JOSE JAMES / “Equinox”
How do you write one post about three years’ worth of covers? Well, as I mentioned just a few months ago, my favorite cover we’ve done here at Breath of Life has to be José James’ brilliant re-recording of John Coltrane’s “Equinox.” Then I remembered that the Gil Scott-Heron tune “Spirits” had always reminded me of “Equinox.” So there it was: my opportunity to due a post including one of my all-time favorite artists (Gil Scott) with my one of my all-time favorite covers (José’s “Equinox”) with Kalamu’s all-time favorite musician (John Coltrane). Bang. Done.
Let’s start at the beginning. Coltrane composed and recorded “Equinox” in 1960 for his album Coltrane’s Sound. The personnel is close to, but not quite, the foursome who would eventually become known as Coltrane’s ‘classic quartet.’ It’s McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, Steve Davis on bass and of course, Trane himself on tenor. At the time, both McCoy and Elvin had only been with Trane for a few sessions. Throughout the piece there’s a sense of restraint and calm that in years to come (or sooner!) would be replaced by fiery passion, even on ballads. But here, the pace is languid, the mood is cool and the playing is superb. Listen especially for McCoy’s piano solo. It’s very gentle and pretty and quite unlike the way I’m used to hearing McCoy sound.
I’ve read a few reviewers mention that Coltrane’s Sound has been underrated as an album in part because it wasn’t released until several years after it was recorded and by then, Trane was on some real next shit, playing ‘out there’ music that was challenging to even the hardest of the hard-core jazzheads. Maybe Kalamu can give us his take on that. At the time, I was something like negative eleven years old.
* * *
Gil Scott Heron’s “Spirits”
is from his 1994 ‘comeback’ album of the same title. Of course, “Spirits”
isn’t really a cover of “Equinox.”
It’s just that, from the first time I heard “Spirits,”
it reminded me of a Coltrane tune but I could never figure out which one. For some reason, hearing José James sing “Equinox”
immediately made me realize that the Coltrane tune “Spirits”
reminds me of is indeed “Equinox.”
Listening to them back-to-back, however, they have less in common than I would’ve thought. The real similarity is in the long, held notes at the beginning of the verses. There’s also a similarity in the vibes: a deep, bluesiness, a longing for positivity that comes through in a lot of the music of both men (Trane and Gil). In Trane, I hear it in the dark wail of his horn; with Gil, it’s in both the lyrics and in his singing tone – a piercing tenor that at times sounds almost like a moan or a cry.
“Our lives are like treasures,” Gil sings, and it’s hard not to think of the many, many musical treasures he’s given us over the years and at the same time, it’s equally hard not to think of his travails, of the years he’s spent seemingly hell-bent on destroying himself.
Our lives are like treasures…
A gift to us from the spirits
Truer words have seldom been spoken.
* * *
And then here comes Mr. José James re/doing Coltrane’s “Equinox.”
… What can I say? I just love this record.
Due to the ins and outs of the music business and the idiosyncrasies of song publishing, it’s virtually guaranteed that this brilliant record will never officially see the light of day. As Kalamu explained it to me, José’s choice is to release the record and lose the rights to his lyrics or leave it unreleased and maybe someday the various folks who control the Coltrane estate will approve it and he’ll be able to claim credit for the lyrical half of the tune.
Anyhow, all of that is just business. It’s the internet age and sometimes it seems that there’s no such thing anymore as “unreleased.” So here we have the most promising young male jazz vocalist in a long, long time taking on a tune by perhaps the greatest jazz musician who ever lived. And not only does it do it justice, he does it lovely! If you’ve never downloaded anything else from Breath of Life, I hope you catch this week while the downloads are still live because the only way you’re going to get this one is right here.
BTW, if you dig José, check out his debut album, The Dreamer
isn’t on there, but it’s a very, very good album—one of my favorite releases of the last couple years.
Get your versions here:
—John Coltrane – “Equinox”
– From Coltrane’s Sound
(Atlantic - 1960)
—Gil Scott-Heron – “Spirits”
– From Spirits
(TVT - 1994)
—José James – “Equinox”
– Promo Only
(White Label, 2007); The Dreamer
(Brownswood - 2008)
—Mtume ya Salaam
Trane, Gil, Jose, Obama
It goes something like this: Trane ran off the Prestige Records plantation carrying a suit satchel full of original compositions. Negotiated a share cropping deal at Atlantic Records.
But Trane had way more music than Atlantic was prepared to release—besides they wanted safe covers of standards, hence an album with Coltrane and Milt Jackson is released and Coltrane’s Sound
is muted/held back.
The industry, of course, thought they had Trane because they had offered a good deal. Little did they know (until it was too late), Trane had full freedom on his mind.
(Shit, if they had stuck their heads out the window and looked up and down the street they wouldn’t have needed a weatherman to figure out which way the wind was blowing, but, alas, they didn’t—I mean, alas, for Atlantic. And, I don't mean to imply that Atlantic was racist; indeed Atlantic was putting out more Black music than most of the majors combined; I'm just saying that in revolutionary times liberalism reductively ends up being—or attempting to be—a brake on revolutionary progress. Ya dig?)
By the time My Favorite Things
was lighting the way forward for jazz as a genre, Trane was already negotiating a hipper deal with a new label, Impulse. And the rest as they say, is history.
say ‘history’ but that’s a cliché used to hide ignorance. Nobody, Trane included, knew for sure how Trane’s new music was going to be received. Indeed, initially, believe it or not, some establishment critics even called Trane’s music “anti-jazz.” By 1962/'63 big debates raged in Downbeat
magazine, which by then some of us had pinned the tail on the donkey and referred to the publication as “deadbeat.”
(And just as another interesting bit of trivia: Trane was so stoic about the whole thing you would have thought he had some Greek philosopher blood flowing through his brain; you would have thought that if you were unfamiliar with "Black cool." The trivia factoid is that we are repeating history: Obama is effecting that same "Black cool" in his response to the increasingly unconcealed-racist put-downs.
(But to quote chairman Mao: to be attacked by the enemy is a good thing—it means you’re on the right road. Keep pushing. Get sharper, clearer. Stay strong. Be Bold. But don't be stupid. Don't get so mad you act a fool. Sus out the whole situation. Attack the enemy's weak points, avoid enemy strengths. By all means, stay cool.
(Which, if you listen to Trane’s music is exactly what Trane did. Bold with a capital Black in the music he put forward. Cool as Nat King Cole onstage under attack by Klan-nites. They tried a physical beat down. My man prevailed. Sure we have a right to get upset and angry but we need to also have the smarts to stay cool even as we look for an opening to drop a knock-out punch.
(Is it me or doesn't Michelle Obama kind of resemble Alice Coltrane? ;>)
(I know, I know; I’m swimming in dangerous waters. But, hey, after Katrina and then Gustav and ya boy Ike—quiet as it’s kept, Ike hit some parts of Louisiana harder than Katrina did—after all of that, reticence is not my mouthpiece.
(In the immortal words of Amiri Baraka from around the era of Trane: Attack! Attack! Make the sucker back, back.
(But being that it’s a general election and "mad, black man" ain’t gonna cut it, my man has to counterpunch. Like Trane did, in the face of accusations he had gone too far, do an Ali shuffle and jab, jab, jab: dropping the Ballads
album, pow; the Coltrane & Duke Ellington
album, pow, pow; the John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman
(Once my man wins the championship, TKO in the 14th round, then he can, like Trane did, drop the dangerous shit… alright, I’m going to leave yall alone but couldn’t resist laying out a little of the revolutionary subtext to Coltrane’s movement.
(Atlantic didn’t release the music when it was recorded because they wanted to play it safe and because, in fairness to them, Trane had dropped more music on Atlantic than they could handle in two or three years. Revolutionary change is a motherfucker!)
* * *
As a result of writing this, I already know what I’m doing for classics next week: Trane, Gil Scott Heron and Jose James! Consider this week the primaries. General election coming next week!
Will definitely be continued!
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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