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Stellar Regions
Stellar Regions 
John Coltrane

1. Seraphic Light 8:54

2. Sun Star 6:05

3. Stellar Regions 3:31

4. Iris 3:50

5. Offering 8:20

6. Configuration 4:01

7. Jimmy's Mode 5:58

8. Tranesonic 4:14

9. Stellar Regions (Alternate take) 4:37

10. Sun Star (Alternate take) 8:05

11. Tranesonic (Alternate take) 2:48

All songs composed by John Coltrane (Jowcol Music [BMI])


John Coltrane, tenor saxophone
Alice Coltrane, piano
Jimmy Garrison, bass
Rashied Ali, drums

Produced by John Coltrane and Bob Thiele
Produced for release by Michael Cuscuna

Recording Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder
Recorded at the Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on February 15, 1967

All selections previously unreleased, except Offering which was originally released on Expression (Impulse AS-9120) and which is included here to make this session complete. The selection entitled "To Be" which also appeared on Expression was originally credited as being recorded on February 15, 1967, but in fact it was not.

Photography: Chuck Stewart, Jim Marshall, Kwame Braithwaite
Art Direction: Hollis King
Graphic Design: Jason Claiborne

John Coltrane's prolific career is usually divided into several periods, with performances from the last two years of his life grouped under the heading "late period Coltrane." Starting with the recording of Ascension, in June of 1965, and continuing more overtly with the fall 1965 West Coast recordings (Kulu Se Mama and Live in Seattle), Coltrane began to change his approach to rhythm, his use of the high register, of vibrato, began to seek further freedom in tonality. Elvin Jones' polyrhythmic propulsion was replaced by the pan-rhythmic multiplicity of Rashied Ali. McCoy Tyner's chordal punctuations were replaced by Alice Coltrane's freer accompaniment. The performances, already long, became even longer - witness the non-stop concerts from Japan in mid-1966.

But art develops continuously, not according to boxes and sharp lines. The last recordings of Coltrane, from the spring of 1967, suggest evolution in new directions. Performances are more concise, with a tighter focus. Coltrane uses a type of group composition and structure which shapes and extends the free, multi-rhythmic, sound-oriented improvisations of the previous year. Unfortunately, Coltrane took most of his final recordings home from the studio, and much of what he recorded seemed to have disappeared. Initially only a single set of four recordings (comprising the album Expression) existed to document Coltrane's last course. Subsequently, a marvelous set of duets with drummer Rashied Ali was unearthed and released (as Interstellar Space) and later a few additional recordings by the quartet were found.

As it turns out, however, many of the other "lost" recordings were stored right where Coltrane left them, with his widow (and last pianist) Alice Coltrane. Recently Mrs. Coltrane and son Ravi (a powerful saxophonist in his own right) have begun going through some of those tapes, and the first results are contained here - a set of recordings, comprising everything Coltrane recorded on February 15, 1967, all but one of the performances never before issued.

In February 1967 Coltrane had already begun to show the effects of the undiagnosed liver cancer which would end his life in five months. Public appearances had dwindled, with many scheduled performances canceled. But there was no evident decline in his creative abilities, and the music from that February is as strong and inventive as anything previously recorded. It's possible, however, that the change in health, the intimations of mortality, may have led to the relative calm, the sense of reflection, of proportion and moderation to be heard here, unlike the more extended free performances of 1966. Whatever the reason, these performances are remarkable for their conciseness and compositional structure. The absence of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders at this recording date is also suggestive. Sanders had participated in the Ascension date in June of 1965 and joined Coltrane's group a few months later, remaining through the end. His strong, free conception, his command of the saxophone's altissimo register and his staying power were an essential part of the sound of the last Coltrane group. Yet Sanders also led the group in a particular direction by the force and thrust of his solos, and Coltrane may have wanted to explore different contexts by working with just the rhythm section. (A similar impulse probably led to the duets with Ali recorded the following week.)

Present for the session, however, were the other regular members of Coltrane's group. Pianist Alice Coltrane, originally from Detroit, had achieved recognition in the early '60s while touring with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. She and Coltrane were married in 1965, and when Coltrane's longtime pianist McCoy Tyner left at the end of 1965 she was his logical successor. Philadelphia-born drummer Rashied Ali had joined Coltrane in late 1965, initially playing in tandem with drummer Elvin Jones, and (after Jones left the group in January 1966) performing as the group's principal drummer. Bassist Jimmy Garrison, the lone holdover from the so-called Classic Quartet, had left the group briefly in the fall of 1966, but returned to participate in the final performances and recordings Coltrane made in the spring of 1967.

None of the compositions in this compilation had titles at the time they were recorded, a not-uncommon occurrence. Offering was given its title by Coltrane in July, shortly before his death, as the Expression album was being assembled by producer Bob Thiele. The other compositions have been given names by Mrs. Coltrane as part of the process of preparing this release. Those familiar with the Coltrane discography will also note the absence of the flute piece, "To Be," from this compilation. Although long thought to be from the February 15 recording date, "To Be" turns out not to be among the eight compositions recorded at that date. With luck, further research will determine which of the still missing 1967 recording sessions was actually the source of that performance.

Seraphic Light begins with the quiet rumbling of Ali's drums and cymbals. The B-flat minor theme has the feeling of an old spiritual, with its use of the three-note blues phrase, its stark simplicity, and the dirge-like quality imparted by Garrison's bowed counterpoint. There's an effective use of repetition - the call, an ascending figure, played four times, the answer, descending, twice, and the final phrase (a return to the tonic), four times. Coltrane's solo moves into the stratosphere, leaving behind tonality to explore the outer edges of the saxophone's range. He gives way in short order to Mrs. Coltrane, who combines block chords and spiky runs most effectively. The chordal, well-tempered piano usually seemed out-of-place in so-called "free jazz," but in this solo (and elsewhere in the session) Mrs. Coltrane shows how well it could fit when handled by someone well attuned to the approach. Coltrane returns to explore descending minor thirds and then to restate the theme.

Coltrane recorded two versions of Sun Star at the session, with this (the second) having three thematic sections. The first is a major-key, fanfare-like opening, after which Coltrane freely explores the tonality of a Phrygian scale. Finally he turns to the main theme, a slow minor melody, with Garrison's bowed bass as a counterpoint. Coltrane's solo here as elsewhere makes extensive use of the highest range of the tenor saxophone, with jagged notes that split harmonics in every direction, alternated with short five- and six-note phrases in the saxophone's normal register. He ends that solo with a descending phrase of minor thirds, lessening the level of intensity, and restates the theme freely.

Stellar Regions, in this earlier of two versions, takes as its melody a long slow trill, over Garrison's bowed pedal point. Coltrane embellishes the simple theme extensively, soaring at one point effortlessly into the high register. He begins his solo with several non-tonal notes, moving gradually into an extended exploration of ever-higher tonal centers. Eventually he returns to the initial tonality and trill and ends, almost pastorally, with a simple G major triad. Iris is all angles, its melody of minor seconds and major sevenths contorted like images in a funhouse mirror, Mrs. Coltrane's chords sharp and jagged. The theme, modified, extended, becomes the solo; Coltrane's lines grow faster, frenzied, jumping from very low to very high. Bits of the theme begin to reappear in the straining minor seconds, until finally, with a repetition of three notes, it all fades to black.

The session notes suggest that Offering, originally released on Expression (the last album prepared before Coltrane's death), began as a saxophone-piano duet. It opens with a three-note call that echoes the first notes of "A Love Supreme," then moves through various scales and chords, with Coltrane stopping to explore each one. Long flowing lines alternate with sections where Coltrane and Mrs. Coltrane trade short, staccato phrases. Eventually the opening three-note phrase, repeated several times, leads to a duet with Ali and lines that cascade like waterfalls, before piano and bass rejoin for a brief concluding echo of the theme. Saxophone, piano and bass state the theme of Configuration, a chromatic ascending scale followed by an octave jump, four times. Ali is first out with a long drum solo. Coltrane enters with a strange, twisted phrase, repeated several times, and moves into a ferocious solo. Accompanied only by Ali, he contrasts short hailstorms of notes with altissimo screams. The performance ends with a second theme, marchlike, short and abrupt.

Jimmy's Mode is, naturally enough, a feature for bassist Jimmy Garrison. Coltrane wraps a slow, stately, C major melody around a long, unaccompanied bass solo, replete with the double and triple stops, strummed chords, and walking lines that are characteristic of Garrison. Tranesonic, the last of the eight compositions recorded that Wednesday, has a short six-note theme, two notes at octave intervals, almost too fast to catch. This later take has a longer, more fully developed solo by Mrs. Coltrane before Coltrane returns with a fragment of the melody. After a screaming solo, a short theme fragment closes the piece.

Three alternate takes round out this compilation, and show as well how Coltrane revised these works in the studio. In the later take of Stellar Regions Coltrane stays closer to the melody he had written, working with it longer before moving into the solo. Garrison also plucks rather than bows. Yet Coltrane develops his solo similarly (moving out of the tonality and through multiple tonal centers) and ends with the same triad. The earlier take of Sun Star opens with the same fanfare-like melody, but follows with solos from Ali and Garrison rather than the Phrygian scale of the second take. In the earlier take of Tranesonic, Coltrane states the abbreviated six-note theme more clearly and takes a shorter solo. This first take lacks the power and fury of the second take.

To those of us who remain, the last words of one no longer among us are special. These recordings all have a similar aura. Among Coltrane's final phrases, they are almost the last notes to be captured on tape, performances thus haunted by our foreknowledge that what will follow them is silence. More importantly and perhaps even more compelling, they represent a suggestion of the evolution his music would have taken had his life not been cut so short, a tantalizing glimpse of an unrealized future. The February recordings show all the features of the "late period," yet those elements seemed reharmonized, given added coherence and impact through the reappearance of form, of relative brevity, of renewed control.

Change is the constant in Coltrane's work, and the evolution continued even to the last. That evolutionary line may have ended prematurely, but these eight compositions, a day's work from mid-February of 1967, stand alone as fully formed masterworks, explorations of the "late Coltrane" idiom in the format of the Classic John Coltrane Quartet, new music a quarter-century old, still original and startling-a fresh look at the music of John Coltrane.

David A. Wild
June 1995

(Author/pianist David Wild is a freelance writer, regular contributor to various jazz magazines and the author of The Recordings of John Coltrane: A Discography. He currently lives in Texas.)
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