Coltrane tribute is a love supreme

Boston Globe, September 30, 2005

The commemoration of John Coltrane is never a casual matter. The saxophone titan, who died in 1967, left not only a body of work unequaled in creativity and technique but a legacy of constant spiritual exploration. The 1965 album “A Love Supreme” is the best known but far from only manifestation of this quest.

So when musicians honor Coltrane, technical skills are not enough. Coltrane’s peaceful nature and striving toward the divine must also enter the room.

It’s a tall order. But Boston’s John Coltrane Memorial Concert which features piano master McCoy Tyner, the surviving member of Coltrane’s classic quartet has proved up to the task for 28 years and counting. The concert is tomorrow at Northeastern University’s Blackman Theatre.

“This is the oldest tribute to Trane in the world,” says saxophonist and Northeastern professor Leonard Brown, who began the event in 1977 with percussionist Syd Smart and the late bassist Hayes Burnett in a loft called Friends of Great Black Music.

The concert moved to Northeastern a few years later, and the group of a dozen or so musicians became known as the John Coltrane Memorial Ensemble.

“It features some of the most outstanding musicians that the Boston area has to offer,” says Eric Jackson, host of the jazz program “Eric in the Evening” on WGBH-FM (89.7). “And they really put in work. They’re not just calling out Coltrane tunes, they’ve done arrangements. It’s a labor of love.”

The concert has featured prominent guests such as reedmen Frank Foster, Yusef Lateef, and Pharoah Sanders playing with the ensemble. But this year, in a first, the ensemble is surrendering the stage to a special all-star quartet including Tyner, saxophonist and Coltrane alumnus Gary Bartz, bassist Charnett Moffett, and drummer Eric Gravatt.

“Everybody gets a year off; we’re going to be in the audience for one time,” says Brown, smiling. But the presence of Tyner also stems from a more urgent imperative.

“In spring of ‘04 I went to see Elvin [Jones, Coltrane’s longtime drummer]. And I was crushed, because he was a shadow of what he used to be. And it hit me that we waited too long.” Jones died a few weeks later.

“So we thought to get McCoy, part because he’s the last member of the quartet, but also because of what he’s done since then,” Brown says. “To me, he is one of the greatest pianists of any genre, of any time.”

The capacity to draw musicians of this caliber attests to the concert’s credibility in the jazz world. It also enjoys the blessing of Coltrane’s family. Brown traveled to California years ago to receive it from Alice Coltrane, the master’s reclusive widow.

Mary Alexander, Coltrane’s cousin and friend, immortalized in the legendary saxophonist’s song “Cousin Mary,” is a regular concert attendee. Until recently, she ran a Coltrane cultural foundation that supported musicians and held workshops and concerts in her hometown of Philadelphia.

“[Brown] just loves John, and John’s music, and he’s dedicated to that,” Alexander says. “And he and the other gentlemen who do the concert with him, they’re educators as well as musicians. They’re dedicated to young people, who would not have known anything about John without them.”

Recently Brown formed what he calls an academic quintet, which includes fellow Northeastern professor and concert coproducer Emmett Price, to study Coltrane from multiple perspectives. The scholars hold a public discussion tomorrow afternoon.

“We’ve all been bumping our heads about Coltrane and his legacy in the black American quest for freedom,” says Price. “He’s more than a musician: a spiritual leader, a political leader, and just a leader of human nature around the world.”

“The civil rights movement is still going on,” says Brown, pointing to the images from Hurricane Katrina as evidence. “But it’s not a black and white issue, it’s a human issue.” Coltrane’s work, he believes, has much to offer today.

Tomorrow, it will be up to Tyner and Bartz, two of Coltrane’s associates, to deliver that music and message in the here and now.

“Anything that happens in Boston that’s as large as the Coltrane concert demands our attention,” says Jackson. “It’s a major part of our cultural landscape. Football comes in the fall, and so does the Coltrane concert.”