer Rashied Ali. He said:
“Coltrane was totally in support of King’s desire for Civil Rights, he wanted to create through music the passion and spirituality Martin Luther King achieved in his speeches.”
I believe Rashied’s insight into Coltrane’s spiritual and political beliefs enrich our understanding of the last three songs performed on the album.
First there is a transformational reworking of the 1964 ballad “Crescent“. This has always been one of my favourite Coltrane tracks. This is church music reduced to raw sound, interjected with hollers and chants.
Then there is a spirit raising rendering of “Leo“, which he had recorded on several previous occasions during 1966, and finally the hymnal “Offering“.
If you have never heard a Coltrane album before, this may not the best place to start – “My Favourite Things”, “Love Supreme” or “Coltrane Live at Birdland” are as good as any.
But if you love Coltrane’s music this is just about as perfect as it get – deep, spiritual and intense.
This is the original recording of “Crescent“:
Flying Lotus, You’re Dead (Warp 2014) CD/vinyl
“You’re Dead” jumps off where Coltrane ends, the opener, “Theme”, lasting 1 minute 24 seconds begins as a Coltrane-esque fanfare and ends with a straight ahead sheets of sound war cry.
But the connection with Coltrane go deeper, John and Alice Coltrane were his great aunt and uncle.
Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison) is back with this his fifth and in my opinion best album.
Running at just 38 minutes, this music takes you on a transcendental journey from death into the afterlife. In one interview he said:
“I found so many reasons to call it “You’re Dead!” — not just because I wanted to make this album about the journey through death. I was watching the music scene that I came up with kind of go stale, and watching the lights go out on a lot of my friends. And even for myself, saying, “I wonder if what I do even matters anymore?” Like, dying in the public consciousness.”
The album is a continuum of his experiments in psychedelic funk, fusion and ambient electronica.
The music is influenced by one of the greatest figures in jazz, not his great uncle, but Miles Davis. This is “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” with hip-hop thrown in for good measure.
The album features Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. Lemar’s lyrical flow on “Never Catch Me” is just spellbinding.
The first half of the album is dominated by electronica, by the second half instrumentation dominates. It’s a jazz-fusion – funk not the rock variety – album, and one that that pulsates with Thundercats thumb slapping electric bass.
I still collect vinyl, and the original artwork by Japanese comic book artist Shintaro Kago is just beautiful. In fact all in all it is a perfect album.
* Apologies for the add at the start of this track.
Sun Ra & His Arkestra, In the Orbit of Ra (Strut Records 2014) CD/vinyl
We now return to the past, that is not true we are in fact journeying into space.
By the time of his death in 1993, Sun Ra, the greatest of all jazz eccentrics had released more than 100 albums spanning five decades. The space obsessed composer’s discography is mythical in scope and erratic in its documentation. He was using early versions of the synthesizer 15 years before any other jazz musician.
Well this double album set, curated by the Sun Ra Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen, cannot be beaten. It is a beautiful mix of relatively well-known tracks and previously unreleased material spanning from the 1950s to the late 1970s. As the longest-tenured member of the Arkestra (55-plus years and counting as of 2014), there is no one with a deeper understanding of the music of Sun Ra than Marshall Allen, and that’s part of what makes In the Orbit of Ra such a special collection.
Herman Poole Blount (Sun Ra) was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. By 1952, Blount had already been involved in music for the best part of 20 years, playing with the likes of B. B. King, when he decided to change his name to Sony’r Ra. He ultimately adopted the Sun Ra moniker in homage to Ra, the Egyptian god.
Ra had always maintained a deep interest in Egyptology and science fiction. He insisted that he was a visitor from the planet Saturn. Ra’s band at the time, then known as the Space Trio, soon began wearing elaborate Ancient Egyptian-themed costumes and expanded into his Arkestra. I would argue he was a pro-type black nationalist, who used space as a metaphor for escaping racism and prejudice.
This is not a greatest hits package; there are no versions of ‘Space is the Place’ or ‘Heliocentric Worlds’, but there are some of Sun Ra’s most intense and original compositions including ‘Astro Black’, “Lady with Golden Stockings” and “Somewhere in Space”. There are also a number of unreleased tracks “Reflects Motion, Pt. 1” and “Trying to Put the Blame on Me“, and there’s an unedited “Islands in the Sun” and a selection of stunning photos by Val Wilmer.
I know Sun Ra is not everyone’s taste, but he did create some of the most original music of the 20 Century and some of it is on this album.
Aphex Twin, Syro (Warp 2014) CD/vinyl
If a week is a long time in politics then a 13 years absence in the music industry is a lifetime and that is just how long it has been since Aphex Twin released his last double LP Drukqs,
Gone are the creepy vocals and the vast rushes of sound, but this is still an Aphex album. Syro absorbs so many sounds and textures, techno, drum’n’bass, breakbeat and jazz funk. This is dance music but for head not the floor.
Each and every listen rewards and the track “aisatsana ” is a glorious ambient piano tune that ends the album perfectly.
I have been in music heaven this month, I hope you find something in this music.