For decades there were many stories about a famous John Coltrane concert held at Temple University during the last part of his life. Supposedly the place was initially packed, then started emptying out when the music began playing. Coltrane was reported to have started beating his chest and screaming, and the program was deemed so far out that not even the most avid Coltrane follower could comprehend it. A bootleg copy had made its way around the collector’s circuit, but only a few privileged types could say they ever heard or saw it until recently.
But now the two-CD (or vinyl) set Offering: Live At Temple University (Resonance) has been released, and it’s one of those occasions where the reality and the myths meet halfway. The original Nov. 11, 1966 90-minute session that was recorded by Temple University’s WRTI-FM has been essentially reproduced in full and taken from the original master tapes. While there’s some fluctuation in levels at times, the overall quality is striking in terms of how fully it captures an environment that is stark, gripping and often poignant in its intensity and spirituality. The place was only about half full, but not that many departed according to exhaustive liner notes supplied by critic/historian Ashley Kahn.
The five-song package features a band that will always be revered by some and hated by others because it was the post-classic Coltrane quartet crew, or one of them. Alice Coltrane on piano brought a percussive, crackling style to her accompaniment and solos, while drummer Rashid Ali created rhythmic layers and textures underneath the other musicians’ dialogs that might not have been the exact sonic equal of Elvin Jones, but were ideal for the direction of Coltrane’s music at the time. Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax and piccolo was an even more controversial figure, with his fluttering lines, powerful statements, and vocal like growls and screams. He complemented, pushed and responded to Coltrane’s tenor and soprano sax leads (as well as flute occasionally) which were dynamic, furious and exacting.
As Khan details, contrary to the myth of “The New Thing” being guys just showing up and wailing away with no form or structure, Coltrane’s music was spirited and meticulous. There were beautiful melodies presented within a framework featuring fiery performances, music that represented the soul being laid bare. Coltrane does indeed sing and/or provide vocal exhortations on “Leo,” one of three 20-minute plus pieces. The others are “Crescent” and the finale, his signature song “My Favorite Things.”
On each, the band plays some unison segments and there are amazing interludes where Coltrane and Sanders interact. But there are other longer periods with Coltrane, Sanders, Alice Coltrane, even Ali or (on one short segment substitute bassist Sonny Johnson) take the spotlight, playing with passion and purpose while contributing to the overall themes unfolding. “Offering,” the shortest (less than five minutes) piece is also the most contemplative, a pastoral alternative to the otherwise raging, though reverent material.
This was Coltrane’s last full year, and he was taking a direction that remains explosive, complex and not easy to follow another century later. It would be foolish and inaccurate to recommend this for any and all jazz or music fans. Even some who love the Coltrane of other periods would not be attracted to nor delighted with “Offering- Live At Temple University.” Not because it’s poorly played, lacks coherence, or any of the other charges normally leveled at “avant-garde” music, but because it requires an immersion into and appreciation of music as spirituality of the highest order, not just something in the background or something to accompany another activity. It requires a commitment of the listener to follow Coltrane and company as they move far beyond the idea of playing to an audience and getting polite response. They are taking a frenetic journey and asking others to come along and enjoy the trip.
“Offering; Live At Temple University” sounds fresher and livelier than almost any recording, live or studio, in any genre issued this year. It’s wonderful that it’s finally available after all this time, and that fans can separate the myth from the accomplishment.