John Coltrane

TrackAlbum
Moment's NoticeBlue Train
Giant StepsGiant Steps
Syeeda's Song FluteGiant Steps
My Favorite ThingsMy Favorite Things
Someday My Prince Will ComeSomeday My Prince Will Come
OléOlé Coltrane
Big NickDuke Ellington & John Coltrane
You Don't Know What Love IsBallads
TunjiColtrane
A Love Supreme Pt 4: Psalm A Love Supreme

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Contributor: Simon Appleby

After my first Toppermost outing with Mr Miles Davis [see Toppermost #157], John Coltrane is definitely the logical next stop. Trane is quite simply one of the titans of jazz saxophony, not only on the tenor but also on the soprano saxophone. Like Miles, who he recorded with extensively, he went on a considerable musical journey, but the destination was very different indeed, and it ended much sooner – he was only 40 when he died.

Trane left an extensive body of recorded work – starting with fairly standard bebop and hard bop sessions and finishing with free, atonal and very challenging recordings like Ascension and Meditations. I should say right off that these later recordings are on the wrong side of my music/ noise threshold – this Toppermost goes up to the magnificent A Love Supreme, recorded in 1964.

As with Miles the focus here is on studio recordings; unlike Miles I have included cuts recorded by Trane as a sideman or joint leader, which I think are necessary to show his development as a musician and his range of work.

Blue Train (1957) was Coltrane’s first and only date for the legendary New York label Blue Note, and sees him teamed with fiery trumpeter Lee Morgan and Curtis Fuller on trombone. While that combination of instruments was not all that unusual, it’s pretty rare for Trane. An important step on the road to him becoming a great bandleader, and showcasing his own compositions, it showed traces of the brilliance that were to be unveiled in his next album, Giant Steps. Moment’s Notice gets the nod here.

Giant Steps, from the album of the same name, was a major breakthrough – it showcased Coltrane’s dense playing style – dubbed ‘Sheets of Sound’ by critic Ira Gitler – in the context of originals written specifically for the session, and with backing group attuned to what Trane wanted to do. There isn’t a bad track on the album, and many of them became jazz standards, but it was the title track that blew me away when I first heard it. I am not normally big on hearing too many alternate versions of songs, but listening to an earlier attempt to record Giant Steps with different personnel reinforces just how perfect the master take is. From the same record I am also picking Syeeda’s Song Flute – which absolutely refuted any suggestion of Trane’s playing as unmusical and showed he could swing just as hard as anyone.

Like most jazz musicians, Coltrane played more than his fair of showtune-derived jazz standards. However he never shied away from songs that, on the face of it, might have been seen as twee by other musicians. My Favorite Things, from the album of the same name, is an extended soprano workout with the sinuous saxophone lines giving the whole thing an Eastern quality, and all thoughts of the Von Trapp family are quickly dispelled once it kicks in to gear, propelled by the driving rhythm section.

Someday My Prince Will Come was a Miles Davis session, and Coltrane’s swan-song with his old leader. He was well established as a leader in his own right by this point, and I have chosen the title track from this album because it shows just how far he had moved away from the chasing pack – the first saxophone solo is from Hank Mobley (a player I am very partial to) and after Wynton Kelly’s piano solo, it’s Coltrane’s turn. He completely blows Mobley away in a solo that is rich with ideas and invention yet still rooted in the melody; his playing seems to lend extra fire to the rhythm section, a contrast of styles with Davis that worked so well so many times in their recordings together.

Coltrane was often associated with members of the avant-garde even before his later musical adventures – he recorded with Don Cherry and, on the album Olé Coltrane, with out-there multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy. The title track Olé is a Spanish-tinged epic, deploying the unusual combination of two bassists creates a dense rhythmic backdrop for Coltrane, Dolphy on flute and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet to solo over with magnificent invention.

Olé Coltrane was his final album for Atlantic – for the rest of his life, his work would be issued by Impulse Records. If his Atlantic recordings saw Coltrane’s potential being realised, his work for Impulse saw him going increasingly towards atonality and free playing – with some surprising diversions along the way. One of these was with singer Johnny Hartman [see Toppermost #166], another with jazz deity Duke Ellington. Coltrane seemed determined to prove he hadn’t forgotten the roots of the music. Check out Big Nick from the Ellington album – playful and gently swinging. Even more surprising was the Ballads album – traditional songs, straight playing, tasteful, even conservative, but beautiful, tender and hugely successful commercially. You only have to listen to You Don’t Know What Love Is to get the appeal – it may be relaxed, but the trademark Coltrane runs and flurries of notes are still present.

More typical releases, with extended track times and lots of notes, were albums like Coltrane (not to be confused with his his Riverside debut of the same name), Impressions and Crescent. Coltrane was the first appearance on record of the classic quartet of Trane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, and is Coltrane really stretching out creatively but keeping his audience onside. I have chosen Tunji as the embodiment of their fine partnership.

Which brings us to A Love Supreme, John Coltrane’s most famous record, a four-part suite reflecting an increasing interest in spiritual matters. In the liner notes, he says that in 1957, “I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” Whether such beliefs coincide with your own or not, it’s hard to doubt the spiritual intensity that informs A Love Supreme. To quote Wikipedia, “the fourth movement of A Love Supreme, Psalm, is, in fact, a musical setting for an original poem to God written by Coltrane, and printed in the album’s liner notes. Coltrane plays almost exactly one note for each syllable of the poem, and bases his phrasing on the words.” And that’s my choice to bring this Toppermost to a breathless close. Olé!

John Coltrane – The Official Website

John Coltrane biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #169

2 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jan 17, 2014

    A Toppermost that inspires me to find out more. In 1970, the three sax players I knew (in two different rock bands) played the “A Love Supreme” LP at all opportunities. I didn’t think much about Coltrane until the late 70s, when we were sorting books at an ELT school and found an old LP case labelled “jazz club” with half a dozen Coltrane LPs in (and incongruously, a couple of Bert Kampfaert). My boss told us to throw the LPs away as cassette was the thing now (!). My colleague was quivering with excitement and had the lot. And the LP case.

    Anyway the only album I have is The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions with orchestra (or rather large brass section) on 2 CDs. I must have read a review. I think the reissue is “too academic” because the CD follows the chronological sequence of sessions, rather than the LP sequences as originally selected and issued. Africa” is broodingly impressive but I don’t really want three versions. I think that’s becoming a problem with these archival jazz reissues. “Greensleeves” is an example of him playing with a known melody, or maybe him improvising while McCoy Tyner plays with a known melody, but again, once will do. But you get two versions. Anyway, I’ll seek out “A Love Supreme” as a result of reading Simon’s excellent piece.

  2. Simon Appleby
    Jan 18, 2014

    Thanks Peter. I don’t own Africa/Brass. I actually think, if one could only own Trane’s output for one label it would have to be Atlantic – I splurged on the Heavyweight Champion box set a few years ago and have never regretted it! Although that excludes A Love Supreme, for me the Giant Steps, My Favourite Things and Olé albums along are essential, and there’s loads more good stuff on there too.

    Also agree about the scheduling of alternate takes. I would much rather all record companies followed the Blue Note practice of putting them after the original tracks in the original running order.

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