John Coltrane ‘European Tour 1961’ 7CD Box Set (Le Chant du Monde) 4/5

The historical legacy of John Coltrane has been the subject of various bona fide studio recording re-evaluations in recent years, and more especially this year, which commemorates fifty years since he passed away. What though of his immense pantheon of live performances? Beyond the Village Vanguard sessions on Impulse!, official live albums are somewhat thin on the ground, and thus numerous bootlegs have surfaced of varying sound quality and dubious provenance, to fill the gap. Thankfully, an ethically conscientious label such as Le Chant du Monde has taken a less mercantile approach and has rightly sought to place these historically significant live concerts in some kind of logical order, properly annotated, with the best graphical illustrations as are currently available. A forthcoming 10CD box set will be devoted to Coltrane’s live output from 1962 alone, and this present collection is far from comprehensive for even 1961 since it does not include the UK dates that included Brighton, Birmingham, Glasgow, London and Newcastle. However, instead we are treated to two sets of concerts at the prestigious Olympia venue in Paris, and a series of concerts throughout northern Europe, including Germany and Scandinavia.

A key question is the actual disparate nature of the sound of the recordings and it has to be stated they are not uniform in quality, or even. Rather, Le Chant du Monde has digitally transferred the live performances and, in fairness, as the recordings progress in the box set, so does the quality. This was dependent in any case on the original master which tend to be radio broadcasts. Thus the Paris concerts are not of as clear a sound as those in either Germany or Scandinavia, whose radio stations tended to record them live on premier facilities available at the time.

That said, there is much to admire from what came to be known as the classic quartet (McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, Elvin Jones) with the major addition of Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute. His presence alone makes this compelling listening, and CD 7 contains bonus tracks from 1960 concerts in Germany that is a de facto Miles Davis rhythm section of the time, minus the leader. In practice, the mainly standard repertoire features Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, with Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz guesting on individual tracks and almost thirty-five minutes of classic jazz, with an interesting reading of Monk’s ‘Hackensack’ and a medley of ballads.

Needless to say, several pieces are performed repeatedly, but the genius of Coltrane and his constituent band members was that they never played in quite the same manner and were sufficiently adept to find something new to say. This is certainly true of evergreen numbers such as ‘My Favourite Things’, which varies in tempo and length. Four contrasting takes on ‘Blue Train’, a crowd favourite for sure, while ‘Naima’ doubles in length in its two interpretations. It would be wrong to assume, however, that this was merely some endless blowing session. Coltrane was always an extremely sensitive musician and this is reflected here in his choice of standards for the quieter, more reflective moments. A delightful reading of Billy Eckstine’s ‘I Want To Talk About You’, is matched by a near twelve-minute take on ‘Delilah’.

One small caveat. The wonderful sleeve notes that have been carefully compiled with such loving detail are in french only. Wonderful for Francophiles such as this writer, but ideally these should be available in English too, particularly given that a wider jazz audience will be interested in finding out more about the recordings. A smaller 4CD ballad set of studio Coltrane recordings is available on the same label and for those just entering into the world of Coltrane, a useful starting point other than the key individual albums of which there are of course several.

Tim Stenhouse