By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings
I'm a bit amazed at my own reaction to this momentous, seven-CD masterwork. Instead of musing about the innovative spirit of the early '60s, the sessions that make up this seminal 1959-61 John Coltrane retrospective made me gaze with renewed wonder at the late '50s. It seems that the historical reading I've always adhered to about the period following Charlie Parker's death in 1955 -- the one that has the jazz world running on bebop's fumes until free-jazz alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman appeared with gas can in hand -- is a little too glib. Consider the creative ferment that led to the Trane's fully realized albums like Giant Steps or Coltrane Plays the Blues, just two of the cornerstones of this collection: In more ways than one, the Coltrane Atlantics undermine the idea of late-'50s jazz as some kind of cool or hard-bop regression.
First, there's what they uncover about jazz composition. It's not often talked about, but by the late '50s composition had reached a state of autonomy and grace, with the most inventive minds writing their own tunes instead of constructing them from the changes of pop songs like "Cherokee," as their bebop predecessors had. In the critical bio Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest, author Eric Nisenson is quick to point out that Coltrane's early leadership dates on Prestige contain few, if any, of his own compositions -- certainly nothing to match "Naima" or "Cousin Mary." Whether the tenor man's reticence was caused by a lack of ideas or the simple desire to control his own publishing (something unheard of at Prestige), that Trane blossomed as a composer on his first date for his new label suggests he'd been doing much woodshedding, a fact reiterated in an essay by fellow sax man and Philadelphia practice chum Jimmy Heath in the beautiful 74-page booklet accompanying the box set.
The two most miraculous things revealed in Heavyweight Champion, though, are that Coltrane never looked back, and that reissue producer Joel Dorn compiled everything, including a cleverly packaged CD of previously unreleased alternate-takes and an interview with Mary L. Alexander (better known to jazz fans as "Cousin Mary"). It's obvious now that Trane had the complete confidence of his label, which wasn't shaken by the volatile Jim Crow atmosphere that made certain quarters of the jazz community repeatedly refer to this gorgeous music as "angry." The output speaks for itself, and the box set attests to the two prolific years that contributed greatly to Coltrane's later success.
In the meantime, Trane found two-thirds of his historic rhythm section (pianist McCoy Turner, drummer Elvin Jones); scored a minor hit with a driving version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" (played on the soprano sax, his second love); tested himself with Ornette Coleman's sidemen; and developed the sound and spiritual image that would make him an icon.
"This music is easily classified under your basic garden-strength-alterna-outback-'Funk-Dat!-rock-n-chock-full-a-lyrical-la-di-da to which you can tap your feet,' Jennifer Trynin writes in her bio. But it only takes a few minutes with her debut, Cockamamie, to realize this self-assessment is dripping with irony. Trynin has just the brute, femme-de-guerre edginess needed to piss on the record industry and its "file under ..." mentality. In fact, her contract with Warner Bros. stipulated that the label re-release her self-produced CD without changing so much as a note. The payoff: Cockamamie lacks the usual c.o.d. stamp of commercialism that has helped boil the essence of alternarock down into shapeless brown matter.
Trynin's songs barge in without knocking. Excepting a few smoky acoustic offerings, the Boston-area artist doles out noisy, full-throated rants that reel you in with hooks so pleasantly askew they leave teeth marks. Unlike legions of lady vocalists who pussyfoot around with a 12-year-old's falsetto, Trynin joins the ranks of Chrissie Hynde and Liz Phair -- grrrls who aren't ashamed to go low and utilize the steel of their voices. She is equally fearless with her guitar, a centrifugal force that keeps the drums and bass in close orbit.
First and foremost, though, Trynin is a songwriter, with a gift for relentless melodies and clever phrasing. Her delightfully cranky attitude belies a romantic disappointed by the poverty of the world's offerings. The opening "Happier" captures the eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head paranoia that arises in a bleak urban setting: "What could make me happier than sitting right here/ Trash in the walkway and the boys down in the street/ They're screaming bloody murder/ 'Cause that's what you do when you don't stand a chance/ Aren't you the guy who robbed the Store 24?" In "Do It Alone," she gives her lover a virtual laundry list of things to do when she dies, requesting that he never find a replacement. Still, in the romance-gone-wrong lineup, it's the alternately sluggish and swaggering "Loser" anthems like "Knock Me Down" that win -- perfect material for any men-are-lame compilation.
-- Shoshana Berger
Jennifer Trynin plays Tues, Aug. 29, at Slim's in S.F.; call 255-0333.