After recording the seminal ‘A Love Supreme’, John Coltrane embarked upon an intensive period of ‘recording activity’. The five albums contained within were recorded within a three year period and more was to follow. The classic quartet remained (just about) intact, but already there were clear indications of the changes afoot both in terms of future personnel and evolving musical ideas. In many ways ‘Meditations’ was the logical spiritual follow up to ‘A Love Supreme’. The modal feel of ‘Compassion’ features stirring solos from McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison while on the romantic ballad ‘Love’’Coltrane proved, if ever proof were required, that he was always capable of moments of intense beauty. In contrast ‘Consequences’ hinted at what was to come and is considerably freer in outlook whereas the relatively short piece ‘Serenity’ focused on the melodic improvisation of the quartet collectively.
The earlier album ‘John Coltrane Quartet Plays’ is an interesting item in the Coltrane discography and parallels with the Atlantic album ‘My Favourite Things’ are inevitable given the deconstruction of both ‘Chim Chim Cheree’, from the ‘Mary Poppins’ soundtrack, and, a relative newcomer to the American songbook at the time, ‘Nature Boy’. Both feature ‘Trane on soprano saxophone and are radical reworkings of the original songs. Extensive original liner notes courtesy of the avant-garde and decidely left of centre musical historian Frank Kofsky provide a fascinating outlook on the recording industry at the time.
One album that is out on a limb among the others is the live recording at the Newport Jazz Festival from 1963. Part of the concert featured the classic quartet, another with an entirely different line up of musicians including vibist Bobby Hutcherson, tenorist Archie Sheep (a long time fan of ‘Trane)and the vastly underrated drummer Joe Chambers. Four out of the five compositions were penned by Shepp with only one piece, ‘One down, one up’ written by Coltrane himself and featuring the classic quartet with modal musings by Tyner and ably assisted by Elvin Jones with the predictable fireworks on polyrhythmic drums. Of the Archie Shepp pieces, the unsually structured ‘Le matin des noire’(sic)impresses with its building of tension between vibes and drums.
‘Kulu Se Mama’ contains moments of great beauty as well as a good deal of freer activity. This is illustrated on the gorgeous ballad ‘Welcome’ which is notable for the building and release of tension between Tyner and Jones, while ‘Trane is here at his most melodic. In a freer form ‘Vigil’ is essentially a duet between Jones and Coltrane while the title track is a fiery affair augmented by reeds from Donald Garrett and Pharoah Sanders. Again from 1965 ‘Ascension’is a big band album, but not in any conventional sense of the word. Like ‘Africa Brass’ it is an attempt at a larger ensemble work and one that includes the talents of Marion Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. This is by no means a casual listen and in many ways follows on from Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free jazz’ recording.
These newly re-mastered albums have undergone a minor change in their digipak format with notes contained within the gatefold sleeves exactly as the original vinyl was. There are no additional tracks or notes save for a second and preferred version from Coltrane of ‘Ascension’. This is truly timeless spiritual music for decidedly spiritless current times. Revisiting these old chestnuts one cannot fail to be impressed by, on the one the one hand the great urgency inherent in the music, but equally the sheer beauty contained within them. Chronologically this represents a relatively brief period in ‘Trane’s overall and prolific career. Yet within this one finds a diversity of approaches, formations and styles. This alone is testimony to the true great of musical mind that John Coltrane possessed.