Coltrane on Atlantic at 33anda3rd rpm

Recently I have been trying to decode my vinyl Charlie Parker collection to see what gaps I have, and I must say, it’s a nightmare. Dials are straightforward, as are earliest recordings, but then it just gets tricky. Partly the problem starts with him coming to prominence before the vinyl era begins, with the concept of a Parker album in his time being 78s in a pocketed folder at best, usually not even a thing to most listeners, and not all his records being related to each other in any thematic way even on the same label. Turns out next that the Complete Savoys are not as complete as they claim. When you get to the Clef, Norgran and Verve stuff, everything is issued on double figures of vinyl versions, sometimes even before the sixties end. So, by way of respite, I took to the Coltrane’s of his short lived Atlantic era. I realised that apart from My Favourite things, I rarely gave the other Atlantic releases an outing. I think this was partly due to the slight disappointment of the Cherry/Coltrane LP, as they share equal billing in my list of musical heroes. Interestingly, when Don Cherry had a run of recordings with Sonny Rollins shortly after the same thing happened, the sessions are also less than stellar. Still great musically, but not as sublime as so much 50s Rollins or any number of Cherry sessions over many decades.

In his discography, Coltrane’s Atlantic years are the bridge. Some of the stuff he did at Prestige is sheer delight, and the Miles’ quintet that plays Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ & Steamin’ are the best band Miles ever had, and his Monk sessions gave the pianist his most intuitive Saxophonist partnering. Towards the end of that era, John overcomes addiction. On the later tour dates with Miles, Coltrane is starting to sound less than fully enthusiastic, as if eager to get on with his own thing. After Atlantic, the “four pistons in an engine”* of the classic quartet form the body of his Impulse years, his swansong. During this bridge at Atlantic, clean John is making new sounds, the idea of confining his soloing to a set section of the tune goes out the window. This evolution in his playing is the seed of the idea of him as a spiritual character, the freedom creates the depth. And he adds the straight horn to his armoury. He was supposedly given a soprano by Miles in ’60 or ’61 (whose band he had tried unsuccesfully to quit in May of 1959, noted by Ralph Gleason in his syndicated column of that time), but the existence of his 1957 Blue Note album Blue Train is all down to him visiting Alfred Lion at Blue Note to ask for some Sidney Bechet records – the daddy of straight horn. He freely gave them to him, and had a conversation about him recording some time with them, he agreed he would. This singular moment then becomes legendary, as the office cat jumped out of the window, Alfred looks out and hears a woman trying to entice it into her taxi, runs down to rescue it, and on his return, Coltrane has left the building before signing on the dotted line (an historical irrelevance given Coltrane’s integrity). That was at least a year ahead of the two Blue Train sessions. Why would he not have one already by then?

Looking through my eight vinyl LPs of the Atlantic titles today, I own a mixed bag of pressings as usual. First I heard was “Alternate Takes”, a 1975 US first pressing, which was unscratched but noisy surfaced, and, due to the nature of the way Atlantic issued his sessions (milking whatever was in the cans for all it was worth as soon as he left and for a long time after he passed away), it is incohesive, but still with something magical in every track. The other big advantage was, whilst waiting for my Rhino pressing of “Coltrane’s Sound”**, I got to hear the “Body and Soul” alternate, so I know I will love the first of the missing two.

I definitely think “Giant Steps” has to start things off properly though. The most recently acquired on vinyl, I traded the best of my CD collection for a first English pressing of this, and boy was it worth the lost silver. Here we hear a vitality and concentration of astonishing ideas in his improvising from the off, the title track, all the way through to Mr. PC, the bass player to every track here and close friend of the leader. A confident gorgeous complexity to the lines of that opening solo that then runs through the length of the track, to its perfect coda. Something has changed inside Coltrane, a something I understand because I have that same issue, a slow learning thing, but when we get there, we have a very good big picture. My big picture view and his though, are of course not the same thing by several orders of magnitude. He decided to add a new direction to the development of jazz, and even without the companionship of the quartet to come, his force of personality and high-definition vision makes this a clarion call for The New Thing. If this was the only album he ever made as leader, we would still to this day be referring to him as one of the greats of Saxophone improvisation.

Next up was the proper first recording session to result in an album on the label, “Bags & Trane”, here heard on a minty Japanese Warner Pioneer from 1972, bought on a speculative sojourn out to Ashby De la Zouche about seven years ago. Would you believe I went there because of an over heard comment in a pub?. Someone in a Brum bar was telling his mate about how great his new speakers were, and some great sounding jazz he had bought in a hifi shop there whilst on a job. Three records he said, planned to go back on the weekend. I went over and filled the back seat of the car the next morning. Would love to have seen his face on the next visit, when all the Japanese pressed modern jazz had been cleared out. Anyway, what a sublime opener, what giants these two were, and as with the HMV of the Ellington and Coltrane I had listened to before starting the Atlantic releases, a one-off pairing of equals that should have been repeated. The shimmering haze of bags and the hot knife through butter of the entrance of Coltrane on that title track is what you hope an unheard track will be like, releasing the dopamine whether you like it or not. The only explanation for this phenomenon on the 3rd Coltrane LP of the day has to be the shock of newness to me, given my familiarity with the two other LPs of him.

Another excursion from the task in hand comes as I check the shelves once more for Atlantic releases (Because I was sure I had a Giant Steps somewhere) and discover I have an 80s US MCA Africa/Brass and the undated EMI World Record Club [WRC] version in a flipback sleeve, but still stereo – incidentally having orange and black labels, as if a subtle nod to the classic US Impulse spines. I want to compare, to see if the mastering is different as well as the sound. It will be the bookend to Olé Coltrane, a last and first of each label, in fact recorded just two days apart. I should say now I am no slave to the concept that first pressings always sound best, because there are so many factors at play, and who has the tapes in their hands when the mastering is made is very important, and we should recognise the concept of a mastering engineer developing his craft over the years. In this instance though, no competition, the run out grooves of the EMI have 1st US stampers for AS 6 the Impulse catalogue number, so it’s a true 60s valve powered cutting lathe issue, the metal mothers posted to the EMI Hayes plant in 1962 for CLP 1548, but with a scarce uncredited beautiful black woman with natural hair and a simple robe on photo sleeve for this variant, one hand on her dress, the other on a tenor sax (could be a Conn), like it was a walking cane. Her smiling face in close up is lithographed to the rear, her forehead adorned on mine by the signature of Janet Bowers, presumably its first purchaser. I had mistakenly assumed this was a youthful pic of Alice at first, but when you look closely, it just isn’t, but does make a very pleasing alternate cover from a time when record companies too easily fell back on the cheesecake image or ignored the ethnicity of the musicians on the disc. All that consideration, then there’s the text on the cover. The John Coltrane Quartet? Fifteen musicians is a big quartet by anyones standards! To be fair, the US Impulse original artwork with a John photo also runs with the Quartet text front, how come the same mistake happens twice? Soundwise everything else though is also very positive, it has woodier bass and an airiness, a more open bloom about it that the freshness of the tapes and the hand of Creed Taylor put it well ahead of my later Californian MCA production, by a label with mob connections and a tendency towards heavy metal at that time. I would have bought the later issue as an earnest twenty something, wanting to amass a Coltrane collection as swiftly as possible, and this would have been joined by those Italian live bootlegs of the same era, which I now know to be radio tapes from european stations. This listen as an older man has me asking, does Dolphy under utilise the brass section here, or do we call that subtle arranging?***

The Avant-Garde then, and the sense you get from Trane’s playing just before this that he is listening to Ornette’s writing and arranging more than his playing of the plastic alto. An almost symbolic amplification of the notion of not being the soloist in front of the rhythm by the cheapness of the horn Coleman plays ( a Grafton, as used by David Bowie). The arrival of a pristine quartet in a new jazz language, a good eighteen months before his, with a trumpet player instead of a pianist in the band, on Coltrane’s current record label. There will be a further nod of appreciation later on with Ascension to the Free Jazz double quartet, which both share the additional trumpet of Freddie Hubbard. This LP is one of those silver covered gatefolds from the Alsdorf/Teldec plant in Germany from 1978, number 40 from the thoughtfully selected 49 titles in the That’s Jazz imprint. To all tracks Coltrane straightforwardly transplants Coleman in both of the lineups, with just swapping out between Charlie Haden for the June 28th and Jimmy Heath in the bass place, July 8th. Without looking at other reviews, I feel that the spirit of the Coleman bands is very much alive, and that Coltrane in some tracks subsumes his growing dominance, but Cherry is not at the top of his game. He plays better on The Blessing at the earlier date with his pocket trumpet, which soon becomes his first horn of choice for the rest of his life. The mixed session ends on a high note with a cover of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing”. A poor album by the standards of the elite can still be a very good album, as this is here, it just happens to be surrounded by masterpieces. To praise one aspect of it once more before moving on, I have to say that the minimal, precise and perfectly tuned drumming of Ed Blackwell is as much of a joy here as it always is, every time he sat on a stage or in a recording studio that I have come across.

The most stirring thing about the next one, Plays the Blues for me is the arrival of Elvin Jones as the near permanent addition in the drum seat (having briefly played with JC in the 1958/9 Miles’ Sextet). He is the only member of the classic quartet I had the good fortune to meet, along with his beautiful wife Keiko, who graces the sleeve of my favourite Blue Note of his, Poly-Currents. I had just sat through the set of his appearance at the 1998 Cork Jazz Festival in a theatre, just along the road from a music shop that sold records, where I had bought two LPs with him on. Suffused with the glow of the performance, with the under rated Sonny Fortune in his Rhythm Machine band, I just did not want to leave my seat for a while, and as I sat there, the Japanese woman started taking apart his drum kit, as apparently she did every night of every tour for 30 odd years. She invited me backstage to meet Elvin, the rest of the band already having taken off to do their own thing. I shook and held those giant hands, and like thousands of disciples before me we spoke of John and those years. If you bear in mind that this was a little less than a Beatles worth of his musical life, about a tenth, he was incredibly gracious to face those questions every tour he went on. I did ask about his brothers and travels, and I treasure that memory as much as I do my conversations with Don Cherry. After he signed my two LPs, she said to him, “time to eat now, Jonesy”. Anyway, in this laconic set, he is the one who lets rip most often, and it is the most refreshing element of it, the lowest key Atlantic Coltrane actually issued soon after recorded. Of the dedicatees of the side 2 titles, I am assuming Mr. Day and Mr. Knight refer to the hours each side of dusk. Mr. Syms was apparently his Barber. As Mr. Knight plays, you could wish it was the length of My Favorite Things, such is the irresistible groove. Somehow Elvin is calm and quiet and sounding like he has six arms, and the bass line of Davis is on it like white on rice.

The run of albums that includes the above Plays the Blues, then Coltrane Jazz, Coltrane’s Sound, and the hit My Favorite Things were, remarkably, all recorded over three sessions in one week, October the 21st, 24th & 26th, 1960. Was a more eminent body of distinct albums ever produced by one band in such a small period? And the answer is, of course, yes, a nod was given in my intro to the run of Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’ on the same day of Oct 26th, just four years earlier, with Miles leading a band featuring Coltrane. It doesn’t happen often, but how intriguing that two of the most significant examples in the age of modern jazz occur with a microphone stand abutting the feet of John Coltrane. I will apologise in advance for breaking the fourth wall and revealing the mechanism of magic, but have no idea if either Miles or John had enormous input to the process of labelling the LPs as entities back then, or if this pair of series are from the hands of the record label teams, slicing up the sessions and adding artwork, album titles and suitable gaps between releases. It certainly appears that the ones with Coltrane’s probable input, those issued during his time there, are far superior to the many repackagings of all studio takes that follow.

I am swapping over to a mono cartridge now for this beautiful cartouche labelled London Atlantic American Jazz Recording 1st UK pressing of Coltrane Jazz. I picked this up whilst still living in West Cork from the Cork bookshop on the bridge side of the River Lee, Vibes and Scribes. As I lower the stylus, the 57 year old run in grooves are near silent, such is the quality of these Decca pressings that straddle the turn of that decade. The opener is Little Old Lady, and to be honest, we might as well be back in the Prestige era, as this is mainly Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb as rhythm section. Then the next track starts, Village Blues, and we could be listening to something from an Impulse date, with that muscular vamping of McCoy Tyner and Elvin at the kit. On this he blows like he is locked in to a groove, like the stylus in the LP, because that is what Tyner and Jones make, even if the bass player is Steve Davis. The rest of the album returns to the sunny uplands of Wynton Kelly’s playing, who of course he knew from being in Miles’ band. As with those Parker Verves that were giving me gyp, I have grown fonder of the ones with strings than when I first heard them, and wanted to hear the Dials of the Junkie Parker, hearing him slur out something remarkable whilst wasted (Parker, not me). So with these, Coltrane always has, as they say of great pianists in France “Pearls in his Fingers”. What tumbles from the tenor bell is infinite in character, and the pairing with Chambers as on Giant Steps, is its own pleasure, a chance to renew my interest in their Blue Note Twofer (High Step), which has unissued stuff from the pair of them alongside Like Sonny is a total delight, a big love send out to his brother of the tenor.

Placing that schoolboy Diskery purchase plum and silver deep grooved Atlantic first type UK issue of My Favourite Things on a table is something I have done for forty years, so the tunes are like the backs of my hands to me. Still, and all, where do those thirteen minutes and forty one seconds go of My Favourite Things? I feel as if the three and a half of a supposedly perfect pop song have passed, where Julie Andrews met the snake charmer. If there was a flavour of anything else about these seeds of change, I would say John had been listening to the Yusef Lateef Savoy records of 1957. It is in them we hear the debuts as a leader of a slightly older player with a wholly formed approach that is uniform over three LPs. Lateef has adopted a langorous sound in a band laden with sensual players, the often gently breathy tone of Curtis Fullers’ trombone, the delightful spare pianism of Barry Harris, Ernie Farrow & Louis Hayes on bass & drums, a band of Detroiters who had to head off to New York as their local scene was falling apart. It was a band that should have been as important as the first Miles Davis quintet, but they lacked clout, which you could interpet as bombast. Its absence is the vital shapeshift that soundpaints the mystical. The two leaders and their bands go about saying what they want to say in their sound in very well-formed music – in very much the same manner that the Ornette Coleman Quartet doing their own thing, entitles their LP of that time “This Is Our Music”. David Liebman put it another way, (I paraphrase from a BBC interview****); “musicians, especially band leaders wanted to put their stamp on a tune in those days, It was a task to make it your own. There’s a certain amount of voodoo, there’s magic, and there’s a lot of hard work to bring it off. I sat in the gallery at Birdland as a schoolboy and heard Coltrane do that with ‘My Favourite Things’ in 1962”.

The three quarters of the Impulse era classic quartet are the only band on this whole album, and the first side is just John playing his straight horn. It was not necessarily love at first sight for the smaller sax. A French jazz writer reported back in 1967 in his obituary tribute that he was at the Favourite things session. Three takes were made, one with tenor and soprano, but Coltrane was irked; “Between what I think, and what you hear” pointing at the little sax “there’s that damned thing”. Incidentally, those recordings of the other takes were lost in a warehouse fire.

He switches to tenor for side two, then goes on to spend a lot of his solo time on tenor in Summertime in the upper register. It is the further out excursions from this tune that are the best parts of it, and who could think otherwise over the three lengthy tracks of this session that John feels free of the constraints of Miles, who complained about the length of the solos, Coltrane supposedly said I don’t know how to stop playing. Miles told him to take the damn saxophone out of his mouth. So here we have the very opposite, from now until he passes, all the tunes are sidled up to, discussed by the band, given a try out, digressed from and returned to after a healthy circumnavigation, with a little muttering of agreement continuing until everything needing saying has been covered. The closing But Not for Me is the last serving reminder that this band is in its infancy, with the upbeat soloing from McCoy to it, as if a skin is being shed.

Coltrane’s Sound, fingers typing whilst the Bernie Grundman mastered Rhino pressing from 2015 is underway for the first time. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, is modally excursive to the point where the tune is barely touched upon. The aforementioned disdain for his Soprano seems once again evident, as he only pulls it up to the mic for Central Park West. That same difference between what he makes and what he tries to play is mentioned as a quote from him with regard to all his playing here, but discussed in the wider context of taking risks with the forging of a style, and how nothing new would happen without it.

As I mentioned earlier, Olé Coltrane bookends with Africa/Brass as the last of the one label and the first of the next, the transition from Atlantic to Impulse. The George Lane in the sleeve note personnel is really Eric Dolphy. Two days before this, Dolphy was the orchestrator of the Africa/Brass session, which hints to us that this might have a whiff of the contractual obligation about it. As with that verbal agreement with Alfred Lion though, the integrity of the leader means that we would never hear a dull background sound to this of the barrell being scraped, and that slightly smaller ensemble in the studio makes a barely less great LP than Africa/Brass.

So why do I at time of writing only have eight of the nine essential Atlantic releases in my collection on vinyl? Because of the collector that I am. Have you seen how the subscription tv channels have started referring to series as box sets that you have access to when you join up?. The box set is preferred as some sort of most desirable object, and I suppose when it comes to tv series, it means you can watch one in whatever way suits you best, but to my way of collecting, it is anathema. A CD box set of the Atlantic years does nothing for me, I wasn’t tempted by the Atlantic heavyweight vinyl either. Looking at loads of different copies of the set of titles over the past four decades is to me is like going fishing, me with my rod and bait (re: the Ashby caper above), and the box set buyer person alongside me just throwing in a grenade and scooping up the dead fish floating on the surface. I take pleasure in the walks along the river banks that are record and house clearance shops, and sometimes even charity shop finds, the car boots at seven in the morning whilst there’s a nip in the air still. I’m reeling in with a low breaking strain, talking to the purveyor, enquiring after the reserve stock of pre-owned albums. Because as one of the eastern mystics that Alice Coltrane revered said, “it is better to travel than to arrive.”

Mark Harrington

* said retrospectively by McCoy Tyner.

** Rhino have had a history in this century of reissuing on Warner and Atlantic catalogue vinyl in excellent quality masterings, that are sent to RTI in the US and Pallas in Germany to be pressed, and sell for normal LP prices. Back to vinyl is the series, and the trick to identify them is to find out the barcode number and search by that if buying over the internet, where the sticker is not in view. If you are reluctant to gamble a three figure sum on a mint first pressing, this is the next best option. My confidence in my forthcoming Coltrane’s Sound sound is based on reports of the original not being a great mastering (and thus it proved), and the Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Rickie Lee Jones titles I have replaced with Rhinos bought new in shops, that all sound great. And as a postscript, it was to that standard.

*** The probable answer is, Eric Dolphy was a slightly more inventive reeds player than Oliver Nelson, and Oliver Nelson was a slighty more gifted arranger than Eric Dolphy.

**** An episode of the excellent Radio 4 Soul Music Series, which despite the title is about any music that touches anyones soul, not just the genre that first comes to mind. Most of the contributors were talking about the Sound of Music soundtrack version. I also remember the Sun Ra Arkestra of the mid 80s were fond of “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, once having performed just it alone, all evening, in a room above a London pub. How I have wished a tape recorder were present for that one.