When John Coltrane died in 1967, the effect was like dropping a boulder of intense feeling into the deep waters of jazz, creating ripples that are still felt today. In the aftermath, it fell to his closest collaborators to continue the work, spreading his message of spiritual awakening and universal compassion through the medium of progressive jazz. While his widow, Alice Coltrane, continued on an outward curve, drawing deeper on Hindu cosmology and digging into free jazz, former bandmates such as McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders ushered in a new genre of jazz – as on Sanders’ 1971 classic, Thembi – which was still characterised by deeply-felt spiritual yearning, but which reined in Coltrane’s raging intensity in favour of a more accessible and breezily melodic tone. British saxophonist Nat Birchall is keeping that flame burning in the 21st century.
In fact, Sacred Dimension is so imbued with the post-Coltrane cosmo-spiritual vibe, it’s a little like a presentation by an early-70s jazz historical re-enactment society. Ancient World kicks the album off with bells and shakers before pianist Adam Fairhall sets up strident, Tyner-ish chords, which, supported by Nick Blacka’s determined modal bass figures, are goaded into crashing waves by the heavily rolling energy of drummer Andy Hay. Add in Corey Mwamba’s neat vibes solo and Rachel Gladwin’s delicate harp à la Alice Coltrane and it could easily be a lost outtake from Tyner’s 1970 album Extensions. Similarly, Sacred Dimension is a limpid, free-flowing tone poem in the same vein as Tyner’s His Blessings from the same album, or Sanders’ Greetings to Saud, from 1973’s Elevation.
What’s impressive, though, is how confidently Birchall assumes the mantle of Coltrane acolyte. His soprano solo on Ancient World has some of the Moorish-Iberian tang first hinted at on Coltrane’s Olé, and plays out as logically unfolding series of melodic permutations, owing much to Coltrane’s endless interrogations of simple themes. Dance of the Mystic – another loping, modal groove – sets the scene for a tenor workout crammed full of fleeting echoes of Coltrane motifs that flutter almost close enough to identify while staying just tantalisingly out of reach.
In the end, this is much more than mere pastiche. It’s a deeply sincere homage to a master, presented with an open heart full of passion and love. And, God knows, the world needs more of that right now.
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