Tuesday, Sept. 23, would have been John Coltrane's 88th birthday. And there's a big Coltrane panel Tuesday at Temple University. Resonance Records will be there, along with Temple people and the Ars Nova Workshop.
But there's more than a birthday to celebrate. There's a just-released recording of a legendary Coltrane concert at Temple in 1966, eight months before his death.
Resonance has just released Offering: Live at Temple University, a restored, often-bootlegged recording of the saxophone colossus and onetime Philly resident at his spiritual and improvisational peak. The concert, at Temple's Mitten Hall on Nov. 11, 1966, featured his usual team of players (wife/pianist Alice Coltrane, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and drummer Rashied Ali), along with locals such as bassist Sonny Johnson, alto saxophonists Steven Knoblauch and Arnold Joyner, and percussionists Umar Ali, Algie DeWitt, and Robert Kenyatta (who'll be at the Temple panel). A documentary of the making of the record is on YouTube at http://bit.ly/1ymVZcD.
Offering is full of precious, dramatic, and adventurous Coltrane mood swings: He can even be heard singing or thumping his chest percussively. Just as dramatic, however, is the detective story behind the recording.
Coltrane scholar Yasuhiro Fujioka of Osaka, Japan, was the man who tracked down the original master tapes, recorded by Temple's then student-run radio station WRTI.
"It's never-ending, my lifelong work," says Fujioka by e-mail. He has a personal collection of more than 2,000 Coltrane rarities and is president of the Coltrane House in Osaka. He's also a freelance jazz writer with four Coltrane books to his credit. His fascination with Coltrane started in his teens, but his physical journey began in Philly in 1992. At that time, Mary Alexander (the "Cousin Mary" of the Coltrane tune) invited Fujioka to her house and "cooked John's favorite chicken sandwich and potato pie for me. That was incredible."
In 1997, Ravi Coltrane - John and Alice's sax-playing son - drove with Fujioka to a Clef Club event and gave the Japanese scholar a recording of the 1966 Temple concert. From the moment he heard it, finding the full, original Temple tapes - a holy grail for jazz aficionados - became his personal mission.
In 2010, at a music conference in New Orleans, Fujioka asked whether anyone had "anything Coltrane." He heard from Michael Biel, who, as then-program director at WRTI, had set up the hallowed recording in 1966 and possessed the tapes. Fujioka eventually introduced Biel to Harry Weinger, vice president of Universal Music, which holds the rights to recordings of Coltrane's later work.
Enter Resonance Records, a 501(c)3 foundation specializing in audiophile recordings (for example, Bill Evans' Live at Top of the Gate). Zev Feldman, executive vice president at Resonance, learned of the tape during a 2012 meeting with Universal. Of Fujioka, he says, "It's fascinating a gentleman all the way in Japan is so inspired he devotes his life to learning what Coltrane was doing every day." Universal licensed the project to Resonance. The result is lovingly remastered. It also has a legacy feel, with a 180-gram vinyl pressing and a gatefold LP design. "I wanted the look to be harmonious with Coltrane's Impulse! LPs," says Feldman.
What was it like to share that stage with Coltrane? Steven Knoblauch did. Then 18, this University of Pennsylvania student had his own quartet working in Philly's avant-garde jazz scene. He found encouragement in other free-jazz players such as Philly's Byard Lancaster, and he wound up on stage at Temple that evening.
"Before that night, Trane said nothing to me about playing," says Knoblauch. "When Trane saw me at the concert with my horn, he invited me and my bassist, Dave Koblitz, to sit on the piano bench on stage right behind the curtain during the concert. Not a bad seat."
During "My Favorite Things," while Alice Coltrane was soloing, Coltrane asked Knoblauch if he wanted to take a solo. "He said, 'Get out your horn,' gave me the cue to come on stage, played a trill after Alice's solo, then stepped back and gestured for me to play. I matched his trill and then offered my 'testimony' to this celebration of the spirit." When the performance was done, "he gave me a big bear hug."
Knoblauch is now 65 and a psychoanalyst and author (The Musical Edge of Therapeutic Dialogue). He still plays sax. He says he was excited but not intimidated playing alongside Trane that night. "I knew his music and knew what he wanted me to do. His smile and hug confirmed that. In fact, as soon as I started to play, the drums and the music and my sense of the power of what we were doing carried me forward, and I grew confident and strong. I am told at one point at the height of the solo, the drums seemed to carry me upward and I was actually jumping in the air."
Maybe Coltrane fans will feel the same when they hear Offering.
"Offering: On John Coltrane." Discussion and album release celebration.
Musicians Robert Kenyatta
and Carl Grubbs, critics
John Szwed and Francis Davis, and WRTI's
J. Michael Harrison.
5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
1210 Polett Walk.