Enlightenment – A Re-envisioning of John Coltrane’s Love Supreme touched down on the Southbank on the final day of James Lavelle’s Meltdown. It was a glorious mid-summer’s day, there was rave kicking off on the river bank terrace and Enlightenment had sold out two successive houses – matinee and evening – in the QEH. At the end of a long day we received two standing ovations and to quote pianist Nikki Yeoh, “Smashed it…. end of… “.
We first performed ‘Enlightenment’, on the eve of the summer solstice 2012 in the Chapel in Kings College under the name Sacred Music Sacred Spaces and despite various attempts to generate interest among the various curators on the jazz scene it all fell on deaf ears. So, I have to thank have to the my long time friend James Lavelle and the Southbank’s Jane Beece for having the vision and confidence to include our homage to John Coltrane’s iconic recording in Meltdown. It allowed this deep and spiritually challenging suite of music, based on a recording made 50 years ago this coming December, to share a unique cultural space with a host of unique contemporary artists from Goldie to Josh Homme.
The opening sets of each performance commenced with Byron Wallen invoking the spirit of Buddhism and the Himalayas on his Tibetan horn. A Gnawa inspired duet between the trumpet playing Wallen and bassist Neil Charles followed and it united two compositions, ‘Spirit Of Bilal’ and ‘Battle’. Next up was a fabulous extended interpretation of Joe Henderson’s ‘Earth’ featuring Tori Handsley on harp, Rowland Sutherland on classical flutes and Emi Watanabe on Japanese flutes. A bumping homage to Sun Ra closed the opening set, included a dangerous vibes solo from Orphy Robinson, and paved the way for the main piece.
John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme was conceived as a suite in 4 parts and devotional a statement to God and ‘Enlightenment’ was re-envisioned by innovative master flautist Rowland Sutherland to incorporate and embrace instrumentation associated with various global religious and spiritual traditions and practices that reside in our own inner cities.
The 15 strong ensemble have only ever performed ‘Enlightenment’ all the way through four times. It is a work in progress, nothing is fixed in stone, and hearing both sets in the QEH was massively different from hearing it in the Chapel in Kings. While the ensemble parts are gracious and ethereal other parts are fierce. Personally, I was in complete daze after the first set. Steve Williamson’s tenor solos were mind blowing. One doesn’t experience that degree of intensity very often. Nikki Yeoh’s forays on the piano effortlessly drew a wave of applause from the audience. Shabaka was fresh from playing with the Sun Ra Arkestra and was on fire. Mark Mondesir revived the spirit of Elvin Jones. Orphy Robinson delivered on marimba while his Black Top co-p constantly delivered a swathe of surprises from that deceptive little keyboard of his.
The evening set was different again from the matinee. The audience was different. It was more intense and the set that followed was much leaner than its predecessor. Steve Willamson was excellent but due to horn trouble a little more tentative but Shabaka made up for that. ‘Enlightenment takes the listener on journey that at times is very physical. However, the inclusion of poem written by John Coltrane in the final section of Enlightenment seems to have sparked off a bit a of a debate.
The poem was originally printed on the inside of the gatefold sleeve of the initial US release and played phonetically by Coltrane on his tenor during Resolution on the ‘A Love Supreme’ album. At Meltdown it was recited by Cleveland Watkiss in English and sung wonderfully in Yoruba by Juwon Ogungbe and while Juwon’s contribution drew no comment the English reading of it did.
In fact, when I met one of my closest friends after the first performance she berated me about the poem. It was all too much for her… too much God God God. Her views were then mirrored in John Fordham’s Guardian review which maintained that while A Love Supreme Re-envisioned unleashed some of the year’s most searingly exciting live jazz, the “lengthily zealous finale almost capsized the event”.
This reaction to the poem and it’s reading reminded of a discussion I’d had in the early Seventies with several luminaries of the improvised music scene … Tony Oxley, Paul Rutherford and Barry Guy. I’d suggested that you couldn’t appreciate Coltrane’s music without acceptance of it’s spiritual nature, that his music was part of a spiritual continuum in the freedom struggle of African American… and as a good communist (which I also was/am) Paul Rutherford replied, something like, “God… yeah, that was Coltrane’s problem.”
The concept of “a love supreme” that emanates from God is alive throughout the whole suite. The trio of bata drums in the ensemble are not simply percussion. They were not brought in to simply create extra colour and rhythmic textures. They reflect Coltrane’s final recording where he collaborated with Nigerian master drummer Olatunji and the invocations – chants – included in the piece were made to specific orishas (Shango /Yemaya /Obatala) in the Ifa religion. They connect Coltrane to his west African roots while Ansuman Biswas ‘ contribution and Juwon Ogungbe’s spoken invocation in the opening part are based on Alice Coltrane’s devotion to both her husband and the teachings of Hindu Swami Sachidananda. Personally, I love the opening which unites the santoor with the kora . It’s meditative, moving and it sets the vibe for the whole performance.
As I said earlier ‘Enlightenment’ was first performed in the Chapel in Kings College in 2102 physically placed the music in a place of reflection and worship and, on reflection, taking the piece into the secular space of makes me wish I’d gone with a careful selection of projected images behind the ensemble to illuminate and contextualise the vision.
Any project that takes on something already familiar and much loved is prone to criticism but the Enlightment Ensemble is made up of great musicians who are constantly scrutinising what they are about to play… I know that ’cause I was in all the rehearsals. Nothing is fixed in stone… for example Cleveland alternated the gender of God in the 2nd performance because he thought, after a conversation between sets, that it was alienating for women in the audience to be presented with God as a man.
As the project curator, all I know is that the Enlightment Ensemble received – with no prompting – a standing ovation from both audiences and that most people I spoke to, found the music intense, challenging and thrilling. And on that note I suggest we all tune in when they broadcast it on Jazz on 3 and listen again in cold light of day. The producer, who was in the truck said it sounded, “Amazing!”
We hope to perform the piece again in London on the 50th Anniversary of its recording.. 9th December… so, come a listen for yourself. I’m out of here. Peace.
PS .. . if your interested in an extended performance of the Sun Ra tunes performed in the opening set check us in the Chapel at the House Of St Barnabas on Monday 7th July.
Photography: Roger Thomas & Carl Hyde