John Coltrane died from liver cancer at Huntington Hospital on Long Island on July 17, 1967, at the age of 40. His funeral was held four days later at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City. The service was opened by the Albert Ayler Quartet and closed by the Ornette Coleman Quartet.
On 17th July 2016 we featured a series of posts throughout the day, which all feature here. More will be added throughout the year…
Chris Bowden on John Coltrane (July 2016):
Boom! And from a tiny spec came an ever-expanding explosion of energy and matter. So began time and space, where we find ourselves hurtling along to who knows where? Maybe john coltrane knew, maybe he didn’t, but I’m certain he asked the question.
He was a man of his time who pushed forward and shaped the world around him. Mankind officially reached the moon two years after his death, one suspects J. C. had been there and beyond a few years before.
On the subject of time, listen to him on Blue Train through to Giant Steps. Even though it is furious playing, often at fast tempos, often lots of semi-quavers, it sounds relaxed. He fits it all in like he has all the time in the world. I love his sense of time.
Blue Train was an easy recording to get into as a teenager. Like most blue note records it had a great cover, a photo of him looking thoughtful and serious. Apt, because even though this music is catchy, soulful and exciting, it is sophisticated and serious. I suspect J. C. wasn’t particularly concerned about looking hip, but always played ultra hip. Here he is leading his band and sounding in control. Flawless bop language executed by someone who was always going to be looking to learn more, leading to a tidal wave of ideas that would gain mass and momentum as it flowed through his life.
The searching raw longing for answers in his sound is almost painful how it taps into your own human condition of wondering what it’s all about. On this session there are the beginnings of the harmonic concepts that would lead on to the incredible Giant Steps. Even though this stuff swings, it isn’t toe tapping frivolous music. It is disciplined and serious, and I imagine that is how he was in his life.
Giving up Heroin hard-core style he went on a spiritual path of exploration in his life and consequently in his music. His music sounds like who he was, an unstoppable force in the universe. There can be a sad lonely desperation in looking for answers and I hope he found peace at times. He sounds like he did here and there, like on the sublime composition Naima. But there is an overwhelming feeling of searching in the massive body of work he did in his short life.
No matter how intellectual the content of his music, which was extreme to say the least, it always had the human element that touches your soul. Just as he searched for spiritual answers he searched for musical ones, I think for him the two were combined. Taking the modal thing into unchartered territory, gleaning information from other philosophies and music, African, Indian, western classical, you could spend a lifetime trying to understand trying any one of the many periods he went through. And towards the end of his life, proper other worldly music, sounding like it came from outer space. Maybe that’s the point, it did, it does. He did, we do.
Like a mystic or a shaman he gave the world something we can learn from but maybe never truly understand. The great saxophonist John O’Gallagher told me he is analysing some of J. C.’s later work with surprising results, possibly making sense out of what could seem like chaos. Exciting to think he still hasn’t given up all his secrets.
One could become despondent to think we can never know enough, never have all the answers. But maybe the looking for answers is the point, and being ok with that is the way to find peace. The question is the answer, or something! We can all learn from this. Getting a bit of an understanding of that and how I view spirituality and faith has been a big part of my journey to better mental and physical health. But again any definite answers are, and I think always will be, elusive.
Maybe I could look for it at the St John Coltrane Church in San Francisco. It would be hard to imagine a better place to look.
John Coltrane ‘A Love Supreme’ review by Mike Gates (July 2016):
Well now, what can possibly be written about “A Love Supreme” that hasn’t already been written and re-written a hundred or more times over? On a musical level, probably very little. On its place in history and its importance to jazz and modern music in general; again, very little. It is therefore, a more personal journey that compels me to share my thoughts on this seminal recording, Coltrane’s music being in no small part a major influence on my thinking as a writer, liver of life, and musician. As a headstrong guy in his late teens, I had long since discovered most genres of music. From folk to rock n roll to reggae to ska to punk to classical and all the sub-genres in between, it was always a genuine thrill to be introduced to, or to randomly discover something new to listen to. But jazz? Hmm, not sure about that one. It’s all so… complicated… difficult… busy. A few months further on and I was not only becoming more and more intrigued by this thing called jazz, but I actually found myself enjoying some of it… A strange fascination was slowly but surely turning into a full-blown love affair. And then one day, I purchased an album by this so-called iconic saxophonist by the name of John Coltrane called “A Love Supreme”. At this time in my life I felt like I was continually searching for something, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I had begun to learn about and practice meditation, I read a lot, I philosophised, I drank a lot. And I was writing poetry, falling in love, and playing the guitar… not necessarily in that order. And when I first listened to “A Love Supreme”, it felt nothing short of a revelation. It was deep. It was spiritual. It spoke directly to me. It was as if I had found something that awakened my soul.
I wasn’t even born when Coltrane took McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones into the studio to record this album. I’ve just turned 50 now, how mad is that? To think that it took so long for me to hear this music seems somewhat odd now, yet looking back I realise it was all part of life’s unraveling journey for me, as it was for Coltrane. In his case, he had reached a level of brilliance in thought, musicianship, mind and spirit, his astonishingly powerful and emotive music reflecting the place he had reached as a human being. To me, I can still hear the ever-searching elements in his music, but he also seems to have found a place of knowing, and of sharing. And there also appears to be a healthy balance between rejoicing and inquiring, still being open to new twists and turns, still embracing change, doubt and insecurity, with loving-kindness and a passionate need to discover more and delve deeper into the wonders of the universe and the spiritual awakenings that lie within.
As a guitarist/singer/songwriter, “A Love Supreme” had a profound effect on me. It gave me something I had previously lacked; confidence. Performing at that time during the late 80’s, early 90’s, I was told I was either 20 years too late or 20 years too early. As it happens, both turned out to be correct. I was often criticised for writing songs that didn’t have a proper chorus, or didn’t fit a certain mold, or that couldn’t be categorised within a certain genre, or that were too heartfelt, too introverted, too long, too whatever whatever whatever. Listening to Coltrane gave me belief. It gave me the strength to continue with what I felt was right, with my own journey, what I had to do, even if I was making music in the wrong era. I remember a particularly horrible gig, one of those where your manager books you into completely the wrong venue with the wrong audience. Several people walked out after the first number… incredibly daunting. And at that point I actually heard Coltrane’s blowing on the intro to “Part 2: Resolution” singing in my ears. I actually laughed out loud. The manager of the club came onto the stage to reassure me; “It’s ok son” he said, “you do what you do. The ones that want to listen will dig it, the others… well it’s their loss.” And that horrible gig became a great gig. It really doesn’t matter what genre of music you choose to play or listen to. If you can hear the man in the music, that’s good enough for me.
“A Love Supreme” hit me as being so stunning in so many ways, but for me at that time “Part 4: Psalm” was the real eye opener. How could anyone capture such soulful beauty so perfectly in their music? Because they feel it, they live it, they breathe it… they are it, can surely be the only answer. A lesson in life perhaps? What you put in, you get out. Maybe. Whatever your take on how the music came to be, you simply can’t ignore the fact that this, and of course the album as a whole, stands as one of the greatest musical achievements man has had the pleasure of witnessing. It no doubt brings different things to different people. To me, it still keeps on giving. Always inspiring, touching, thought-provoking, moving, daunting, beautiful, crazy, awesome, soulful ,spirited and free. In the extremely unlikely event that you’ve never listened to this album, go and get it now. Don’t delay for one second, open your mind and let the music transform you. For the rest of you, when you sit down tonight, find yourself an hour to sit and listen once more. Clear your mind, try and imagine you’re listening to this for the first time. Or take a trip down memory lane to when you did first listen to it. Enjoy it with a renewed ear, and let Coltrane’s masterpiece once more sweep you off your feet.
John Coltrane ‘Sun Ship’ review by Andy Hazell (July 2016):
It took me a long time to find the music of John Coltrane, on reflection a lot longer than it should have done. In truth I’m not entirely sure why. OK, let’s discount the first 20 years or so when the music we call Jazz wasn’t really on my radar. For the next two decades however my musical adventures skirted around the edges of Coltrane’s universe, a void encircled by the sounds of his ‘disciples’ playing compositions influenced, written or recorded by him. I guess you could say that during that time I was listening to his music without listening to him playing it.
To start with I don’t think this sin of omission was deliberate but more to do with generational and experiential factors. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, with more music embracing technology, I was more influenced by electrified sounds than acoustic ones. Thus when I started exploring music beyond the confines of the here and now it was in areas that were only one or two steps removed from my taste markers at that time, in to Jazz funk, the music of Strata East, Black Jazz and Muse and then on in to spiritual jazz. Coltrane was a significant cultural and stylistic reference point, but one I was only familiar with through tunes like “Naima” or “My Favourite Things”, tracks I liked but felt a little old-fashioned to me.
I’ve chosen Sun Ship not because it’s my favourite long player of Coltrane’s, but simply because of it’s personal significance as the first album of his that I bought, the starting point of my fascination with the great man’s music.
The facts of the album are these. Recorded on 26 August 1965 this is the penultimate recording of the classic John Coltrane Quartet. This year was extremely fruitful with Coltrane intent on exploring freer, spiritual sounds, but Sun Ship, like Transition, First Meditations and Om were not released until after his death. Like several of these posthumous releases the album isn’t a series of single takes, but was edited under the supervision of his wife, Alice.
At that first listen the sound was quite unusual with drums in my right ear and piano in my left. At times the balance makes it feel like Elvin Jones is in the same room, McCoy Tyner in another room with the door slightly ajar.
Throughout there is an energy and intensity of performance that even now makes it difficult for me to listen in a relaxed state. This is not a negative response, quite the opposite in fact, it’s a reaction to the intense imploring and searching spirit, which demands and gets full attention.
For me that moment of total engagement begins in the opening bars of “Dearly Beloved” and does not switch off until the end of “Ascent”.
Tyner and Jones’s roles in creating this atmosphere is significant, both striving for spiritual elevation, the former through fantastically fast and intricate playing interspersed with strong, accentuated notes and those trademark swirling patterns, the latter with a remarkably powerful and dynamic performance. All of which serves to support Coltrane through contemplation or sorrow to a state of ecstatic rapture as evocative as any vocalist, if not more so. It’s that range of expression that makes late period Coltrane so important for me; it was forward-looking in the 60’s and still has that ability to surprise now.
There are times, such as during Coltrane’s solo on “Sun Ship” where this intensity can turn in to a visceral assault on the auditory sense, coming close but not quite hitting overload.
As well as the big statements there are lots of little moments too, moments like the humming during Tyner’s phenomenal solos on “Sun Ship” and “Amen” or the bowed bass on “Attaining” that I keep finding and just increase the hold this album has over me.
To some it might seem odd that I didn’t find John Coltrane’s music at the start of my spiritual jazz journey, but for me it fits perfectly, reaching the apotheosis at the right time rather than rushing there first.
Nat Birchall on John Coltrane (July 2016):
Compiling any kind of “10 best” or “My favourite 10 songs” list is always a bit tricky. I could make a list of ten this week, but next week make a list of a different 10 and they’d still be my favourite songs. But whatever the contents of the list they are certainly high up in my most-loved and most-played categories, and they are among the ones that have given me the most satisfaction over the years. And Trane’s music always sounds fresh, every time you listen. The mark of timeless, classic music.
Favourite John Coltrane tracks, in no particular order.
1. Blue Train (From the album Blue Train, Blue Note 1957)
This is the very first Coltrane that I heard, back in 1978. Up to this point I had never listened to, or even heard for that matter, any jazz music at all. I had been on a deep Jamaican music trip since 1972 but had read about John Coltrane in a magazine, Black Music. One day my local record shop had no new reggae LPs but this album had just been reissued, so I bought it to investigate. The intro is one of the most dark and mysterious ever, it sounds like something important is about to happen. And when the band go into the groove it’s a deep one. I thought the sound of the tenor saxophone sounded very much like the Jamaican players I was used to listening to, Tommy McCook and Cedric Brooks. It still grips me every time I listen to it now, 37 years later. The first cut is the deepest.
2. My Favorite Things (Live version from Afro Blue Impressions, Pablo Records, 1977)
This double LP, recorded live in Europe in 1962, was maybe the third or fourth Coltrane LP I bought. This is the first version of MFT that I heard Trane play. He must have played on the song on virtually every gig he did from 1961 until his last gig in 1967. There are many, many live recordings of the song by him. But this one has some extra special magic in it. The tempo is a bit faster than he would usually play it, and it sounds like one of those gigs where things just click and the music starts to take flight. He plays some things on his solo in this version that I haven’t heard him play anywhere else, he sounds supremely inspired here. When I first started to learn to play I would put this record on and sit cross-legged on the floor and listen attentively. The music would transport me and would speak to me of such wonderful things that I would have tears in my eyes. This version is the reason I play soprano saxophone.
3. Liberia (From the album Coltrane’s Sound, Atlantic, recorded in 1960)
This is Trane’s re-write of the Dizzy Gillespie classic, A Night In Tunisia. Trane plays a new, sparser and more intense, melody, and reduces the chord changes almost to a modal style. At this point in his playing/composing he was going in two directions at the same time. With Giant Steps and songs like 26-2 he was expanding on the complex chord changes of Bop even more. Writing songs with very dense, involved harmonic movement. But with this song, and others like Impressions, he was going in a modal direction, where chord changes were put aside so that long passages of music were derived from modes (an alternative name for scales) where the harmonic implications were not tied to any specific chord at any one time but could be derived at will from the mode/scale of the song or song’s section. This kind of music demanded that all the musicians have their personal sounds developed to a certain point where the lack of harmonic development in the background would not deter from the effect of the music. There is nowhere to hide, and only the strong survive. This recording is gripping from start to finish, in lesser hands it would have been a very different story.
4. Snuffy (From the album Mainstream 1958, Savoy)
This track is from a Wilbur Harden session that was originally released on his album Mainstream 1958. After I had bought Blue Train I then bought a double LP under John Coltrane and Wilbur Harden’s names called Countdown; The Savoy Sessions. So this is the second Coltrane LP I bought, even though the music is all Harden’s and it was his session. At this point, 1958, Trane is in stellar form. His technique had improved steadily over the past few years since joining Miles Davis in 1955 and he was in full “sheets of sound” mode. Playing long lines of notes in a very fluent and fluid way, but still creating very melodic phrases that snake all over the place.
5. Stellar Regions (From the album Stellar Regions, Impulse! Recorded in 1967)
This album is a complete “lost” session only discovered in the early 1990s. Only one track from the session had previously seen the light of day, Offering, which had been released on Trane’s last “official” album release, expression. (Trane’s final recording sessions, in the spring of 1967, are a little chaotic for some reason. There are some undated recordings which have been released and more sessions that are documented by Impulse but have gone missing, or perhaps have been released already with alternative titles. There are studio logs of recorded songs by the final quartet and quintet that tantalisingly have titles but no tapes have come to light as yet.) The band is a quartet with Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali. The music is gripping from start to finish and has a great variety of approaches to composition and forms. All the music is rubato, i.e. not in any fixed or regular tempo, but there is sufficient difference in the character of each song, with the arrangements taking different directions each time, and such spirit in the playing that you don’t even notice. On this particular track the theme opens with a trill in a major key supported by rich piano chords from Mrs Coltrane and bowed bass from Jimmy Garrison, with Ali playing mostly cymbals. The group manage to create a beautiful sound with all the band hanging on every note the tenor plays, lifting the music to the heavens and finally back down to earth again. The ending is glorious. Cosmic poetry.
6. Creation (From the album Creation, Blue Parrot. Recorded live in 1965)
This side-long (on the original LP) tune was recorded live at the Half Note club in new York in 1965. Around this time Trane had been playing songs which were based on short phrases, apparently improvised at least some of the time, which he and the “classic” quartet (with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones) would then develop into incredibly intense and lyrical performances in front of a live audience, usually in the clubs he played at regularly. Saxophonist David Liebman has spoken about how he would go to the quartet’s gigs at this period and witness Trane playing what Liebman refers to as “calls” which then would turn into whole songs right in front of the audiences eyes and ears. This sounds exactly like one such “call” which Trane rhymes off on the bandstand without a count in or any clue as to what may happen. The other members of the band fall in very shortly after he begins to play and the group is off on an incredible voyage of discovery and revelation as first Trane and then Tyner and Jones explore the relationships between music and the universe. After Jones’ stunning drum passage Trane re-enters playing variations of his opening “call” with Jones playing further drum solo excursions in between his phrases, a variation on “trading fours” in more standard jazz situations. The quartet by this time had been together for a little over three years and had developed to such a point that they changed the way jazz would be played forever. Their musical chemistry was of such a high degree that performance like this one were standard. At the end of the piece Trane leaves the final words to Jones who rounds off the performance with his incredible sounds, bringing the 23 minute escapade to a close.
7. Peace On Earth (From Coltrane In Japan, Impulse! Recorded Kosei Nenkin Hall, Tokyo, Japan, July 22, 1966)
John Coltrane toured Japan in July 1966 with his band of the time, with Alice, Garrison, Ali and Pharoah Sanders. The tour was very successful with the musicians being welcomed with open arms and V.I.P. treatment from the Japanese organisers and fans. On the tour they recorded two versions of Trane’s beautiful song Peace On Earth, they are both incredible examples of both Trane’s and the group’s musical greatness.This version (recorded at Koseinenkin Hall in Tokyo on July 22nd) might just have the edge, mostly because Trane plays with such an intense lyricism and sound here that he sounds completely possessed by the spirit of love and humanity. All the music that was recorded on this tour is of songs stretched out to unusual lengths, this particular one is 26 minutes long, and a version of My Favourite Things from the same concert is a minute short of an hour-long. Trane plays two solos here, one after his theme and then another after Sanders’ solo on alto sax. Both Trane and Sanders were given alto saxophones by the Yamaha company whilst in Japan, prototypes of the new models they were making. Trane plays his on some songs on this tour also, and devotes a whole song to the smaller horn on the Stellar Regions session, “Tranesonic”.
8. Naima (Recorded live in Belgium, 1965)
Trane played this song many many times since he first recorded it in 1959. Maybe not so many times as My Favorite Things, but there are still plenty versions of it from numerous live recordings. This one was from his 1965 tour of Europe and was recorded at the quartet’s gig in Comblain-La-Tour in Belgium. They had played it a couple of days earlier at the Juan-Les Pins jazz festival in France, the night after the famous live performance of the whole of A Love Supreme, and that version is also a classic. But this quartet were nothing if not endlessly inventive and this version practically makes the bandstand levitate such is its power. After this tour there were only two more studio sessions with the classic quartet, those sessions were eventually released as Sun Ship and First Meditations For Quartet, and then Trane began expanding the band to include Pharoah Sanders and many other musicians on various instruments in his relentless search for something. So this whole concert represents the quartet at its peak, perfection just before final destruction.
9. Dear Lord (Originally released on the album Transition (Impulse!) Recorded in 1965)
Some of the most uplifting and heartfelt music has been made in praise of a higher being. Whether you believe in such a concept or not is beside the point, the believer plays the music as an offering which effectively removes the person’s ego from the equation. This in turn makes the music more likely to be devoid of unnecessary elements such as playing to the gallery, or playing to impress people. This particular song is hymn-like, a beautifully articulated prayer that sounds as if Trane were “playing” the words of a song or poem of devotion. There are some actual songs that he recorded that were exactly this. “Psalm” from A Love Supreme is one, also “Wise One” from the Crescent album. It isn’t known whether Dear Lord was based on a written poem but the way Trane phrases the beautiful melody you can almost hear words of devotion forming around the tones of the horn. As you listen to this music you can feel the stresses of daily life melt away as Trane takes us, once again, on a journey beyond the physical. This song was recorded at a session where the great Roy Haynes was sitting in for regular Coltrane quartet drummer Elvin Jones. The music is no less majestic for the substitution.
10. Reverend King (From the album “Cosmic Music” (Impulse!) recorded in 1966)
Opening with a piano tremolo from Alice Coltrane, John and other group members begin to chant the mantra “Om mani padme om” closely followed by Jimmy Garrison playing a pedal (repeat) tone. This creates an air of expectation, like the intro to Blue Train does, but in a very different way, and conjuring up a very different mood. After only 20 seconds of this the chant dies away and Trane plays the majestic theme on tenor as Pharoah Sanders plays trills and long notes softly on alto saxophone, shortly joined by drummer Rashied Ali. The melody is stately and beautiful. After the melody statement Trane repeats a long note softly as Pharoah begins to preach on the alto. The group is playing quite freely, out of meter but with a pulse that pushes the music forward as Pharoah builds and builds his solo until he is in the stratosphere. Just before the 6 minute mark Trane enters at a similar level of intensity on bass clarinet. Playing beyond the normal range of the instrument (It was actually Eric Dolphy’s, given to him by Eric’s mother, supposedly partly because she was having nightmares about Eric playing.) Trane carries on where Pharoah leaves off, the music rolling and tumbling in an ecstatic and exalted manner. At 9 minutes in Pharoah re-enters on alto again, by which point the music is beyond time, beyond key, beyond melody even, but still gloriously ecstatic. Around the 9.45 minute mark Trane begins to play part of the opening phrase from the theme, still on bass clarinet. Pharoah returns to his long notes/trills in the background as Trane plays his majestic melody on the big horn. Quite apart from the different instrument, Trane’s paraphrasing of the melody only adds to the drama of the theme statement. Garrison resumes his pedal tones and after the end of the theme Trane begins the chant again, “A Om mani padme om, a om mani padme om…” as all the instruments fade away apart from the piano tremolo. Finally a shaken tambourine announces the end of the performance, although “performance” is an inadequate word for what has transpired, more like a ritual cleansing or communal exorcism perhaps? This music is difficult to describe in “normal” terms, but then music is difficult to describe anyway. We listen, we hear, we understand. Or maybe we don’t understand. Explanations cannot make the music sound any better to our ears, we have to listen again until, maybe, it starts to make sense. Wherever our own threshold of acceptance is, one thing is assured, John Coltrane forged ahead regardless. Like Charles Lloyd said to Roy Eldridge, “Well you know Roy, Trane ain’t waiting”
John Coltrane Quartet ‘Crescent’ review by Tim Stenhouse (July 2016):
In the pantheon of Coltrane recordings, ‘Crescent’ is invariably overlooked since it was recorded in 1964, one of only two studio albums by the leader that year, and directly precedes what is by general critical acclaim regarded as his masterpiece, ‘A Love Supreme’. However, ‘Crescent’ is no mere hors d’oeuvre before the plat principal (main course) and the tenorist was already pushing himself towards the outer limits of his musical world. Rather, it is instead indicative of a change in the outlook of John Coltrane towards an infinitely more meditative and indeed spiritual state of mind, and marriage to pianist Alice Coltrane greatly aided him in this endeavour. Yes, previous albums certainly do incorporate elements of the spiritual in parts, but ‘Crescent’ goes that one step further and is meditational in its totality. Moreover, the modal innovations of the masterly ‘Kind of Blue’ are in some respects redeveloped here, and in an equally melancholic mood. It is an important recording secondly because of the sound of the recording that Rudy Van Gelder crafted at Englewood Cliffs and by means of comparison one need only listen to Wayne Shorter’s ‘Speak No Evil’ from the same period to appreciate how skillful a recording engineer Van Gelder could be. Blue Note never sounded more intense and ‘Crescent’ repeated the feeling, albeit with a quasi-religious fervour.
Pride of place on the ‘Crescent’ album goes to ‘Wise One’ that commences as a gentle number, but then develops into a passionate mid-tempo piece with subtle latinisations in the rhythm section provided by master drummer Elvin Jones. Another highlight is the atmospheric drum sound that Jones generates on ‘Lonnie’s Lament’, while a life-time love of the blues, an art form that John Coltrane unquestionably revered, is alluded to on ‘Bessie’s blues’ in homage to the blues singer. Lengthy and brooding are two adjectives that do justice to the album and it is a progression from the 1963 live performance, ‘Live at Birdland’, and a marked departure from the collaborative projects with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman respectively, and the ballad album that is sometimes (wrongly) dismissed as lightweight.
However, it is important to recognise that ‘Crescent’ had stood the test of time remarkably well and has indeed has influenced younger musicians, most notably Pharoah Sanders, who revisited albums tracks on his 1994 quartet outing,’Crescent with Love’, that later in the decade surfaced on Evidence (1999). Sanders saw the continuity in vision between the late Atlantic and mid-period Impulse compositions and creatively grouped together numbers of the calibre of,’After the rain’, ‘Naima’ and even a reading of ‘In a sentimental mood’ that Duke and Trane recorded together (and available on a separate Impulse CD album, ‘Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’) onto a stunning 2 CD set that is required listening for any Coltrane devotee. Revealingly, the parallel with the Miles Davis quintet of the same era is also inescapable and what marvellous music they contributed collectively! In a truly turbulent decade the music of Miles and ‘Trane sought to question the status quo and was in its espousal of black self-pride, civil rights struggles and wider struggles for equality while at the same time offering at times a soothing and even a healing antidote to the crushing disappointments and pitfalls of the era.
As an individual CD, ‘Crescent’ was re-mastered for re-issue in 2008, but vinyl re-editions are available.
Mark Harrington on John Coltrane (July 2016):
“Gradually Conquer the Heights”
I had a visit from a friend a few months ago who wondered if I was interested in buying a record collection from an old guy her work had connected her with, whose collection had somehow taken over the whole house. A large house, but they needed to downsize on health grounds. By way of illustration, a new white porcelain bathroom set had been bought by him and his wife a few years back, and somehow it had got lost under the stacks, in this bindweed of a species, the record collection. I happily offered access to my phone number.
As it happens, the collection has similarities with my own, in that it contains quite a lot of classical, and quite a lot of jazz she explained, mainly on vinyl, with other formats in varying amounts also. How my heart sang at the thought of it.
I already feel, these few months later, like Ahab, having spotted the white whale in Moby Dick, and like him, it appears to have hoved from view. Having spent weeks working out the best value logistics of relocating a large collection, the phone call never came. I then agonised over whether it would be appropriate to be the one who makes the first call. Of course, I emboldened myself to that degree because of what was potentially on offer, I did the legwork to find the number. I made the call, was made to feel welcome that I had, and agreed a date the following week to just initially visit. This was all with the wife, as the old fellow was temporarily bedridden. Two days later a call is made to me to cancel the visit, as apologetically she passes on, he does not really want to sell, and is forsaking the downsizing in the short-term. She also admitted that a friend came by and it almost killed him to give about ten LPs to the friend.
So in this time, the unseen collection becomes this marvellous thing, you start imagining near complete sets of Blue Note 1500’s. A set of black and Orange spines interspersed with bold lettered white ones, denoting a mixed happy family of US and UK HMV pressings of the Impulse! catalogue, unreadable razor-thin spines to London American Atlantic Jazz series issues and later the ECM’s. The hard to classify quirky individualists on the smaller labels.
But what is this really? It’s the collection you imagine a life long collector has, when you superimpose your own tastes on to a collection not yet seen.
A house full ought to be a broad church, but what if the whole lot never passes beyond a taste for Swing? Piles upon piles of Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman, or that dreaded second wave of trad, the revival with all those Merseysippi type puns filling the shelves and unplumbed bath?
What I have had to do is try to forget about it, start acting as if it will never be seen by me, because it has taken my eye off the ball of getting on with the day job of selling LPs by auction, totally thrown me off a mechanical way of pulling together a theme and making the listings, aiming for numbers, then dealing with the work that creates.
So what did that do there, that sharing of the tale of the one that got away?. It revealed my own dream acquisitions and cataloguing of my Blue Notes, London Americans of Monk & Mingus, those fine British & German issues on labels like Incus, Ogun, ECM, MPS and Steam. And yes, the Impulses.
So what forms the heart of the Impulse! catalogue, what comes first to mind. I am guessing for most of us it is Coltrane (as did Ashley Khan who wrote the history of the label, calling it ‘The House That Trane Built’). A shelf of mine has a good vinyl and cardboard cubic foot of the classic Quartet, the ambitious suites and the searing live dates, which get wilder by the year. Then they suddenly stop, when I am five years old.
So what have they got to do with me, these dense complex workouts from the maestro, half of which are from before I was born?. Enough it seems to make me get a plane to Cork city in the 90s to see Elvin Jones, wait after the gig to shake his hand to connect on a level with the absent John, then on my 40th Birthday to choose San Francisco as destination of celebration, because I knew there was a church downtown that also worshipped him, and I needed to attend one of their services (I was not disappointed, James Max Haqq’s blowing takes you there).
ABC Paramount had made a decision to operate a Jazz sub-label, and Cred Taylor was the man they chose to run it, someone trusted by musicians on the scene. A bit of instant success with Ray Charles, allows him a chunk of freedom to record whoever he likes. Next thing you know, April 1962, Coltrane is in the Rudy Van Gelder home studio. The recordings of the classic quartet begin.
One mediocre 80s pressing of ‘My Favourite Things’ bought by my fifteen year old self from The Record Centre (Birmingham) starts the soundtrack of my life off, and if there’s anything on vinyl that I would try to grab from the burning house, it would be that foot of mixed vintage pressings from both sides of the Atlantic. I remember saying to Ray, “I need more, what should I buy next?. He told me to get them all, and handed me “Coltrane” which confirmed for me that the classic quartet was the white-hot centre of it all for myself, and still now 37 years on. Mine is an unashamedly mixed group of issues, added to most years, from all over the world, from every label variant, and I love the difference.
Like that white whale of a collection, I can’t even grasp – what it is that he does that I can’t resist, yet I often turn to his playing when my spirits need lifting. Not just him but also those who followed his spirit in their music most closely, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane can do the same thing to me, such is its power, so closely are they allied to the spirit of his message. They elicit some ecstatic connection to their slow unfurling declaration, repetition and innovation, their conviction giving this atheist a serene feeling that passes all understanding.
“Gradatim conscenditur ad alta” / “Gradually conquer the heights”
This was the motto of mountaineer and explorer Guido Monzino, whose life has been a continuous rise towards the supreme values of human existence. As a 27-year-old in the 50’s he walked from Guinea to Senagal, along the Ivory Coast, a good 2000 miles even as the crow flies. He had already by then climbed the Matterhorn. Subsequently he made a total of 21 expeditions to places including Patagonia, Equatorial Africa, Greenland, the North Pole and the Himalayas. I feel alright about taking a lifetime to understand the output of Coltrane because Guido gave me permission in this phrase.
The above were all posted 17th July 2016 with momentum building over the next 12 months to the 50th anniversary of JC’s passing in 2017. Keep popping back!
New album review posted to UK Vibe July 20th 2016:
John Coltrane ‘John Coltrane: The Atlantic Years – in mono’ 7LP/6CD Box sets (separate) (Atlantic/Rhino) 5/5
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.