When John Coltrane introduced pianist Tommy Flanagan to his composition “Giant Steps,’’ a landmark in progressive jazz, the saxophonist said, “This is just an easy song.’’ Flanagan responded with the equivalent of rolling his eyes.
WGBH radio jazz host Eric Jackson recounted that anecdote at the beginning of Saturday’s 34th annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert at Northeastern University’s Blackman Theatre, where the disc jockey was serving as guest emcee. Coltrane’s music may be legendary for its technical ambition, but its intent is humble. The late jazz master, who died in 1967 at 40, truly believed that music can be a kind of religion.
With 14 impeccably improvisational musicians leading the liturgy and several Boston jazz fixtures beatified throughout the course of the night, this year’s Coltrane tribute was like a Sunday morning service on Saturday night. Emmett Price, chairman of Northeastern’s African American Studies department, kicked off the concert by noting that the theater has been recently renovated. Was the temperature right? he asked.
“We want to make sure you’re comfortable, ’cause it’s going to get very hot in here,’’ he said.
By the time Leonard Brown comically fanned fellow saxophonist Carl Atkins with a handkerchief after Atkins’s long lead run on Coltrane’s reworking of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,’’ the hall did seem considerably warmer. The set, dubbed Coltrane’s Ashé III, featured thematic Afro-Caribbean arrangements of Coltrane’s music - fitting on a night when Jose Masso, the bilingual host of WBUR-FM’s long-running program “Con Salsa,’’ was honored as a living legend.
Not coincidentally, percussionist Ricardo Monzon emerged as a crowd favorite, showcasing his enthusiasm on timbales and congas from the opening moments of the radically reimagined “Giant Steps.’’ Coltrane’s signature take on “My Favorite Things’’ was similarly recast as effusive Latin jazz.
But there was room for reflection, too. Stan Strickland’s arrangement of “Afro-Blue,’’ a Mongo Santamaria song with lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr., featured a long, atmospheric intro that conjured the sensation of easing around the bend of a river on a hot day. The next number, “Naima,’’ gave Brown, the event’s cofounder, a solo turn on soprano sax, accompanied only by the mesmeric interlocking basses of John Lockwood (acoustic) and Tim Ingles (electric).
Later, trumpeter Jason Palmer, a Wally’s Cafe regular who is younger than the memorial concert itself, presented his arrangement of Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You.’’ That song came across as one of the night’s more conventional tunes, until Palmer took the lead and calmly blew the roof off. Every member of the big ensemble had ample opportunity to shine, yet the night ended in unison. Coltrane’s “Peace on Earth’’ built from a quiet meditation to a free-jazz onslaught, a musical reminder that real peace does not come without struggle. The effect was overwhelming, the brass and reeds squawking and skirling over percussive mayhem, before Atkins’s soprano saxophone cut through the din like a dove.
“When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people,’’ Coltrane once said. “I think music can make the world better.’’ It was a modest thought from a man of prodigious musical gifts. The band assembled for this year’s memorial took a few giant steps in that direction.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.