To tie in with what was last weekend the forty-ninth anniversary of the death of John Coltrane on 17 July 1967, this new box set, available in either vinyl of CD format, sheds further light on the Atlantic period from a monaural perspective. In a digital driven world, some might question the wisdom of a format that precedes even stereo, but it was the case in the 1950s that the original jazz recordings (and this extends to pop/rock artists – witness the Bob Dylan box set of his mono recordings for Columbia) came out in separate mono and stereo formats, and Blue Note devotees for one invariably argue the merits of the mono over the stereo sound. Whatever your sound preferences, and having a specialist vinyl turntable will certainly aid the listener in debating the relative merits, this retrospective allows us to re-examine a critical period in John Coltrane’s career. It marks a decisive break with the previous Miles Davis quintet recordings on Prestige, or the former’s sideman duties elsewhere. What emerges from the Atlantic albums as a whole is Coltrane the leader and composer with a distinctive vision that would mark an imprint on the history and evolution of modern jazz.
The CD set divides up the original albums and adds a sixth CD with all the bonus tracks that came out on the original CD re-issues. Informative inner booklet notes by renowned jazz writer Ashley Kahn amount to a de facto historiography of the Atlantic record label and situate Coltrane’s contribution in a wider context. By 1955, Atlantic had established itself as a label that specialised in blues and rhythm and blues music and secured major success with Ray Charles, Bug Joe Turner and La Vern Baker. It had already entered into the jazz field via traditional New Orleans and jazz-related musicians in cabaret such as Bobby Short. However, the Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi, were looking for an inroad into modern jazz and found comfort in the recordings of Lennie Tristano and Jimmy Giuffre, plus the west coast style. Coltrane represented a serious statement of intent, and as it proved, the move from Prestige to Atlantic was propitious for everyone. As Kahn states, ‘It [Atlantic] was the right label with the right artist at the right time’.
The first album remains the opus here for ‘Giant Steps’ was and is an album of distinction and it is noteworthy that the modal flavours of ‘Kind of blue’ are not in evidence. Instead the cascading ‘sheets of sound’ of the title track unfold and never cease to be a thrilling experience. Performed at breakneck speed, ‘Mr PC’ is another all-time great number that Lambert, Hendricks and Ross attempted a successful vocalese version of, while the deeply romantic ‘Naima’ reflects the balladry prowess of the tenorist. Recorded in the same year of 1959, ‘Bags and Trane’ is a favourite of this writer and strikes just the right balance between modern bop and blues-soaked grooves, and has something of an extended and relaxed jam session feel. It would influence countless tenor and vibes collaborations, from Dexter Gordon to Joe Henderson with young kid on the block Bobby Hutcherson, and ‘Bags and Trane’ sounds nothing like the west coast combination of Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.
Coltrane was in a rich vein of form and recorded three further albums in 1960, one of which, ‘The Avant Garde’, only surfaced in 1966. Of the other two, ‘Coltrane plays the blues’ is a wonderful example of how ‘Trane could easily adapt to different contexts with soprano saxophone making a welcome appearance, and in this instance to a more blues-inflected environment. The languid blues, ‘Mr. Syms’ continues to impress with repeated listens and is reflective in tone. Arguably strongest of all is ‘Mr Day’, with a memorable bass line intro and stunning tenor and piano work in tandem. It is the gradual build up of tension in ‘Mr Knight’ that stands out with restrained tenor and piano to be gin with before reaching a smouldering intensity of heat, and with polyrhythmic accompaniment from master drummer Elvin Jones. Hinting at external influences, ‘Olé Coltrane’, features just three pieces, but what sumptuous music for all that! African hues are conjured up on the relaxing mid-tempo number, ‘Dahomey’, and would follow on from other pieces such as ‘Black Pearls’ and ‘Bahia’ that revealed a passionate interest in acquiring a deeper knowledge of the African diaspora in its widest sense. The pièce de résistance is the epic ‘Olé’ that takes up the whole of side one on the original vinyl and this is a brooding impressionistic reading of the Iberian peninsula, like a bull shaping up in anticipation of a fight to the death against a torrero (toreador) in an arena. McCoy Tyner contributes a lovely original in ‘Aisha’, marking him out as a young pianist to watch out for.
A sixth bonus CD assembles the out-takes that did not make it onto the original vinyl, though there is nothing new for those who purchased the individual CD re-issues. Of these, ‘Untitled original’ is most compelling a fully deserving of a title of some description. Only the 1960 recording of ‘The Avant Garde’, now seems slightly out of kilter with the rest and three out of the compositions were written by Ornette Coleman with Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell members of the piano-less quartet with Percy Heath taking care of bass duties, giving this something of a guest appearance feel for the leader.
The question, then, remains of whether long-time fans will wish to pick up the same recordings, if in mono this time round? It will depend ultimately on how complete a picture you wish to carve out of the Atlantic tenure. For those new to Coltrane, this represents an ideal and relatively inexpensive means of acquiring some of his key early period recordings, and even if you have some of the original, or re-issue vinyl, this is a handy way to hear the Atlantic recordings in one digestible whole.