John Coltrane – Sun Ship

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This is my one of favorite Coltranes, and I won’t try to convince you that it’s the best Coltrane because it definitely isn’t. But it’s one of my favorites because it’s exactly halfway between the two opposing Coltrane’s, with Coltrane beginning to obliterate his past and looking towards the interstellar future via a relentless maximalist assault using his increasingly more minimal tactics (“Sun Ship”’s theme is four notes from an augmented scale; “Amen” is even less) and subtle shifts in tempo, and what results is something more difficult than early Coltrane and more approachable than late Coltrane. A damn shame that Impulse! sat on it for six years and only releasing it after Coltrane’s death, because as a result, it tends to be fairly overlooked.

The title track is one of few songs that sounds like its title, and the first fifteen seconds highlights exactly what I mean in the paragraph above: John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner (piano) play something halfway between melody and sheer sound because of the self-imposed restriction while underneath, Jimmy Garrison (bass) grounds him (and us) with a more traditional, counterpointing melody. After the first instance of the main theme, Elvin Jones makes his presence (more) known, joining in the fray, hammering out thunder for the rest of the song. After the second instance of the theme, Coltrane sits back and lets Tyner handle it, and despite the saxophone’s absence, the song doesn’t lose any momentum. In fact, conversely, it gains it: you’d hardly notice Coltrane’s absence because Tyner is communicating Coltrane’s ideology, and when Coltrane re-enters blasting warmth after Tyner plays a series of chords and Jones does an introductory drumroll, he increases the song’s seeming acceleration – the liner notes describes the song as “unrelentingly up” but “unrelentingly upwards” feels more appropriate.

The album is sequenced so it’s constantly alternating between Coltrane’s maximal-minimal approach (“Sunship,” “Amen”) and Coltranized ballads (“Dearly Beloved” and “Attaining”) with closer “Ascent” somewhere in between. “Dearly Beloved” reminds me of the storm scene in King Lear because of how John Coltrane or McCoy Tyner sound like one person screaming into the oceanic abyss that are Elvin Jones’ drums. In particular, McCoy Tyner offers his best solo on the record, contrasting sharp crash chords with one hand and arpeggiating with the other. “Amen” more or less follows “Sun Ship”’s structure: beginning with Coltrane introducing the theme – love how the theme is almost swing-like at the start before Coltrane picks it apart; speeding it up and stretching it until there’s nothing left – before giving Tyner the first solo, and then coming back to take it from there.

Meanwhile, Garrison adopts a larger role on the album’s last two songs: completely unpredictable throughout “Attaining,” tossing out muted plinks seemingly at random (3:08 onwards) before shifting to a steadier, walking rhythm, while on “Ascent,” John Coltrane entrusts half the song’s 10-minute runtime to him to both introduce the ascending theme and solo (since previous to that, everyone else but him got the spotlight). Regardless, “Ascent” is my least favorite track here because regardless of Garrison’s playing, I’m merely waiting for the rest of the band to come in and achieve the promise of the title.

Final thought: between December 1964 and November 1965, Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme, Ascension, Sun Ship and Meditations. Find me a more productive year from any artist not named Miles Davis in 1956 (which featured a young John Coltrane anyway) with quality that matches or approaches these four albums, and I’ll eat my hat. I don’t even own a hat anymore, so I’ll have to go out and buy one first.

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