JOHN COLTRANE The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (Impulse)
And indeed they do: on this 1965 date Coltrane is accompanied by McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison and Art Davis (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums), bassists apart substantially the same ensemble that wove magic from some unusual source material on the "My Favorite Things" album. (And when is some benevolent record company going to do the decent thing and reissue Coltranes Atlantic recordings on vinyl?) The tracks here include two Coltrane originals ("Song Of Praise" and "Brazilia") and two covers ("Chim Chim Cheree" and "Nature Boy"), and this limited edition Impulse reissue boasts, according to the sticker on the front cover, "audiophile remastering, 180g virgin vinyl, original liner notes and deluxe gatefold packaging".
Unfortunately, for an admittedly non-jazz-obsessed listener such as myself, "The John Coltrane Quartet Plays" seems to date from an uneasy crossroads in the saxophonists career. With the transcendent "A Love Supreme" already recorded but not, I think, released, Coltrane seems to be simultaneously gazing backwards at past triumphs (the version of "Chim Chim Cheree" recalls his blazing, raga rock assault on "My Favorite Things", unfortunately without the same sense of barely controlled glee) and anticipating the fiercely difficult music that was yet to come (Coltranes two original compositions and a take on "Nature Boy" that quickly dispenses with the tune in favour of an exploration of what can be done when your band suddenly grows an extra bassist). Still, Im sure more jazz-attuned ears than mine would find much to enjoy here, and newcomers could do worse than explore the recently released double CD compilation that handily draws on his Blue Note, Atlantic and Impulse work.
JOHN COLTRANE The Heavyweight Champion (Rhino/Atlantic Jazz Gallery)
It has become as close to accepted fact as any objective opinion can hope to be that Miles Davis' "Kind Of Blue" is the greatest jazz album ever made, undoubtedly the genre's "Sgt. Pepper". Yet for some reason, Miles Davis' music and influence hasn't really broken out into the wider realm of pop/rock/call it what you want, despite arguably inventing the whole jazz-rock realm with his seminal late-60s/early-70s recordings. I would argue that, in his stead, and almost by accident, his former band member, and saxophonist on the "Kind Of Blue" sessions, John Coltrane has adopted the crossover mantle, his influence seeping over the more forward-thinking bastions of popular music in the decades since his premature death. Gil Scott-Heron wrote "Lady Day And John Coltrane", The Dream Syndicate "John Coltrane Stereo Blues". Primal Scream are never short of a good word to say about him: in concert, "Loaded" has been known to pan out into a repeated chant of "John Coltrane/John Coltrane". Elvis Costello paid homage within "This Is Hell" - "'My Favorite Things' keeps playing again and again/But it's by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane". Forgotten soul singer Will Downing even scored a top 20 hit with his adaptation of Coltrane's religious suite "A Love Supreme" (close-to-officially the second best jazz album ever made). But for all this surreptitious infiltration of the mainstream it's unlikely that any regular on the Clapham omnibus could whistle you a Coltrane composition.
"The Heavyweight Champion" is a 12 LP box set that contains everything John Coltrane ever recorded for the Ertegun brothers' Atlantic label between Thursday, January 15, 1959 and Thursday, May 25, 1961. This prolific period generated six solo albums, a platter apiece shared with Milt Jackson and Don Cherry and eight sides of outtakes, alternate versions and tunes that have only appeared posthumously. It originally appeared on vinyl in 1995 as a numbered, limited edition of 3000. This re-reissue is known as the Year 2000 Second Edition: again, only 3000 will be produced, albeit this time unnumbered. (Its also available as an 8 CD equivalent, which smudges proceedings for all but the most devoted musicologist by presenting these 86 tracks in the exact order of their taping, rather than their original issue.) The individual albums themselves are offered in as close to contemporary form as possible, with the same Atlantic label styles you would have found had you been fortunate enough to be buying these albums first time round, up to forty years ago, sleeve notes intact, high quality 180 gram pressings, smooth, vinyl-friendly inner sleeves, a 36 page booklet of photographs, reminiscences, facts and analysis and, naturally, a big box to keep the whole kit caboodle in. Visually and physically, "The Heavyweight Champion" is a cherishable thing of beauty. So why not listen to it?
Originally released in the first month of the 1960s, "Giant Steps" is widely touted by jazz buffs as the 'other' great Coltrane album, the best one that isn't "A Love Supreme". At the time Coltrane was consciously attempting to shed his 'sheets of sound' approach to playing, but whatever the phrase actually means it certainly seems applicable to the waterfall of notes that tumbles over this daring, brilliant album. Audacious, leaping melodies (the title track derives its moniker from the cascading theme that opens and closes the song), tender ballads (Sebadoh once covered "Naima", Coltrane's love song to his wife) and rattling, full-throttle headrushes ("Countdown", "Mr P.C.", a salute to bass player Paul Chambers), "Giant Steps" has everything. It was Coltrane's first entirely self-penned set, the jazz equivalent of Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards taking up the quill, and it remains a high watermark in danceable, melodic, rhythmic cacophony.
The inventively titled "Coltrane Jazz" followed in February 1961, although it was substantially recorded at the sessions that produced "Giant Steps". Mixing Coltrane originals with standards by Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen among others, it had always struck me as a rather dowdy set, lacking the inventive spark of the albums that surrounded it in Coltrane's discography. Reappraising it on vinyl I'd be happy to substitute homely for dowdy: it's cheeky, perky and appealing, the retread of "Little Old Lady" particularly, but not especially memorable. All of the eight selections clock in at under six minutes, so Coltrane never really takes flight during his soloing. All the same, it's a surprisingly enjoyable amble down the runway.
A month later, "My Favorite Things" was released, and all the mild criticisms of enforced restraint and overpowering pleasantness that could be levelled at "Coltrane Jazz" were blown out of the water. Possibly diminished in the eyes of the hardcore Coltrane enthusiast due to consisting entirely of cover versions of popular songs, nevertheless this aptly titled set is my favourite jazz album in the world ever. Coltrane had been experimenting with the soprano sax, and poses with such an instrument on the cover - some enthusiasts at the time had no idea what it was, apparently - and its hard-blown, nasal, Eastern tones are all over this album. The material is - with the possible exception of the Gershwin number "But Not For Me" - so familiar your mother could hum it. Aside from this and the title track, which was some years away from international recognition in the film version of "The Sound Of Music", the group also tackle "Every Time We Say Goodbye" and "Summertime".
The version of "My Favorite Things" captured here lasts for 13 minutes 41 seconds. I once encountered a CD of a later Tokyo concert that contained over an hour of the thing, predominately bass solo, during which the melody appeared for a few fleeting bars before being stamped upon by further exploding galaxies of improvisation. But arguably the Coltrane quartet say everything you need to know about "My Favorite Things" here, from the runaway freight train of Elvin Jones' propulsive percussion to pianist McCoy Tyner, heard wailing off-microphone (not for the last time in this box!) during his stomping solo spot. And Coltrane himself, of course, let loose with his new toy, breezes in like a cloud of some fabulous, exotic spice. I've been playing this album for over five years, and it wasn't until I read the booklet that accompanies this box that I realised that Coltrane's arrangement doesn't touch the "When the dog bites" section until the very close of the performance: not only did he revolutionise this song through his interpretation, he turned its structure inside-out as well. Marvellous, and again, marvellous.
Elsewhere there's a more traditional take on "Every Time We Say Goodbye", a ballad with brushes, which is not to belittle how beautiful, nay, definitive Coltrane can make traditional sound. "Summertime" hollers for over eleven thrilling minutes; "But Not For Me" is just as brilliant. But by then the damage has been done, preconceptions utterly shattered. The jazz snob in you might not agree - "My Favorite Things" doesn't bristle with bizarre time signatures, or explore new dimensions in composition - but as far as the layman's (i.e. my!) interpretation of what jazz is about, namely taking a familiar melody and improvising with it, is concerned, this album runs with it and boots it into outer space. If you only buy one other jazz album ever (after "Kind Of Blue", of course, just to appease the traditionalists!), here 'tis.
"Bags And Trane" followed nine months later, and saw the saxophonist teamed with Modern Jazz Quartet alumni Milt Jackson (vibraharp) and Connie Kay (drums; he later played on Van Morrison's epochal "Astral Weeks"), pianist Hank Jones and his own bassist Paul Chambers. The characteristic, twinkling Modern Jazz Quartet sound shines through this album, but it's questionable whether it benefits either party to be hemmed in with each other on this pleasant but ultimately inconsequential date. Covers of "Three Little Words" and "The Night We Called It A Day" impress, but following the high-octane riff-riding thrills of "My Favorite Things" almost any album would appear lukewarm, which is exactly the fate that befalls "Bags And Trane".
Happily more vibrant fare was in the pipeline. Released just two months later, "Olé Coltrane" arrived in February 1962. Coltrane's old employer had explored thematically similar territory eighteen months earlier, his mournful, scorched trumpet playing supported throughout "Sketches Of Spain" (my favourite Miles Davis thing, incidentally) by Gil Evans' pillow-soft orchestrations. But Coltrane's stomp through the country is an entirely different prospect, one that he seemed reluctant to elaborate on at the time - discussion of the music in the sleeve notes was displaced by lengthy extracts of an earlier interview conducted by Ralph Gleason. So we can only guess at his intentions when he took the wild, ragged improvisations that formed the backbone of his recording of "My Favorite Things" and mashed them up into an 18 minute composition titled "Olé". Was he trying to capture a more violent take on the romantic bullfighter chic that Davis' interpretation of "Concierto De Aranjuez" espoused? Whatever, Coltrane was back to making thrilling, visceral music again. Significantly, and as a pointer to his later, even more free-range works recorded for Impulse, the traditional quartet format is augmented on this piece by flute, trumpet (handled by Freddie Hubbard) and extra bass. "Olé" is a tower of strength that somewhat dwarfs the remaining tracks on the record, the Coltrane original "Dahomey Dance" and McCoy Tyner's "Aisha": nevertheless, if you tuned in to what he was doing with "My Favorite Things" this oft-overlooked album remains an essential next step.
On "Coltrane Plays The Blues" (July 1962) he does exactly what it says on the tin. He stomps, he sways, he plays soprano and tenor. If it starts out seeped in traditional jazz and blues values the cobwebs are gradually blown away: by the time you arrive at the second side trilogy of "Mr. Day", "Mr. Syms" and "Mr. Night" he's made the genre his own. A minor work in the Coltrane canon, admittedly, but one whose scope widens along with the listener's grin.
Almost two years passed before the unveiling of "Coltrane's Sound", an album that saw him play with a new-found, almost mellow maturity, whether he was diving headlong into covers of "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes" and "Body And Soul" or essaying exquisite new material such as "Equinox" and "Central Park West". This material had been recorded simultaneously with "My Favorite Things", and could almost be viewed as the late-night downside to that album's frenetic quest. It's a solid, professional work that won't scare the newcomer, and if it doesn't subscribe to its partner's burning, blinding brilliance it's still well worth 40 minutes of your time.
"The Avant-Garde" was the last Coltrane set to be issued by Atlantic during the artist's lifetime. Captured on tape in 1960, released six years later, it documents two sessions attended by Coltrane and co-headlining trumpeter Don Cherry (father of Neneh and Eagle-Eye). The majority of the material came from Cherry's boss Ornette Coleman, including a twelve minute take on his crackling "Focus On Sanity". This is as discordant and jarring as any of these albums get, a complex soundclash that reminds the listener that Coleman reputedly strongly influenced Captain Beefheart. Like the Milt Jackson collaboration, it leaves you wondering whether one album is big enough to contain such strongly contrasting talents.
In the wake of Coltrane's tragically premature 1967 death, Atlantic respectfully began sweeping out their remaining tape stock with 1970's "The Coltrane Legacy". It drew from material recorded with the "My Favorite Things", "Olé" and "Bags And Trane" ensembles, some of it arguably still in pre-production form - track titles include "Original Untitled Ballad" and "Untitled Original" - although performance and recording quality are uniformly high throughout, with Eric Dolphy popping up on flute during the former. Centrepiece of the album is the stomping "Centerpiece", later to be revived by Joni Mitchell as a memory of far-off high-school summers as part of her complex, jazz odyssey patchwork "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns". Not essential, like all the other posthumous albums included here, but nice to have.
1974 brought "Alternate Takes", which is exactly that: versions of "Giant Steps", "Coltrane Jazz" and "Coltrane's Sound" material that differ from those previously released. "Giant Steps", for example, hasn't quite found the good foot that a change of pianist and drummer would provide in the future. At least it represents the result of a degree of careful cherry picking: the final volume in the set, a double album baldly titled "Outtakes" and swathed in a glorious facsimile of a 1960s Scotch tape box, bristles with incomplete takes, rehearsals, false starts and studio chatter. There are, for example, nine versions of "Giant Steps", one of which implodes after twelve seconds, and eight "Like Sonny"s. This is the closest "The Heavyweight Champion" gets to leaving the listener cross-eyed and punch-drunk, but "Outtakes" is undoubtedly a necessary evil. Without it this box couldn't lay claim to its subtitle of "The Complete Atlantic Recordings", which, for better rather than worse, it wears proudly.
So. Do you really need eight hours of John Coltrane? I know I do, which is why I jumped at the prospect of "The Heavyweight Champion" the moment I heard of Rhino's reissue plans. Most of its constituent parts have been simultaneously reissued as separate albums (I think only "The Avant-Garde" has escaped), but buying the box works out marginally cheaper, you get the bonus of the booklet and it looks fabulous sitting on the shelf. But if you're unsure, try to hear "Giant Steps" and "My Favorite Things", to obtain at least a flavour of the wild, spidery magic this musician was capable of brewing up at his considerable best.
JOHN COLTRANE Coltrane (Impulse!)
As with The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, this 1962 recording seems to find the saxophonist and band eking out diminishing returns from the template that fostered the staggering My Favorite Things set, in which popular standards were extensively remade/remodelled into glorious outbursts of melody and invention that should be mandatory listening for anyone contemplating a hesitant first step into the shallower pools of possibility that exist within the genre. Its the kind of work that shakes the listener roughly by some appropriate garmentry hand hold whilst boisterously and intoxicatingly explaining just what jazz can do and be.
Unfortunately, as intimated above, Coltrane just doesnt come close. Here, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercers Out Of This World goes under the scalpel, and when the anaesthetic wears off although the result is undeniably pleasant, compared to the bumper car thrills of My Favorite Things it sounds decidedly weak and insipid. In fact, Coltrane wistfully sprays a few quotes from the latter into his solo.
Of the albums other four tracks, Miles Mode at least has something like a spark to it, but it also suggests Mr P.C. overburdened with unnecessary extra notes, as if the melody was consciously worked on, rather than instinctively thought or felt. Lovely as this limited edition heavy vinyl gatefold reissue is to behold, it seems doomed to live out its days on the shelf, whilst I plunder The Heavyweight Champion and A Love Supreme for my Coltrane thrills.
JOHN COLTRANE WITH THE RED GARLAND TRIO Traneing In (Prestige)
Recorded during a single day in August 1957, Traneing In is an affable enough Coltrane record but not one that captures the jazz genius in full flight. Opening with the title track, this bluesy stompers certainly got that swing, Coltrane confident enough to sit out the first three-and-a-half minutes before making an appearance. He slides around the melody as eloquently as expected, but compared to the finest moments of his later Atlantic and Impulse work its all rather polite. Paul Chambers later to be immortalised on Giant Steps Mr P.C. drifts delightfully towards Santa Claus Is Coming To Town during his bass solo, and when Trane returns to close proceedings his sheets of sound flap gently in a warm, good-natured rhythmic breeze.
Slow Dance, a gentle ballad written by barely remembered pianist Alonzo Levister, arguably provided the template for later Coltrane compositions such as Naima the closing seconds in particular seem rather familiar. Nevertheless, theres much melodic intricacy at play here that repays closer investigation. Accurately if prosaically titled, Bass Blues is notable for Chambers bowed solo, wherein he makes his tubby fiddle sing like a choir, and Art Taylors brief, snappy excursion around his kit. Rather less accurately titled, Irving Berlins Soft Lights And Sweet Music makes a welcome uptempo closer, the group skilfully staying on the rails through a series of bucking melodic switchbacks.
The presentation of this 1987 CD reissue leaves a deal to be desired, unfortunately. The sonics are compromised by some fluctuating treble that squashes piano and cymbal work in particular, and the booklet carries an essay entitled The Tragedy Of Coltrane (1962-1966), the tragedy presumably being that the author didnt bother to check the date of the saxophonists death, which was actually 17 July 1967.
JOHN COLTRANE AND JOHNNY HARTMAN John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman (Impulse)
While I wouldn’t deny John Coltrane’s facility with a ballad – his version of “Everytime We Say Goodbye”, on the fantastic “My Favorite Things” album, is my idea of definitive – when he spends an entire album stuck in easy listening mode the results can lean towards the soporific. Added to this, Johnny Hartman, his former colleague in Dizzy Gillespie’s band, for all his velvety smooth tone, seems to croon in a voice entirely devoid of any trace of emotion. He puts me in mind of a Muppet, for some reason, although I don’t know which one; Don Music perhaps.
The alcohol-sodden “Lush Life” delivers more in the way of lyrical barbs than might be expected from a standard, but Hartman and Coltrane smother them until it’s just another tasteful supper club soundtrack. So, whilst there’s clearly a lot of talent and ability subtly deployed on this album, it fails totally to draw this listener in. Sumptuous and immaculate it undoubtedly is, but to me it sounds like high class cocktail music, much as it might seem like a sin to say that of any record with Coltrane’s involvement.
If I’m interpreting the obi correctly (and I mean the English part, not the Japanese!) Universal’s 200 gram vinyl reissue is derived from an analogue source (unlike some albums in this series), and it certainly sounds reasonable enough. The absence of much in the way of dynamics or excitement probably has much more to do with the programme material than the way it’s being reproduced, in this case.
JOHN COLTRANE Blue Train (Analogue Productions)
The only solo album Coltrane released on Blue Note, this 1957 session plays like the saxophonist’s definitive hard bop statement. The bluesy title tune is phenomenal, its adamant riff perhaps a forerunner of Miles’ “So What”, “Moment’s Notice” bustles with turn-on-a-dime rhythms and “Locomotion” is as propulsive as its title suggests. The attack only slackens off on the ballad “I’m Old Fashioned”, and Coltrane rarely works for me in this mode: the playing is impeccable, of course, but it doesn’t dig any deeper into this listener than that.
In these economically troubled times it’s perhaps a small crumb of comfort that the small but determined vinyl resurgence can support two complementary but competing premium Blue Note reissue programmes. Acoustic Sounds and Music Matters are both releasing vintage titles from the label’s back pages as two-disc, 45 rpm limited editions. The technical reasons for doing so are well-established: running at a faster speed, the microscopic deflections the stylus is attempting to measure are stretched out over a greater distance, potentially improving the accuracy of information retrieval. In practice, both companies produce fabulous-sounding records that provide the best impersonation of actual musicians interacting with each other in real time I’ve heard in my lounge. If Acoustic Sounds have managed to snag a more interesting (or perhaps just more popular) slice of the repertoire, Music Matters’ packaging has them beat: the latter’s reissues arrive in stout gatefold sleeves peppered with rare session photos, racking up the perceived value in ways that the glossy but utilitarian reproductions of the original covers used by Acoustic Sounds do not. Nevertheless, it would be churlish to complain about such an embarrassment of audiophile-grade riches, although it might be instructive to note that $50 (or, realistically, by the time they reach these shores, £50) versions of catalogue items that routinely sell for less than a tenth of the price on CD might be the one of the few remaining ways for record companies to make money these days.