John Coltrane Atlantic Records CD reissues: review
JOHN COLTRANE ATLANTIC RECORDS CD REISSUES by IAN JOHNSTON
44 years after his death, John Coltrane’s musical legacy endures. ”ËVillage Blues’, the Coltrane composition from his 1961 Atlantic Records LP release, Coltrane Jazz, has recently been cited by Iggy Pop as a track that considerably influenced him and the rest of The Stooges during their formative years. Coltrane’s brooding and highly evocative blues, based around a deceptively straightforward riff played by three-fourths of what would become Coltrane’s great Quartet (McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums, soon to be joined by Jimmy Garrison on bass) serves as a poignant reminder of the huge influence the tenor and soprano saxophonist has exerted upon the most daring, exploratory rock bands.
The strong atmosphere of steely menace evinced by Coltrane’s ”ËVillage Blues’ anticipates songs on the first eponymous Stooges 1969 album, and echoes of the track can be heard on ”ËNot Right’, ”ËAnn’ and even ”ËNo Fun’. The furious tenor saxophone attack on The Stooges’ 1970 masterpiece Fun House, powerfully played by Steven Mackay, blatantly reflected their admiration of Coltrane’s style of free jazz. The Velvet Underground and The MC5, together with The Stooges, three of the most influential bands of the past 40 years, would openly cite a love of Coltrane’s music and other jazz artists, such as Ornette Coleman -a major inspiration for Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart -and Sun Ra (The MC5 reworked Ra’s ”ËStarship’ on their live epochal 1969 Kick Out The Jams album).
This month Rhino have reissued five key Atlantic John Coltrane records ”â Giant Steps (1960), Coltrane Jazz (1961), My Favorite Things (1961), Coltrane Plays The Blues (1962) and Coltrane’s Sound (1964)- in a thin LP replica 5 Pack CD Original Album Series package, which is very convenient for the storage conscious. If you have not experienced John Coltrane’s music before, these albums are a very good point of entry (My Favorite Things in particular). The only Atlantic albums missing from the collection are his 1959 LP with vibraphonist Milt Jackson (Bags & Trane), the splendid Ole Coltrane, issued in 1964, and Coltrane’s fair collaboration with Ornette Coleman’s trumpeter Don Cherry, on the rather pointlessly titled The Avant-Garde. (Ornette Coleman is also included in a separate 5 Pack CD Original Album box up, with the following landmark 1960’s Atlantic albums: The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Change Of The Century, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz and Ornette!).
Coltrane’s first solo 1960 Atlantic LP, the aptly named Giant Steps highlighted the development of what Ira Gitler christened Coltrane’s “sheets of sound”Â. This landmark recording charts Coltrane’s radical shift from choral jazz towards an ultra fast scale approach. The seven tracks that comprise Giant Steps altered the course of jazz forever, laying the way for the radical innovations produced by Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Yusef Lateef and others throughout the 1960’s. 51 years on, Giant Steps remains an exhilarating experience: ”ËCousin Mary’ carries an ever contemporary funky attack, the title track offers a glimpse of the future of the music, ‘Countdown’ is a rapid, unstoppable 2 minute rush of sheer adrenalin, ”ËSyeeda’s Song Flute’ is a playful, loving ode to Coltrane’s daughter, the long, mesmeric ”ËSpiral’ envelops the listener in an ever descending whirlpool of sound, ”ËNaima’ could be the most beautiful ballad Coltrane produced during his entire career, while ”ËMr. P.C.’ acts as a reminder that Coltrane’s music was steeped in the blues. Giant Steps certainly deserves its status as one of the most important jazz albums ever made.
Though not so obviously groundbreaking as Giant Steps, and Coltrane’s move away from hard bop jazz, or the more protracted and rather directionless ”Ëcosmic’ musical workouts that characterised his live performances towards the end of his life (Trane was then a devotee of LSD), the remaining four classic Atlantic albums none the less captured the essence of the saxophonist’s distinctly American music as it constantly developed at ultra high speed. Coltrane Jazz, My Favorite Things, Coltrane Plays The Blues and Coltrane’s Sound, all recorded in a very short period of time (Coltrane Jazz was conceived during the late 1959 Giant Steps sessions and the rest, 19 compositions in all, within a staggering five-day period at Atlantic studios in the autumn of 1960, then split over three subsequent albums) could be viewed as some of his ”Ëblackest’, most lyrical and bluest recordings.
Along with ”ËVillage Blues’, Coltrane Jazz has much to recommend it, not least featuring Miles Davis’ rhythm section on most of the record; Wynton Kelly on piano, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb. The band charge head on through the great Johnny Mercer’s standard ”ËMy Shining Hour’, on the Latin infused ”ËLike Sonny’ Coltrane offers fulsome tribute to his contemporary, the dazzling saxophonist Sonny Rollins (still performing and recording today), the obscure standard ”ËI’ll Wait And Pray’ shows that Coltrane was the master of the contemplative ballad and ”ËSome Other Blues’ delivers a mighty euphoric kick. Despite its high quality, Coltrane Jazz is a transitional record, though in some sense all Coltrane’s Lp’s where marking his transition ”â the constant musical journey was the thing for John Coltrane.
It is ironic that John Coltrane, the great hero of the avant garde free jazz movement and ”Ëalternative’ rock musicians, should make his first major breakthrough to a much wider audience should be with a cover of a show tune from the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1959 musical The Sound of Music, ”ËMy Favorite Things’. Yet Coltrane’s interpretation is anything but comforting easy listening. In the 13 minute tune Coltrane seamlessly blends Eastern and Western music while transforming an American popular number with a hypnotic, escalating riff that almost ignores the original chord structure altogether. However, Coltrane’s version was popular enough to warrant Atlantic issuing an edited two-part version on a 45 hit single and the song would regularly feature in Coltrane’s live sets, albeit in much longer, far less harmonic structure, for the rest of his career. On the rest of the My Favorite Things album, Coltrane performs comparatively more conventional readings of Cole Porters’ ”ËEverytime We Say Goodbye’ and Gershwin’s ”ËBut Not For Me’, both influenced by Miles Davis’ modal approach. The Latin flavoured rhythm of the 11-minute version of Gershwin’s ”ËSummertime’, with Coltrane’s unstoppable, emphatic solos is a highlight. Apply supported by Tyner’s mercurial piano and Jones’ motivating drums, Coltrane’s rendering of ”ËSummertime’ gave as much notice of the groups incredible power, energy and invention as the more celebrated ”ËMy Favorite Things’.
Arguably, one the best of the five albums is the often-ignored Coltrane Plays The Blues. But when, as critic Neil Tesser has noted about the redundancy of the LP title, did Coltrane not play the blues? Before his solo career began in 1957 and his tenure with the celebrated Miles Davis group that produced Round About Midnight (1956) and Milestones (1958), in the late 1940’s Coltrane played 12-bar blues with Eddie ”ËCleanhead’ Vinson’s band and in a number of bopping R&B bands in Philadelphia. Coltrane was also heavily inspired by the dynamic blues guitarist T-Bone Walker and by Baptist gospel music, so it is unsurprising that his affinity with the blues musical idiom produces such a potent brew on Plays The Blues. Highlights include drummer Elvin Jones’ composition ”ËBlues To Elvin’, a slow groove propelled by McCoy Tyner’s simple gospel flavoured piano and Jones’ swaggering waltz time beat, while Coltrane is testifying above, the rollicking ”Ëhappy’ blues ”ËMr. Day’, the tribute to the New Orleans soprano sax player Sidney Bechet ”ËBlues To Bechet’, on which Tyner’s piano is absent, and the jaunty ”ËMr Knight’, which glides upon a driving combination of African and West Indian rhythms ”â an indication where Coltrane’s music would head in the near future.
By the time Atlantic released Coltrane’s Sound in 1964, John Coltrane was making further waves in music at the new major label backed Impulse Records, nicknamed The House That Trane Built. Though overlooked, Coltrane’s Sound is another daring, evolving record. The LP cover image of John Coltrane’s face melting, as if from waves of sound, gives an accurate picture of the music within, although it supposedly troubled Coltrane. It is worth noting that on the LP covers that bare a photograph of Coltrane, he always has a saxophone in his mouth ”â the man was totally obsessed with his craft and trying to perfect it. Unlike Miles Davis, fast cars, even faster women and sharp suits meant nothing to Coltrane; his music and family was all.
The hard-edged version of the hit ”ËThe Night Has A Thousand Eyes’ on Coltrane’s Sound’, with Tyner emphasising the tune while Coltrane powers ahead soloing over Jones’ dramatic drums, is a classic. The Coltrane composition ”ËLiberia’ conveys much dark intensity and spiritual mystery, the compelling cover of the standard ”ËBody And Soul’ transforms the song with nods towards African influences and ”ËEquinox’, another Coltrane number, presents perhaps the deepest, almost funky, blues groove that the saxophonist ever recorded on Atlantic.
Beginning with the Gil Evans influenced big band album Africa/Brass, released in November 1961, Coltrane at Impulse continued to redefine the very shape of jazz itself with masterworks such as Crescent (1964), A Love Supreme (1966, Coltrane’s most famous album and one of the biggest selling jazz records of all time, second only to his former band leader Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, on which Coltrane of course plays) and Meditations (1966), before his untimely death from liver cancer on 17th July 1967, aged just 40 years old. Coltrane’s early demise was probably due to the effects of his serious addiction to alcohol and heroin incurred before his career even really ignited, but the timeless and impassioned music that John Coltrane created during his short life (his working solo career really only lasted ten years) continues to reverberate on down through the decades since his passing, progressively inspiring musicians working in many different musical genres. Just ask Iggy, Suicide, Big Sexy Noise, Grinderman or The Dirty Three.
John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman 5 Pack CD Original Album Series out now on Rhino.