Only six days after what would have been his 75th birthday, the esteemed, and in many corners sainted, John Coltrane was remembered Saturday night at a gala benefit dinner concert thrown by a newly formed foundation that bears his name. With his family, several colleagues, present-day defenders of the flame, young musicians and one especially noted former sideman (bassist Art Davis) participating, the music veered all over the lot, taking us at times to areas where the Coltrane connection was at best tenuous. Yet there were moments when the playing suggested the white heat of Coltrane in full fury, producing a hush in the audience.
Logistically, the concert was a poorly paced marathon, running hopelessly behind schedule and nearly four hours long, with recurring feedback problems in the sound system. But you could forgive much of that when blazing young saxophonist Kamisi Washington and his Young Jazz Giants (winners of the 1999 John Coltrane Music Competition) stirred up a frighteningly good replica of a mid-1960s Coltrane freak-out, with extraordinary drumming from Ronald Bruner. Or when Art Davis led a dead-on-target re-creation of one of his landmark recordings with Coltrane, “Dahomey Dance” — albeit without saxophone.
Hearing Alice Coltrane and her sons Ravi and Oran on “Giant Steps” and the “A Love Supreme” album’s “Resolution” and “Acknowledgment” affirmed the family connection but made us realize how far apart they are stylistically. Geographically, one could roughly place Alice and her harplike piano arpeggios in India; Oran’s slow, repetitive, incantatory alto sax somewhere in the Middle East; and Ravi’s fluid, assured, postbop tenor sax in midtown Manhattan.
Slawomir Kulpowicz’s rambling series of solo piano ostinatos indicated a Coltrane influence — but more Alice than John — and Kenny Burrell checked in with a delicate solo rendition of “Why Was I Born?” Bassist Robert Hurst, pianist Geri Allen and last-minute drummer Ralph Penland provided the expert backing for a series of soloists: tenor player Bennie Maupin, trombonist George Bohanon and flugelhornist Al Aarons. The Otan Afro Jazz Ensemble made explicit the Latin elements within Coltrane’s “Ole” — and as the clock approached midnight, the ever-effervescent vibraphonist Terry Gibbs continued his welcome reunion with Alice Coltrane that started at the Groovin’ High festival in May.
One of the more powerful remembrances of the evening, though, occurred on film, when a short documentary of Coltrane was made even more haunting by the lit dinner candles on the tables of the darkened ballroom.