John Coltrane - The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording
Aug 4, 2022
90
"I want to be a force for real good. In other words. I know that there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good."
-John Coltrane

The Olatunji Concert is truly fascinating. Recorded in 1967, shortly before Coltrane's untimely passing, the Olatunji Concert contains two tracks roughly half an hour long. Babatunde Olatunji (an African percussionist) and his wife had established the Olatunji Center of African Culture about a year before this performance. The center was dedicated to providing classes and lessons at a lower price based on a wide range of cultural topics. John Coltrane had helped provide funding for this center, and was more than happy to be able to perform there. Unfortunately, only the first set of two was recorded. Billy Taylor stated that Coltrane was, "...really trying to do something to awaken the community to his view of the African heritage." He also described the performance space as, "a 30x100 foot loftlike room on the second floor, backdropped by colorful wall posters depicting an African village scene." On the day of this concert, the area was completely packed - a tremendous amount of people came to see this performance.

The Olatunji Concert sounds terrible. At least, the recording quality does. Coltrane had hired Bernard Drayton to be the sound engineer for this concert on extremely short notice. Without properly set up equipment, parts of this recording sound extremely distorted. It surely didn't help that it was performed inside of what was essentially a "giant echo chamber" as the room had previously been used for a gym. As said by Ben Ratliff, "The Olatunji Concert... suffers from terrible unintended audio problems. Without a great amount of amplification, you can't make music as violent, scraping, tinnily climactic as this recording suggests. It is quite possible that no worse-sounding musical document has ever been issued in full by a major record label." For another artist, it is very possible that this recording would have never been published, but this is Coltrane. Anything Coltrane touches is bound to be important in some way, and the more music from him there is in the world - no matter the sound quality - the better.

When I first heard this performance, I was completely blown away. This was one of the first jazz albums I ever heard, which may be very surprising for some. Then again, I do know that many like to begin at the most extreme example of a genre and then work their way backward. Being a fan of experimental music, this appealed to me greatly, and most of the first jazz I heard was avant, free, spiritual, etc. I wouldn't suggest that approach for everyone, but it definitely worked out in the end for me.
I remember the night I played this for the first time. I always listen to music in bed before I sleep, and I know an album is real damn good if I fall asleep to it. You see, if I fall asleep to music, it is actually a big compliment. I can't fall asleep to bad or boring music because it irritates me too much. Same with simply decent music - I'd rather be listening to something more special. I need to have good dreams, so I need beautiful music.
First hearing Billy Taylor in the introduction, then jumping nearly headfirst into some abrasive free jazz, I was blown away. I had just gotten into my bed, and my head was spinning... in a great way. There was immediate beauty to be found in the center of all this chaos, and I was lying right in the eye of the storm. As instruments swirled around my head, I felt at ease and at peace. This is now how I feel with all of Coltrane's free jazz work (and most work of the genre), but at the time, this was a first for me.
I fell asleep sometime during "My Favorite Things" and had a very interesting awakening.

The lineup for this live performance is also worth mentioning. John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders is a dream team. Having these two incredibly powerful saxophonists blasting away with each other is an experience everyone should enjoy. Coltrane's wife, Alice Coltrane, is on piano. These three musicians are very spiritual and help give this concert the atmosphere is utilizes perfectly. Jimmy Garrison is on bass, which is a brilliant choice as he was the bassist for many of Coltrane's free jazz records (such as Ascension). Rashied Ali is a talented drummer who had also worked with Coltrane before, and after this recording, would go on to work with Alice Coltrane. These five outstanding musicians are the main focus of this performance, and without them, this record would have been impossible. I am deeply appreciative for the emotion and thought they put into their playing.

"Ogunde" is fantastic. It is extreme and beautiful. In my opinion, it perfectly represents and encapsulates what free jazz should be: a hurricane of sound with a peaceful center. The other track, "My Favorite Things," starts with a seven minute bass solo. I remember when I first heard this, laying in my bed, wondering when something would change. It is a fantastic introduction to the track, and when the horns finally come in, you are sent to a completely different spiritual place. Listening to this record feels like you are floating in a vast void.
Some may be initially surprised by how acclaimed this record is, given the unintended terrible recording quality. To most, including myself, this quality adds a significant amount of character and fits very well. It is almost like it was meant to be. Coltrane's last live recording, one of his most extreme, powerful, and emotional releases. There is no doubt that he was dealing with a lot at the time. I am sure that his children, career, and declining health had been major stressors. You can hear that stress being released directly through his horn, and it is one of the strongest things I have ever heard in music.

The Olatunji Concert is beautiful. It is the perfect conclusion to a career as influential, incredible, and important as John Coltrane's. I might be jumping the gun by writing this review, as I haven't reviewed earlier free jazz yet, but that will come soon (you can expect some Ornette Coleman sometime). Today, this recording is what spoke to me, and I wanted to express my thoughts as I am very grateful for it. <3
Daily Jazz Review #5 complete!

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