John Coltrane, considered by many to be the greatest saxophonist in jazz history, had a short recording career. He made his first album as a leader in 1957, when he was already 30 years old; he died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967 -- yes, forty years ago today. We are blessed that he made so many great recordings in those ten-plus years. Here's a walk through some highlights on that timeline, using recording dates rather than release dates.
Blue Train (Blue Note, 9/15/57)
Coltrane was prolific as soon as he got the chance: He made four albums under his own name in 1957 (and part of a fifth), and participated in three leaderless jam albums. All except for this one were for Prestige; Trane made Blue Train to honor a verbal promise. It boasts more complex compositions than the more loosely organized Prestige sessions (Blue Note paid for advance rehearsal time, unlike Prestige), and draws from a different, more Blue Note-centric pool of players: trumpeter Lee Morgan, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones (the latter two being Trane's bandmates in the Miles Davis Quintet). The title track is one of the great jazz blues originals, its orchestration with the three horns positively haunting.
Black Pearls (Prestige, 5/23/58)
This quintet with trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Red Garland, Chambers, and drummer Art Taylor is not necessarily the best album or most satisfying listening experience Coltrane created in 1958 (many fans would prefer Lush Life [though parts come from the previous year], while Trane himself would nominate Soul Trane), but it offers historical importance: the title track is the quintessential example of Trane's "sheets of sound" soloing, where he zips through fast-moving chord progressions with flurries of notes (he earned the unofficial title of "fastest tenor in town"). The lengthy blues jam is quite satisfying as well.
Giant Steps (Atlantic, 5/4-5 and 12/2/59)
Trane's first album for Atlantic (though not first recorded) found him forging so far ahead that pianist Tommy Flanagan couldn't quite keep up on the tricky title track (which in its first half, instead of the usual progression through fifths or fourths, moves through chords a third apart), though it's a classic anyway as the leader powers through unperturbed. There's beauty too, on the ballad for Coltrane's first wife, "Naima," with the rhythm section of pianist Wynton Kelly, Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb all Trane's bandmates with Miles Davis. Chambers (the bassist throughout) is the dedicatee of "Mr. P.C.", one of the most familiar of jazz blues themes. Actually, this album's focus is arguably on Coltrane as composer -- no standards here, for the first time -- and "Spiral" and "Countdown" have, like the title track, become jam-session proving grounds in the decades since.
My Favorite Things (Atlantic, 10/21, 10/24, and 10/26/60)
Trane made lots of other saxophonists once again follow his lead when he added the soprano sax to his arsenal. More important in the long run was his return to the modal organization he'd learned while in Miles Davis's group. He and new pianist McCoy Tyner strip down the already simple chord changes of the insipid title track (from The Sound of Music, a Broadway hit in 1959). It stood out thanks to the exotic sound of the soprano sax, by virtue of being a waltz (though far from the first in jazz), for the way the improvisations alternate E minor and E major scales, and because Coltrane plays across the metric divisions (four-bar and eight-bar sections) of the piece's structure in a flowing way that takes advantage of the horizontal organization of modal playing as compared to the vertical structure of chord progressions. It may seem odd that Coltrane's big breakthrough came on an album where he wrote none of the music, but certainly he rewrote it and mostly made it his own (nobody can lay sole claim to Gershwin's "Summertime," though Trane's version -- on tenor -- is superb). This was also nearly the arrival of his classic Quartet, with drummer Elvin Jones joining as well. Bassist Steve Davis lasted only for this session (which yielded two additional albums, Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Plays the Blues.
The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse!, 11/1-3 and 11/5/61)
The final piece of the Quartet joined during this series of concerts: bassist Jimmy Garrison. However, the personnel is rather fluid, with guests sitting in -- Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet contributions are particularly notable -- and sidemen dropping out. This is a four-CD set; originally only a three-tune LP was issued, Live at the Village Vanguard. You can still get just that program on CD (just 36 minutes), or the more generous disc Live at the Village Vanguard: The Master Takes, with those three plus the other two performances Trane approved for release on a later album. But springing for the set is well worth it, and though some songs are heard two, three, or four times, one can hardly characterize such spontaneous performances as "repetition." The thrilling trio track "Chasin' the Trane," where Tyner sits out and the leader goes on a frenetic excursion, is justly famous as an example of Coltrane's unfettered improvisational imagination, but "India," "Spiritual," and "Impressions" are more representative of Coltrane's musical focus.
Bye Bye Blackbird (Pablo, 11/19/62)
Coltrane cut "only" two studio albums this year as leader, Coltrane (distinguished by an intense reading of the standard "Out of This World," but horribly marred by "The Inch Worm") and the lovely but low-key Ballads, with dental problems between them (there was also a collaboration with Duke Ellington). But he'd clearly recovered by the end of the year for his European tour. The classic Quartet flies high in Stockholm on the title track and "Traneing In," with Trane on tenor. The sound's tinny and a bit muffled, but it can't diminish the palpable excitement of these 18-minute blastoffs into the improvisational stratosphere. Really the only complaint is that the same show's "Impressions" (found on Pablo's seven-CD box set Live Trane: The European Tours) wasn't added in the transition from LP to CD.
Afro Blue Impressions (Pablo, 10/22 and 11/2/63)
Aside from a collaboration with suave baritone vocalist Johnny Hartman, no studio albums in '63 (Jones was in rehab part of the time), but plenty of concerts. Birdland and Newport gigs were fine, but are topped by this two-disc set. The first Trane compiled from producer Norman Granz's vault, it cherry-picks two items from a Stockholm gig and apparently gives us all of a Berlin concert. Trane's on tenor except for a 21-minute "My Favorite Things," one of his finest renditions of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" (which also finds Tyner in fine form), and -- surprisingly -- the theme of "Cousin Mary." Want a ballad? Billy Eckstine's "I Want to Talk About You" was a Trane favorite that here is filled with exquisite timbre effects. Again the sonics are not ideal but are more than serviceable, and again the band is scintillating.
A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 12/9-10/64)
This was another slow year for studio work, yet it yielded a strong candidate for greatest jazz album of all time. Probably no album was closer to Trane's heart than this musical avowal of faith. The Quartet has developed its art to an even more refined yet more powerful level, while the saxophonist has honed his tone and sharpened his spontaneous composition skills to the point where his playing has an incantatory effect of mesmerizing power. Moving from "Acknowledgment" to "Resolution" to "Pursuance" and closing with "Psalm," Coltrane takes listeners along on his spiritual journey. And it spoke immediately to contemporary listeners; for all its complexity and profundity, it is a very direct expression that seemingly affects many more listeners strongly than most works in this style. The open-mindedness that the 1960s brought to many levels of culture allowed this album to reach beyond its usual audience, and it was Coltrane's high tide. Subsequent albums would be more avant-garde and would alienate some listeners, but A Love Supreme would remain a cultural touchstone.
Ascension (Impulse!, 6/28/65)
Having lost his favorite guest performer when Dolphy died in June 1964, Coltrane began working informally with younger, more radically inclined players who were invited to augment his Quartet, which still consisted of Tyner, Garrison, and Jones. For this unique session, the Quartet was joined by tenor saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, alto saxists John Tchicai and Marion Brown, trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson, and bassist Art Davis. Having taken note of the equally worthy trail being blazed by Ornette Coleman and the more extreme expression of Albert Ayler, Trane incorporated both styles within his own for this session, which consists of two takes of the title piece. To an extent it is influenced by Coleman's 1961 album Free Jazz: a core quartet augmented by an equal or greater number of additional instrumentalists plays in structure alternating collective improvisation and solos, with a motivic launching point. However, Ascension is much denser than Free Jazz, with more orchestral blocks of sound as compared to Coleman's chamber music and often with thicker accompaniments during the solos. Furthermore, the prioritization of timbre, of sheer sonic variety, over melody -- pioneered in jazz by Ayler -- is taken to new extremes, especially by Shepp, Sanders, and Brown. The results are not atonal (very little improvised music really is -- it's hard to avoid even temporary tonal centers), but the music is often discordant and abrasive enough that the timid may not listen long enough to discern the distinction, may in fact be scared away by the very lengths of the performances (38:37 and 40:31). At the time, Bill Mathieu in Down Beat wrote, "This is possibly the most powerful human sound ever recorded." Nothing's come along since to top it.
Live in Japan (Impulse!, 7/11 and 7/22/66)
Four CDs containing just two sets; "My Favorite Things" alone lasts 57 minutes (starting with a 14¾-minute bass solo) -- and is notable for Trane playing alto sax (the horn he'd started out on as a teenager) and playing the heck out of it. Sanders shows the full range of his talents, from lyrical solos to gently distorted timbres to his trademark intense screeches and blats (he's not as consistently extreme as on Live in Seattle eight months earlier). Alice Coltrane is low-key (and rather distant in the mix except when she's soloing), and Garrison is nearly irrelevant by this point except as bottom-filler. Rashied Ali's unquenchable energy and infinite rhythmic imagination are dazzling and undoubtedly were quite inspiring to the rest of the band. This has some of the stuff that sends purists running from the room with their hands over their ears ("Leo," and isolated moments during solos in other pieces), but despite its reputation -- which would seem to be a reaction against its sheer length -- it's mostly quite approachable as long as the listener has sufficient attention span.
Interstellar Space (Impulse!, 2/22/67)
This duo with Rashied Ali (which had to wait until 1974 for release) is bolder than any of Trane's other '67 work -- duos with drums had occasionally been done before (Coltrane had done a piece with Jones, in fact), but at this length were rarer and at this level of freedom were non-existent until later. They say that with freedom comes responsibility, and it's taking on quite a task for a saxophonist to create spontaneously at this level without the metaphorical net, and even provide a strong sense of harmonic content (though if any saxophonist had that talent, it was Trane). And a cheer for Ali as well, whose continual polyrhythmic imagination is unquenchable. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based critic, poet, and composer who freelances as a developmental editor. Among his credits is co-editing MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide.