John Coltrane ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2 CD (Avid) 4/5

For those on a limited budget, this is an ideal entry point from which to explore the music of John Coltrane and one that handily cuts across the three major labels for which the saxophonist recorded. While at present John Coltrane seems to be enjoying unprecedented attention in terms of re-issued material, the Avid series is nonetheless an attractive option for those who do not wish to shell out vast sums for a comprehensive box set, and may, in addition, be reticent to investigate the more adventurous later period offerings.It has to be stated from the outset that this is a random selection of albums, but has it’s own rationale of sorts. The first CD focuses on larger ensemble albums, while the second witnesses the early beginnings of what would become the classic quartet. Blue Note, Impulse and Atlantic are all represented.

John Coltrane recorded just one album for Blue Note as a leader (he recorded several as a sideman for others), but the 1957 offering was a veritable classic that featured a one-off line-up of Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Kenny Drew on piano, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer ‘Philly’ Joe Jones. The jewel in the crown here is the fast-paced, ‘Moment’s notice’, that has become something of a modern jazz standard, covered by Pharoah Sanders among others, and is an evergreen tune that never loses its intensity or stunning harmony. The title track is almost as good, with a horn riff that lingers. For some relief, ‘I’m old fashioned’, is a quality ballad that is handled with due care and sensitivity by Coltrane and the band. As a whole, Morgan and Coltrane made for a fabulous duo and that was probably not lost on Miles Davis who solicited the services of the tenorist for the next four years.

The ‘Africa Brass’ album is not the complete recording that has surfaced over the last fifteen years, but rather contains the original vinyl album listing of three numbers. A heavyweight reed section comprises the late Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little with the surprise presence of Sun Ra member. Pat Patrick on baritone saxophone. The piece ‘Africa’ is a brooding number that weaves itself into a frenzy and lasts over sixteen minutes, and filled the whole of the first side of the original vinyl. On side two of the album, the star billing is reserved for a thrilling take on the traditional number, ‘Greensleeves’. Coltrane offers up an original in, ‘Blues minor’. The second CD is memorable in that we begin to hear the smaller ensemble that would eventually morph into the classic quartet and on, Plays the blues’, three out of the four musicians are already in place. Coltrane alternates between tenor and soprano saxophones and is outstanding on the latter on both., ‘Mr Syms’ and a homage to one of his musical heroes in, ‘Blues to Bechet’. Side two of the original is especially strong with ‘Mr Day and Mr Knight’ standing out, and Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner prove to be ideal accompanists. The final album, ‘Olé’, reverts back to a slightly larger ensemble, with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, the little known George Lane on alto saxophone and flute, and bass duties shared by Art Davis and Reggie Workman. The title track stretches out for over eighteen minutes and is a flamenco-tinged number that is intense. Tyner contributes a lovely piece in, Aisha’, while Coltrane further explores distant shores in, Dahomey dance’. All albums have been re-issued before, but even if you already have one or two of them elsewhere, the four albums on a two CD concept is still unbeatable value.

Tim Stenhouse