The young and talented saxophonist Matana Roberts accepted an almost insurmountable challenge in being the sole musician for a tribute to the great John Coltrane, sharing the stage with tap dancer Savion Glover and poet Reg E Gaines, the forces behind the smash stageplay Bring Da Noise, Bring Da Funk. It was a call even the greatest of horn players would be wise to think twice about; for Roberts it could have been an invitation to fall flat on a presumptuous face.
Fortunately, such was not the case. Roberts walked out playing Trane's unmistakeable sheets of sound. Glover's heels emitted a quiet drum roll on the wooden platform center stage. Gaines shouted out phrases about Coltrane's passion and passing, began singing the theme from A Love Supreme, then constructed verse from the titles of Coltrane's tunes. A picture of the master, horn in mouth as always, stood behind them. It was bold to say the least.
Roberts had her work cut out for her. She was sharing the stage with two very known artists. She was in the position of intoning someone else's voice, doing it without a band, and on alto no less. The combination of her horn, spoken word and some very well amplified tap shoes doesn't make for the easiest of listens, but after a short time Gaines left the stage and Glover and Roberts did a remarkable duet on "My Favorite Things." Glover is dead talented, and except for the narrow tonal spectrum of his shoes, he gave her everything to work with that a great jazz drummer would have. For her part, Roberts really listens - not just to the other performers, but to herself. Unlike so many free players, there's a cohesion to what she does; it's not just emotion thrown like spaghetti on the wall. She's mindful of returning to themes, something that many players want to discard (but something Trane, of course, always did).
Gaines returned to repeat the themes he'd laid out before and to sing a two-note version of "My Favorite Things" which added little. He may have been finished, but Glover and Rovers clearly were not. Gaines' verses, touching on bandstand sweat and "those four little girls" (referencing the killings in Alabama that inspired Coltrane's tune of the same name), were more painful than the uplifting spirit Trane most often sought to invoke.
A poet, a dancer and a saxophonist do not quite a trio make, and there might not have been enough there to fill more than 30 minutes. They persevered for more than three times that long, and then a little longer, bringing singers and dancers up from the audience to join them and seeming to prolong the performance just for the sake of making it longer. But the longer it went on, the longer Glover danced his ass off like a talented-as-hell Energizer bunny. Sure, it became an endurance test, but it was impressive how he and Roberts endured.
If Trane Wuz here, I think he might have had a few things to say. I think he'd say, "Let's not focus so much on violence and strife in the verse." And I think he'd say, "Let's not focus only on the art of mortal men. Let's come together to seek something higher." But of course, he wuzn't here, and it's a little hypersensitive to worry about what's done in his name 34 years and 9 days after his death.
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