It's twilight, the evening before Labor Day, and the weather is ideal. Odean Pope's tenor sax resounds in the verdant hills of the Awbury Arboretum, the site of Germantown's second annual John Coltrane Jazz Festival.
Fronting his Saxophone Choir - a unique group consisting of nine saxophones, piano, bass and drums - Pope conducts and plays several signature pieces, attacking the breakneck tempo of "Prince Lasha," then easing into an unaccompanied solo on the dark, glowing ballad "Epitome." (These cuts and more can be heard on the brilliant 2006 release Locked and Loaded: Live at the Blue Note.)
Like the surrounding trees, and like Coltrane, Pope has roots deep in the Philadelphia ground. Born in 1938 in Ninety Six, S.C., he moved here at age 12 with his parents and older brother.
"It was a breath of fresh air," says Pope, who is performing today at a John Coltrane tribute at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. "After being in the country, suddenly you're in one of the major cities. Bright lights, really inspiring. It changed my life drastically."
Pope's love of music, however, was kindled down South. Both of his parents were musicians in the local Baptist church. Starting on keyboard, then clarinet, Pope took up tenor sax after hearing Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb with Lionel Hampton's band at the Earle Theatre (demolished in 1953).
Venturing into public with gigs in and around Philly, Pope soon gained an important mentor.
All modern saxophonists are in some sense Coltrane's heirs, but Pope was his friend. In the mid-'50s, the two transplanted Carolinians would practice together, often joined by the (obscure) piano innovator Hasaan Ibn-Ali.
"Coltrane got me my first major gig, with [organist] Jimmy Smith," says Pope, 68, seated at the kitchen table of his Mount Airy home, where he lives with Cis, his wife of nearly 40 years. His grown son and daughter live out of town.
Following Coltrane's example, Pope forged an identity as focused as it was multifaceted. He spent 1967 working with the legendary drummer Max Roach. In the early '70s, he co-led the early fusion band Catalyst, which recorded four albums. Then, in 1979, Roach invited Pope to join his innovative quartet - a gig that lasted until 2002.
Roach died on Aug. 15. Speaking two days before the New York funeral, Pope was mournful but full of gratitude: "There was so much information, traveling with this great man. When I reflect back on all those beautiful memories, I feel he's still here."
Pope's latest quartet album, To the Roach, is a poignant tribute to the last originator of bebop.
Mentored by the prophets of jazz modernism, Pope is now something of an icon himself, though he lives by Coltrane's humble creed.
"Trane made you realize you're only a small part of this whole thing here," Pope insists. But humility doesn't preclude what is arguably the most important task for a jazz musician: finding one's own voice, the quest of a lifetime.
"Every morning," Pope declares, "I get up and try to develop Odean Pope. It might mean taking one little fragment and drilling on it, over and over, until I can say, 'This sounds like me.' "
With a burly, low-register tenor sound, Pope works in the interstitial space between mainstream and avant-garde jazz, a space that Coltrane did much to create. He expounds radiant melodies, intricate themes and swinging tempos alongside more free-form concepts. In recent years, he has made a number of fine recordings for the audiophile CIMP label.
Pope's next CIMP recording, slated for early next year, will feature alto saxophonist Bobby Zankel, another Philly-based musician. But before that, today at the Church of the Advocate (18th and Diamond), Pope will appear as a guest soloist with Zankel's big band, the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound. The performance falls on Coltrane's birthday and commemorates the 40th year since his death in 1967.
"I'd like to bring out the great variety of things that Odean does so beautifully," Zankel says. "Odean is a great example of someone who defied categories. We used to play Latin gigs together. He could play behind [soul singer] Millie Jackson, or with organ groups, or with Catalyst, or [avant-garde drummer] Sunny Murray. It was no problem."
If a single sound captures Pope's musical identity, is is the Saxophone Choir, formed in 1977. Liken it to a big band and and Pope will correct you: "It's a choir. It derives from my hometown in South Carolina. When I came to Philly, I was always looking for something that could recapture all the bright moments I shared in the Baptist church."
The tenor sax alone reminded Pope of church vocals. Adding eight more saxes seemed natural.
Over the course of 15 years, the choir released three compelling, if unheralded, albums (The Saxophone Shop, The Ponderer, Epitome) on the Italian Soul Note label. Then, in December 2004, during a three-night stint at the Blue Note in New York, the choir secured some of its rightful glory.
Subsequently released on the Half Note label as Locked & Loaded, the Blue Note shows featured three guest saxophone soloists: James Carter, Joe Lovano, and Philadelphia-born Michael Brecker, who was soon diagnosed with the blood disease that ended his life in January. In an immortal performance, Pope and Brecker go head-to-head on the feverish track "Coltrane Time."
Stocked with such players as Elliot Levin, Julian Pressley and Terrence Brown, the choir has a sinewy musical texture, robust without being shrill. It can blow with gale force or supple grace, as Pope's music demands. "I want my work with the choir to be coordinated and very thought-out," Pope says. "Sometimes it takes me a whole year to write one tune."
In preparing Locked & Loaded for release, Pope and his producers got a surprise: Ornette Coleman, arguably the father of avant-garde jazz, asked to write the liner notes. In the '50s, when the controversial Coleman came to play Philadelphia's Showboat Lounge, a young Odean Pope was in the audience. In 2004, Coleman reciprocated, coming to hear Pope at the Blue Note.
In his inimitably cryptic notes, Coleman praises Pope's "non-resolutional ideas" and hears the choir's music as a "sound map" for "the installation of new territories."
There's enough material in the can for a second Blue Note volume. The choir sings on.
To hear Odean Pope and his Saxophone Choir, go to http://go.philly. com/albumsEndText