Dave Wilson’s Tribute to Coltrane

Dave Wilson

STRETCHING SUPREME / COLTRANE: Intro to Part 1. Part 1: Acknowledgement. Part 2: Resolution. Dear Lord. Naima. WILSON: On the Prairie.* MANCINI-MERCER: Days of Wine and Roses* / Dave Wilson, t-sax/s-sax; Kirk Reese, pno; Tony Marino, bs; Alex Ritz, dm except *Dan Monaghan, dm / Dave Wilson Music DWM002 (live: Philadelphia, October 19, 2017 & *March 29, 2018)

Over the past year I’ve seen and listened to several tributes to Charlie Parker, but tributes to John Coltrane are far rarer. This is because, despite the complexity of his solos, Bird’s style was an open-ended one which could include several different variants, but Coltrane’s style was a closed form. He essentially played every note in the harmonic and non-harmonic spectrum, including microtones, over the course of his last seven years as a practicing musician, which left no room for anyone else to try to do what he did.

But Dave Wilson, who in addition to being a performing musician is a composer, arranger, teacher and entrepreneur with a successful business that deals in buying and selling vintage woodwind and brass instruments, decided to tackle one of Trane’s best-known works, A Love Supreme, and give it his own spin. To this he added two other pieces by Coltrane, Dear Lord and Naima, one piece of his own and one of his favorite songs, Days of Wine and Roses.

Much to my surprise, Wilson comes much closer to sounding like Coltrane than the few others I’ve heard who tried to appropriate his style. Being a recording, it’s difficult to tell whether or not Wilson was able to achieve Trane’s massive tone, which could even cut through the crowd in an open-air concert, but he really has managed to duplicate his rich but flat, vibratoless sound on tenor, which is a miracle in itself. In addition, and even more amazingly, his rhythm section did a good job of emulating McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones from the original recording, capturing their looseness of sound which was crucial in propelling Coltrane’s huge but flat sound.

And, of course, Wilson managed to come up with his own improvisations, so that you have no doubt that, despite the tonal resemblances to the original, this is a different performance of the music. In a sense, then, what Wilson gives us is a virtual alternate take of Coltrane’s masterpiece. There’s no other way to describe it.

And believe me, if it wasn’t good I wouldn’t be praising it and probably not even reviewing it. As I stated in a recent post, I’m done with writing reviews of half-good or mediocre CDs. They’re just not worth my time, and I generally just end up ticking off the musicians who make them because they think everything they do is a masterpiece even when it isn’t. I’m too old to put up with that nonsense, so from now on, only the very best music and performers will find their way into this blog.

Kirk Reese’s single-note piano solo on Part 2 of A Love Supreme isn’t the most stunningly original thing I’ve heard of late, but it has good structure, it develops musically, and it complements Wilson’s blistering tenor playing, which is all you can ask of it. At the nine-minute mark, Reese and the rest of the rhythm section pull back on both the tempo and the volume to create a warmer environment, and at this point Reese just sort of meanders around in the right hand as bassist Tony Marino injects some enticing bent notes before settling in a repetition of the “Love Supreme” theme prior to Wilson’s re-entry. In short, this was a very daring and risky performance for Wilson and his quartet to attempt, yet they pulled it off with flying colors. I really think that even Coltrane would be impressed by what they accomplished here. In track 3, “Resolution,” the quartet swings hard, with drummer Alex Ritz playing some asymmetric rhythms, exciting breaks and cymbal splashes that reminded me very much of Elvin Jones (the only member of Coltrane’s quartet who I actually heard in person). When Wilson enters, he seems to have all the power and energy of Coltrane at his best in addition to his own imaginative “take” on the music. His a cappella cadenza (well, except for the drums) is simply stunning, and yet the applause, when it finally comes, is punk…it sounds like maybe three people clapping.

The next two tracks come from a later performance at Chris’ Jazz Café in Philadelphia, here from the following year with a different drummer (Dan Monaghan) and very different repertoire, an original (On the Prairie) and arrangement (Days of Wine and Roses) by Wilson. Personally, I would have programmed these last, following all of the Coltrane material, but here he sandwiches them in between A Love Supreme and the other two selections by Trane, Dear Lord and Naima. Nonetheless, the Coltrane feeling is maintained to a point on the former, which Wilson plays on soprano saxophone. Reese and Marino are just as responsive here as they were on A Love Supreme, but I felt that drummer Monaghan simply played the wrong style. His drum figures were too thick, covering up rather than assisting the work of the piano and bass. Much of this piece is played in a free rhythm; you can feel a pulse in Wilson’s sax solo, but the rhythm section projects a single-line, open-ended feeling in which it is difficult ti pin down a specific pulse, and this even carries over to Reese’s piano solo. Curiously, on this track I felt that his improvisation rambled a bit too much and said too little, though in his second chorus Marino’s bass adds some fascinating little touches before going out on his own. Upon Wilson’s return, the music becomes very strange indeed as he plays running scalar figures up and down against the piano playing opposing figures before both get involved in an atonal chase chorus.

As you might expect by this time, Wilson’s own arrangement of Days of Wine and Roses alludes to the melody of the tune without actually stating it clearly, and the opening of this is also played out of tempo. In the first full chorus following this intro, the quartet falls into a slow but subtle swing 4, with piano, bass and drums dropping notes and little hints of the tune beneath Wilson’s excellent tenor solo. (I should also mention that, in this tune, Wilson does not make any attempt to sound like Trane; rather, he sounds a bit like Sonny Rollins.) Reese’s solo is also in a bit of a McCoy Tyner mood, and on this track Monaghan plays less heavily although, I felt, without much swing. Marino’s bass solo is superb.

Interestingly, on Dear Lord Wilson eases up on his thick-toned Coltrane imitation to play in his normal style, but it works because this is an earlier Coltrane piece in a simpler style than his later pieces. Simplicity is also heard in the improvisations, but by simplicity I don’t mean that “soft jazz” treacle that one hears all too often nowadays—this is playing with substance.

Naima is nicely done but here with Wilson playing halfway between his own sound and style and Coltrane’s. I also felt that the out-of-tempo intro was a bit much in that it was used at least a couple of times previously in the CD, although one the piece gets rolling a quirky, asymmetric rhythm makes itself apparent.

All in all, then, an excellent CD, fully worthy of the one to whom most of the music is dedicated.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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