Graded on a Curve: Teodross Avery,
After the Rain: A Night for Coltrane

Dr. Teodross Avery hit the scene on saxophone way back in the mid-’90s in a decidedly post-bop way, but in the intervening years much of his energy not devoted to academics found him working as a sideman in settings ranging from jazz to neo-soul to hip-hop. A couple of years ago he released an out-of-nowhere duo CD with Marvin “Bugalu” Smith that loosened things up considerably, and now he’s back with the live quartet recording After the Rain: A Night for Coltrane. Digging into a multifaced array of tunes from John Coltrane’s discography (four originals and two covers), the group dive into the sound of the Classic Quartet in expansive mode. It’s out May 10 on LP and CD through Tompkins Square.

In Other Words by the Teodross Avery Quartet was released in 1994 on Impulse, though it didn’t dent my consciousness back then, mainly because my jazz fandom was leading me into more avant-garde areas. In Other Words is a thoroughly post-bop affair (I’ve since checked it out); one could even call it a neo-trad thing, with Avery very much in Young Lion-mode (this designation is a nod to the all-star Vee-Jay LP of 1961, which itself was riffing on the title to the WWII novel of Irwin Shaw, that is considered a highpoint in post-bop/ hard-bop jazz, a style highly valued by the neo-trad movement).

As said, in 1994 my jazz interest was taking me into areas somewhat afield from the neo-trad experience, like trying to locate a copy of the Charles Gayle William Parker Rashied Ali recording Touchin’ on Trane, which came out in ’93 via the FMP label. I mention this record because it ties in nicely with the thematic thrust of Avery’s latest, though the depth of Coltrane’s influence on the saxophonist spans back to the very beginning; his bio relates that a hearing of Giant Steps at age 13 was pivotal to his musical development.

Indeed, the impact of Coltrane on In Other Words is easy to discern. The same is true of Avery’s second album, My Generation from 1996, though that one introduced a connection to hip-hop, with Black Thought from The Roots guesting. As its title makes clear, hip-hop also impacts 2017’s Post Modern Trap Music, though it’s a more subtle ingredient than one might expect.

To elaborate, the musical selections I’ve heard from the CD (there are also a series of illuminating spoken treatises from Avery sequenced after the music that detail the making of the record) hit my ear like Coltrane and Ali’s Interstellar Space and Frank Lowe and Ali’s Duo Exchange (this is no great stretch on my part; both are cited by Avery as pertinent to the recording’s shape) but with a cognizance of our post-Madlib/ MF Doom reality (and a deft touch by Avery and Smith in integrating it into the whole).

One of Avery’s stated reasons for making Post Modern Trap Music was that he felt a high percentage of contempo jazz was too rehearsed. That recording’s looseness and spontaneity were certainly welcome, and with After the Rain the saxophonist has retained the energy of his prior release and applied it to a live plunge into the music of Coltrane; the results are better described as a celebration (enthusiastic, exciting) than as a mere (dime-a-dozen) tribute.

The not overly finessed intensity plays a considerable part in After the Rain’s success, but maybe more crucial is how Avery isn’t smitten with one or two eras or modes of expression from Coltrane’s voluminous journey. And yet, he’s focused as he grabs two from Africa/Brass, the opening “Blues Minor” and “Africa,” while the title track is taken from Impressions and “Pursuance” from A Love Supreme.

The two non-Coltrane originals illuminate Coltrane’s cross-genre curiosity and his well-ensconced love of a strong tune; they are Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” (a swell alternate to the frankly overemphasized by this late date “My Favorite Things”) and Cal Massey’s “Bakai,” which reaches back to the release of Coltrane in 1957, the composition given a wild reimagining here by Avery and crew.

Avery’s fellow players on this night (March 31, 2018 at the Sound Room in Oakland, CA) were pianist Adam Shulman, bassist Jeff Chambers, and drummer Darrell Green. “Blues Minor” establishes that while the timbres of Coltrane’s sound and the exploratory peaks and valleys of the master’s approach will be abundant, Avery is simultaneously working in a zone far beyond standard imitation. This extends to the band, with Shulman’s playing and especially his solos avoiding any too-explicit nods to McCoy Tyner; the same is true of Green’s work in relation to Elvin Jones.

Avery’s achievement with “Bakai” is tantamount to what Coltrane occasionally pulled off in his interpretations, which is to say it’s a transformation of the source material, and so its back-to-back sequencing with “Afro Blue” is fitting. From the standpoint of the rhythm section’s groove, “Bakai” somewhat puts me in the frame of mind of a more “advanced” ’60s Blue Note session (I can’t shake thinking of Jackie McLean’s Hipnosis, though when Green’s drumming is in the spotlight it reminds me of Art Blakey).

With Avery switching from tenor to soprano, “Afro Blue” lovingly examines the sound of Coltrane’s quartet taking sweet flight, though there are still distinctive elements, like the Latin tinge of Green riding the cymbal. If your favorite Coltrane record is Live at Birdland (and what a discerning cat you are), then it’s a cinch you’ll want to hear After the Rain and this track in particular, because Avery soars and the band kicks.

Rather than attempt to sustain or even top the intensity that is “Afro Blue,” the title cut engages with another of Coltrane’s strengths by offering a meditative reset, the better to appreciate the band’s relaunch into “Africa,” where everyone plays at a high level. However, the highlight is the lengthy bowed-bass excursion, with Chambers standing far outside the shadow of Jimmy Garrison.

“Pursuance” gives Shulman another chance to shine, with his playing reminding me more of Tommy Flanagan than Tyner, which is cool. But even cooler is how “Pursuance” markedly differs from the root tune (by now as canonical as anything in Coltrane’s discography) and by extension, far exceeds expectations. It delivers a superb finale to a recording of magnificence that should well-stoke the fires of those who’ve long-appreciated the work of Coltrane’s quartet right up to its mid-’60s dissolution. It’s also destined to secure a fresh wave of fans for Dr. Teodross Avery.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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