Icon: John Coltrane
No jazz musician inspires flattering imitators and devoted listeners like saxophonist John Coltrane. One reason is because there’s a Coltrane for every taste: the yearning balladeer; the hard bop jackrabbit, scaling intricate improvised lines over the chords to standard tunes; the ambitious conceptualist, constructing ever-more elaborate steeplechases to challenge himself; the exponent of spiritual, roiling high-energy free jazz.
Coming up in the 1950s, the tenor saxophonist apprenticed with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, leaders who loved leaving space in the ensemble texture as much as Coltrane loved filling it up. He began recording on his own, mostly for Prestige. As a soloist, he’d shoehorn rapid bursts of notes into cramped spaces; Coltrane had a tone as hard and even as a layer of shellac, even playing signature altissimo overtones.
Recording for Atlantic, starting in 1959, he made his first classics (Giant Steps, My Favorite Things), and expanded his interests beyond the hard bop mainstream to modal jazz and the avant-garde, without losing his taste for the lyrical.
After he signed with Impulse in 1961, Coltrane’s music grew still more expansive. He played marathon solos on tenor and the smaller, more piercing soprano sax, with his thundering “classic quartet” (which had a tender side too). The performances could be frenetic on later live albums, right up to the roughly recorded Olatunji Concert made shortly before he died of cancer in 1967, only 40.
For years, jazz folk waited for a “new Coltrane”: someone who’d shake things up the way he had. We’re still waiting. What all the Coltranes mentioned at the top have in common: the way he infused every note, every line, every keening phrase with incandescent passion and total commitment.
Becoming a Leader: Coltrane on Prestige
The first session released under Coltrane's name, this 1957 sextet date sounds like a better-prepped version of one of Prestige's studio jams...which it is. But the music justifies his featured billing, given how beautifully Cecil Payne's and Pepper Adams's burly baritone saxes frame his rapidly maturing, confident tenor. Even in fast company, he's special, levitating above the band. When the twin baris take off at a gallop, it doesn't take... him long to catch 'em; he chomps up the chord changes with a Pac-Man's insatiable appetite. Producer Teddy Charles's "Dakar" could pass for an early Sun Ra tune, with its tangy syncopations, romping baritone riff and piquant saxophone and piano harmonies. So could Teddy's plush rumbling "Velvet Scene," which inspires a typically plaintive Coltrane ballad performance. Pianist Mal Waldron's lean prowling early style anticipates the iterative, insistent quality McCoy Tyner brought to Coltrane's 1960s quartet. Dakar is a portrait of the artist emerging from his chrysalis stage.more »
Giant Steps Forward: The Atlantic Years
Coltrane was obsessed with technique and self-improvement, and nowhere does he spotlight technical concerns as brilliantly as on Giant Steps, waxed in 1959 while he was still in Miles Davis's sextet. (They'd finished up Kind of Blue a month earlier.) And what album that inspired a gazillion saxophone study sessions brims with good melodies like this one? The fiendish title track — based on a homemade practice exercise that hops from... key to key — has a surprisingly catchy tune, as jazz fans hearing it in their heads as they read this can attest. "Naima" is one of Coltrane's most beautiful ballads; he'd frequently return to it, but the originally released version here is definitive. Even the fast minor blues "Mr. P.C." has a bumping, earworm rhythmic hook. It's named for bassist Paul Chambers, the quartet's heartbeat, who shows off his beefy sound and rapid articulation on the uptempo blues "Cousin Mary" and "Syeeda's Song Flute," another ear-grabber, bouncing on a jaunty repeated-note riff. Miles's drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Wynton Kelly trade off with Art Taylor and Tommy Flanagan, who'd kick himself later for not instantly devising a better solo strategy when confronted with "Giant Steps." (He did pretty well, actually.) Coltrane sounds like he can't wait to tear into the material; on "Countdown" his furious improvisation leads up to the melody, heard only at the end, reversing the usual trajectory. His sound, his thinking and his execution are all razor sharp, and the rhythm trios swing zestily through it all. It's a jazz essential.more »
Coltrane made plenty of avant-garde albums in the 1960s, but this isn't one of them; it's too genially melodic, open and airy for that. Here, Coltrane investigates the music of his friend the freebop pioneer Ornette Coleman, whose intuitive playing contrasted with his own deliberate, more methodical approach. Coltrane plays three Coleman tunes alongside the composer's key allies: cornetist Don Cherry, drummer Edward Blackwell, and bassist Charlie Haden (trading... off with Percy Heath, who'd recorded with Coleman, too). In the process, Coltrane zeroes in on Coleman's happy bounce and love of earthy melody, as Cherry's raggedy bugling sets the informal tone. As in Coleman's band, the absence of piano gives the horns more leeway. "The Blessing" marks the debut of Trane's soprano saxophone in the studio. His solo is supple, sinewy, and tuneful, if topped by one of Cherry's most fetching, Harmon-muted improvisations. There's also a loosely spirited take on "Bemsha Swing" by Coltrane's old boss Thelonious Monk. In the end the saxophonist didn't bend his saxophone style so far in Coleman's direction, but no other Coltrane record sounds quite so jolly as this one.more »
By 1960, Coltrane had added a new axe: the straight soprano saxophone, which sounded an octave higher than his tenor, and which he imbued with a different personality. His smaller horn had a keening, nasal tone recalling the Indian subcontinent's double-reed instruments. Sidney Bechet, Steve Lacy and Lucky Thompson had played soprano earlier, but Coltrane popularized it; after him, umpteen tenor players got one. My Favorite Things was his... soprano's unveiling, Coltrane brandishing it like a totem on the cover. The title track really put it on the map: a chipper waltz plucked from The Sound of Music. Some commentators say he played it for a laugh, but Coltrane wasn't kidding. This 14-minute epic is an early glimmering of a new strain in his playing, which you could trace back to India's classical music: extended improvising over relatively static harmonies, with new find McCoy Tyner's droney piano adding sustained tension. (Atlantic cut it down to a two-sided single, also here.) The remaining tunes are also standards; Coltrane reels soprano in for a tender reading of Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," and takes "But Not for Me," on tenor, in the breezy, lighthearted style of his romping ballads for Prestige a few years earlier. He toys with the melody like a cat with a mouse, before warming up to some of his celebrated "sheets of sound" — fast, ascending shards of scales that shoot up like July Fourth rockets. His declamatory tenor sounds even better on an uptempo rethink of Gershwin's shopworn "Summertime." Coltrane turns the melody's plaintive high notes into his own typically majestic howls, scrubbing the song clean of any trace of mawkish sentimentality. He knew how to treat a manhandled tune like it had never been touched before.more »
The Stuart Davis-y torn-paper collage on this 1960 gem's cover declares we're not in Robert Johnson territory; this is the blues as modern art. That said, the music can't help but draw out the deep roots of Coltrane's modernism — his tenor sax's hard shouts hark back to work songs and street vendors' cries — and confirm his deep feel for the most flexible and durable form jazz musicians improvise on.... His six blues take the 12-bar form relatively straight, though they get modernized in the retelling. Most arresting is "Mr. Day," where Coltrane's flights are tethered to a recurring two-note figure that recalls circular West African folk melodies (or this solo from Burkina Faso on a homemade reed, the bounkam). "Mr. Day" catches the ecstasy in Coltrane's art, and the economy he brought to the music on occasion. But then he always had a knack for balancing busy passages and stately long tones. Pianist McCoy Tyner picks up on the boss's mantra repetitions, repeating phrases till he's milked them dry, like Trane's old ally Mal Waldron. ("Mr. Knight, as the title implies, is a darker variant on the same idea.) There are fast variations — "Blues to You," with only Elvin Jones's drums and Steve Davis's bass in spare support — and slow ones, for tenor or soprano, and one dedicated to the original soprano master Sidney Bechet. A reissue bonus track, the non-blues "Untitled Original (Exotica)" comes from the same sessions but breaks the mood. The rest of the program is all of a piece.more »
Coltrane's Sound is Atlantic's third helping from the October 1960 sessions for My Favorite Things and Coltrane Plays the Blues, but there was still plenty of meat on the platter. In contrast to those all-standards/all-blues albums, it's a smorgasbord of contemporary Coltrane approaches: a snapshot of his music at the moment his mature concept was coming together. There are two standards ("The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, "Body and Soul"), a steeplechase... over tricky, fast-moving harmonies ("Satellite," for trio minus piano), and a tune where he riffs off eastern modes like the ones found in his study bible, Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. That's "Liberia," whose repetitive phrases sound like an invitation to prayer. "Central Park West," later memorably covered by Jack DeJohnette, is one of his loveliest, most original ballads, and the one tune where Trane plays soprano instead of tenor sax. The brooding modal blues "Equinox" is a moan from a wooden church across the fields, far from Central Park. By now two-thirds of his classic quartet's rhythm section had been assembled; pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, plus Philadelphia bassist Steve Davis on his final Coltrane sessions. You can hear the ripening of Tyner's style in particular; he sprays high-note confetti on faster numbers and tolls doleful chords on the slow "Equinox." McCoy's lightly insistent chording stamps Coltrane's figurative and literal revamp of "Body and Soul" heedless of Coleman Hawkins's benchmark version. "Satellite" reworks a chord sequence lifted from "How High the Moon," though you could easily miss it; the tune balances quick-change chords with a few bars of static harmony under the melodic hook, much the way Coltrane's solos temper hyperactivity with moments that let us catch our breath.more »
The Gentle Side of Coltrane
Jazz's premier composer and most galvanizing soloist met as equals on this 1962 quartet session. Splitting their differences, they're backed either by Duke's bassist and drummer, Aaron Bell and the great Ellingtonian Sam Woodyard, or by Coltrane's men Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Bell and Jones cross-pollinate Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood," distinguished by Duke's music-box piano figures and some exquisite Coltrane — even Ellington's peerless saxophone balladeer Johnny Hodges... loved it. The leaders were from different eras, but Coltrane had played with Monk, who'd learned plenty from Duke about impacted harmonies and oblique accompaniment, and Ellington had been in the advance guard his whole career. One of this session's overlooked pleasures is hearing the pianist mix it up with Coltrane's crew, even if (like Monk) Ellington may vanish behind the tenor solos, so's not to hem the saxophonist in. He lets Coltrane run way out there, on the Ellington blues "Stevie" and Duke's playfully leaping "Angelica" aka "Purple Gazelle," the latter perked by Elvin's Latin beats. There are two more blues, by Coltrane and Ellington's alter ego Billy Strayhorn, and they do Strays' classic ballad "My Little Brown Book," rendered quietly sublime. Coltrane's "Big Nick," the only number where he plays soprano instead of tenor saxophone, is a confection so fetching it might have sprung from Duke's pen.more »
Outward bound and exploratory as Coltrane's 1960s recordings could be, his producer at Impulse, Bob Thiele, tried to ensure the saxophonist didn't neglect fans of his more melodic side. Exhibit A is this 1963 meeting with a fine singer remembered mostly for John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (though his other Impulses are also worth your time, starting with The Voice That Is). With all due respect to Miles Davis's Kind of... Blue, this is the great jazz-for-lovers album, a set of timeless, mostly not-too-familiar ballads, the main exception being Billy Strayhorn's world-weary "Lush Life," given a definitive reading. Hartman was a bedroom baritone out of 1940s crooner Billy Eckstine, but with a lighter touch, timbre and vibrato. He listens to every word he sings, makes you feel what the songs' (often woeful) protagonists feel. The combination with Coltrane's pleading tenor gives you goosebumps; they set each other up extraordinarily well. On "Dedicated to You," Hartman sells us on his devotion with one quick chorus, then lets the saxophonist preach on the text. Devotion is a topic Coltrane knows something about, and his even, muscular tone across the range of his horn makes him that much more attentive a lover of a lovely tune. Indeed, this date boasts some of Coltrane's most subtle playing, solo or in support. On the gorgeous lost-love lament "Autumn Serenade," Hartman makes you feel the pang of separation, before Coltrane's noble solo wipes away the tears. He gives us all strength to go on. One mark of great jazz musicians is the ability to sound fantastic just playing the melody, as Coltrane does on "My One and Only Love." His explosive rhythm section is on its very best behavior.more »
Coltrane's November 1961 week at New York's most prestigious basement is documented on Live at the Village Vanguard and the exhaustive Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings. Two marathon performances from that stand dominate the excellent Impressions, complemented by a trio of studio recordings, for a particularly satisfying program. In the two and a half years since Giant Steps Coltrane had moved from fast obstacle courses over difficult harmonies to long excursions over... one or two chords: the more open and expressionistic brand of jazz that largely defines '60s Coltrane. "Impressions" for his classic quartet (pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones), cops its simple form from Miles Davis's "So What," and its riffy melody from composer Morton Gould's 1935 "Pavanne." (The tune turns up as a guitar interlude on Ahmad Jamal's 1955 version of "Pavanne," the inspiration for "So What.") Tireless, Coltrane solos straight through its 15 minutes, as pianist Tyner mostly stays silent, and drummer Elvin works polyrhythmic miracles while swinging like an angel. Eric Dolphy, a frequent quest with the quartet that season, adds bass clarinet to "India," extended improvising over a droning backdrop, a western raga with a swinging cymbal groove. Elvin's percolations are equally invigorating on a basic mid-tempo tenor blues for pianoless trio, "Up 'Gainst the Wall," from the following year. Two ballads from 1963 with Roy Haynes subbing on drums include the lovely, relatively brief "After the Rain" (with its echoes of "Happy Birthday"): the concise Coltrane.more »