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'If Trane Wuz Here' gets off on right feet

March 01, 2004|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Imagine this incredible combination: the passionate, mesmerizing music of John Coltrane and the electrifying dancing of Savion Glover. It's a fantastic dream, of course, an amalgamation of rhythm and song that is too good to be true -- or possible. Coltrane died in 1967; Glover was born in 1973.

But an effort to explore that remarkable possibility was at the heart of "If Trane Wuz Here" at Cinespace on Friday night. The 90-minute presentation featured Glover (performing on a tiny, 5-by-5-foot raised platform), poet reg e gaines and alto saxophonist Matana Roberts.

Glover is universally considered one of the world's finest tap dancers, and with good cause. Not only is he fast, precise and incredibly virtuosic, but he is also musically imaginative and rhythmically hard swinging. Tap dancing's connection with drumming is obvious, and -- since the extraordinary innovations of the great Bill "Bojangles" Robinson -- it has become an increasingly more sophisticated rhythmic art.

The work of performers such as the Nicholas brothers, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Gregory Hines (to mention only a few) has paralleled the evolution of modern jazz drumming, and Glover has moved the process firmly 21st century.

He started the program in full sprint, bursting through an array of drum-like accents -- flams, paradiddles, press rolls and rim shots -- executed in a way that would have made any percussionist proud. His energy level didn't diminish an iota for the next hour and a half, as he applied his improvisational insights to an unfolding selection of material from the Coltrane legacy -- including such classics as "Giant Steps," "My Favorite Things" and, of course, "A Love Supreme."

Flanking Glover to his left, gaines (who wrote the book and lyrics for the hit Glover musical "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk") offered a series of poetic vignettes devoted to the jazz saxophone in general and Coltrane in particular. At times, he sang rhythmic vamps, sometimes underscoring Glover's rapidly moving passage, sometimes interfacing with Roberts' saxophone lines.

Positioned on Glover's right, Roberts had the primary role of creating the instrumental connection with the dancing. And it was here that the production became problematic. Even overlooking that Coltrane played tenor saxophone, not alto, Roberts -- who is still developing her skills and creativity -- was simply not a sufficiently evolved musical partner to interface meaningfully with Glover's brilliantly virtuosic dancing.

All of which left the program with a clear focus upon a nonstop display of dazzling tap artistry -- not exactly something to complain about. But one still couldn't help but dream about the ultimately illusory but still compelling vision of an imagined Glover-Coltrane encounter.

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