They say that fortune favours the brave, and right now in jazz circles they don’t come much braver than flautist Roland Sutherland. Let’s keep things in perspective. To my knowledge, he hasn’t taken a bullet for Sonny Rollins or waltzed through a North Korean minefield to spread the word about Jacob Collier. But, he has had a crack at John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, one of the most revered albums in the history of jazz. Not only that, but he performed it in front of a sell-out Union Chapel crowd 50 years to the day since it was recorded at the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey.
In my book, that deserves respect. Even if the whole thing had come crashing down around him and had veered towards lacklustre, cheap and nasty, everything for a pound imitation, he should still have got a pat on the back, a gold star for effort and a voucher towards a five star police protection programme. But fortunately it didn’t come to that, because, not only is Sutherland brave, he’s also a man of impeccable taste and formidable musical ability.
If anything, his re-envisioning of the legendary saxophonist’s magnum opus, arranged for the 15-piece Enlightenment Ensemble, went the other way and for the first ten minutes it was hard to find anything resembling A Love Supreme amidst the thrumming of Senegalese kora and Indian percussion. Still, there was plenty to enjoy in the tribal vocals and galloping rhythms of the bata drummers, the treasure trove of exotic instruments on stage and the long white robes worn by the performers (black embroidered with gold in the case of xylosynth player and MD Orphy Robinson).
Nor was it long before Coltrane’s music began to emerge. At first there were just glimpses of it, allusions to the familiar four-note riff from ‘Acknowledgement’ in Nikki Yeoh’s piano and in the horns. But, when a slinky reworking of ‘Resolution’ broke through some furious Mark Mondesir cymbal work, the references began to come thick and fast.
Intricate, percussion-heavy cross-rhythms came to recall the dexterity of Elvin Jones. Yeoh’s pounding block chords and side-stepping motifs were the real McCoy Tyner. Yaron Stavi’s pedal-to-the-metal swing and boozy, slide guitar-like bass feature channelled Jimmy Garrison and there was spirituality in the recitations of vocalists Juwon Ogungbe and Cleveland Watkiss, who delivered passages of Coltrane’s psalm from their perch in the heavy stone pulpit.
Sutherland’s manipulations of melodies sometimes rendered them a little less intense and a little more carefree than the originals but there was more than enough anguish in the solos to compensate. Nostrils flaring, Steve Williamson (above) wrestled with his tenor, Pat Thomas’ keyboard yelped and Shabaka Hutchings’ bass clarinet sobbed and wailed.
By the end, as the lights went out and the cheers went up, most of the band and half the audience looked like they’d been through the mill. But so they should. A Love Supreme is about an arduous spiritual journey, not some happy clappy walk in the park. It’s about effort, frustration and faith learnt the hard way. It’s an offering of thanks by a recovered heroin addict and a reassessment of just how precious life is. Sutherland and the Enlightenment Ensemble understand that. Better still, they’re brave enough to play like it.
– Thomas Rees
– Photo by Roger Thomas