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The John Coltrane Album Review Series
Part 4


Album reviews of the works of legendary
Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
John Coltrane
Album Review Written By: Mitch NZ

Part IV - The Classic Quartet Period
Newly-formed label Impulse! bought out Coltrane's contract with Atlantic in 1961. On this label, jazz as an artform was taken seriously, and Trane found himself with more artistic freedom, and more resources than ever before. It was also a pretty stable period. The classic quartet as far as jazz lineups go was quite long-lived. Although they went through a few bassists, once they settled on Jimmy Garrision, the group remained unchanged until 1965. During this time they put out a number of classic recordings, both studio and live, that can be enjoyed by jazz fans and casual fans alike. However, listening to Africa/Brass and comparing it to The John Coltrane Quartet Plays is going to produce a jarring contrast. As always, Coltrane was honing his craft, throwing out what didn't work and refining what did. Despite the stability of the lineup, the music itself was in a slow but steady march towards the avant-garde.
Africa/Brass
Recorded: May to June 1961
Released: 1961
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Pat Patrick – baritone saxophone
Freddie Hubbard – trumpet (Greensleeves)
Booker Little – trumpet
Britt Woodman – trombone
Julian Priester, Charles Greenlee, Carl Bowman – euphonium
Bill Barber – tuba
Garvin Bushell – piccolo
Julius Watkins, Jim Buffington, Bob Northern, Donald Corrado, Robert Swisshelm – French horn
Eric Dolphy – alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute
McCoy Tyner – piano
Reggie Workman – bass
Art Davis – bass
Elvin Jones – drums
Africa/Brass album cover
• Top Tier

Coltrane's first album for Impulse! doesn't really belong in this period at all - it's more of a development of the style of Ole than the new direction the classic quartet would take. And plus, Jimmy Garrison still wasn't on the scene at this point. Nevertheless, this represents yet another giant step in Coltrane's career. The big band thing works better here than it did on Ole, and we see the next stage of Elvin Jones' evolution as a drummer. His lumbering style, especially in the drum solo in "Africa" sounds like it could have come straight out of A Love Supreme.

"Greensleeves" is another 6/8 modal jam, but it's not quite on the same level as "My Favourite Things" in terms of composition. Love that bassline though. And it can't be said enough how important McCoy Tyner is to the whole arrangement. His playing is so authoritative that it often dominates the whole sound. The final soprano solo is a doozy - we're finally hearing that fire that Coltrane is so famous for.

"Blues Minor" features a gorgeous solo to open, one of the best Coltrane has recorded up until this point. His tone on this track is a little more "dirty" than what we're used to which is big, brassy, and cutting. Coltrane pushes everyone else out to the side on this track, in fact on this whole album, which is closer to Miles Ahead than Birth of the Cool in terms of the hierarchy of the band members.
Live! at the Village Vanguard
Recorded: November 1961
Released: 1962
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Eric Dolphy – bass clarinet ("Spiritual")
Elvin Jones – drums
McCoy Tyner – bass
Reggie Workman – bass ("Spiritual", "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise")
Jimmy Garrison – bass ("Chasin' the Trane")
Live! at the Village Vanguard album cover
• Top Tier

This album stands out first and foremost because of its impeccable production quality. Ironically, it's also the first live album in this review series, and live albums in this time period are not known for their high quality. It's a testament to just how good producer Bob Thiele was at capturing the naunces of the Coltrane quartet. Bob would continue to produce Coltrane albums until his dying day, and that is a very very good thing. "Spiritual" is a beautiful piece written by Coltrane, and hearing it makes you wish that there were more recordings of the quintet configuration with Eric on bass clarinet. His counterpoint to John during the head is just perfect, and his solos are stunning - in fact Eric was better on bass clarinet than he ever was on flute or alto sax, at least when performing with Coltrane.

The band is incredibly tight on "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise", and it's a huge shame that it's only on this track that I truly noticed the brilliance of bassist Reggie Workman. In the main Coltrane canon at least this is the last track we hear featuring him. This is because on Side B of the original album, Reggie is replaced by a young man called Jimmy Garrison. Tyner drops out and leaves the three of them (Dolphy isn't on this track) to just start playing and see where things go. Where things go is the stuff of legend, but I've never actually been the hugest fan of "Chasin' the Trane". It is certainly interesting to hear how far out the trio goes. The song starts off pretty straight but John is clearly is experimentation mode. Jimmy's response is subtle but adaptive, and he proves in 16 minutes why he's the man to take the quartet into a new phase. In fact, in the band's final configuration before Coltrane's death, Jimmy was the only member of the classic quartet to stick around.
Impressions
Recorded: November 1961 to April 1963
Released: 1963
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
Eric Dolphy – bass clarinet (live only), alto sax
McCoy Tyner – piano
Reggie Workman – bass ("India")
Jimmy Garrison – bass
Elvin Jones – drums
Roy Haynes – drums ("After the Rain", "Dear Old Stockholm")
Impressions album cover
• High Tier

This is an odd album. "India" and "Impressions" are from the Village Vanguard concerts, and the other tracks were recorded quite a bit later, in 1962 and 1963. So it's a bit like getting a vision of the future interrupting the 1961 sound. "India" is an unusual tune where you can barely tell that it's in a straight 4/4 due to Elvin's extremely off-kilter drumming patterns. Dolphy takes a very lengthy bass clarinet solo but I quite like it. "Impressions" is weirder still - a great composition of it for sure but this particular performance of it (the vinyl debut) is extremely sparse. Tyner is barely there at all and Coltrane is playing very short phrases that stop before they get going. It's quite similar to "Chasin' the Trane" in that it's mostly a test of endurance as Coltrane goes off into some wild territory.

The studio tracks are lovely, and definitely sound like the product of a more mature band, particularly "After the Rain". "Dear Old Stockholm" is added as a bonus track in the CD version and it's a classic performance, definitely deserves to be part of the canon tracklisting.
Ballads
Recorded: December 1961 to November 1962
Released: 1963
Label: Atlantic

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
McCoy Tyner – piano
Elvin Jones – drums
Jimmy Garrison – bass
Reggie Workman – bass ("It's Easy to Remember")
Ballads album cover
• High Tier

After the pretty heavy experimentation of the Village Vanguard sessions, Ballads marks the beginning of a period where the group went right back to basics and recorded some quite tame material. The upshot of this is that Coltrane aims for utter perfection on these simple tunes, and nails it every time. Ballads is exactly what it says on the tin, and it's one of those albums you can throw on as gorgeous background music when the time calls. If you choose to pay attention though, you'll be hearing beautifully composed solos by John on track after track. Without the pounding Elvin Jones polyrhythms behind him, Coltrane has to lay off the emphasis on rhythm and focus instead on melody, and it's a big refreshment to hear.

Picking highlights is difficult as these arrangements all blend in to each other, but as an album I recommend it.
Coltrane
Recorded: April to June 1962
Released: 1962
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
McCoy Tyner – piano
Elvin Jones – drums
Jimmy Garrison – bass
Coltrane album cover
• High Tier

This album consists of a long jam on side one ("Out of this World") and a bunch of shorter tracks. Out of this world is yet another 6/8 workout, but maybe a shade more reserved than previous works. The other tracks are quite straightforward for the most part. "The Inch Worm" and "Big Nick" make use of trill as part of the melody, and definitely seem like novelty songs compared to the more dramatic flair of John's usual choices. "Miles Mode" is a big highlight though - after a snappy intro, the band kicks into high gear with plenty of hard modal soloing.
Duke Ellington & John Coltrane
Recorded: October 1960
Released: 1964
Label: Atlantic

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
Duke Ellington – piano
Jimmy Garrison – bass
Aaron Bell – bass
Elvin Jones – drums
Sam Woodyard – drums
Duke Ellington & John Coltrane album cover
• Top Tier

Duke Ellington's presence gives this session a totally different feel, but one that is true to both musicians' style. Coltrane definitely tones things back again, but he was right in the middle of his regressive phase to be fair. "In a Sentimental Mood" is a legendary track. Duke's piano is so delicate and he obviously inspires Coltrane to imitate him. Everything on this album is free from excess - just the bare minimum needed to get across the tunes and show off the soloists' skills. You'll find some of Coltrane's most compact but best composed solos here - just check out the tear-inducing melodic lines on "My Little Brown Book".

Duke's calming influence is warmly welcomed on this fantastic record.
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman
Recorded: March 1963
Released: 1963
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
Johnny Hartman – vocals
Jimmy Garrison – bass
McCoy Tyner – piano
Elvin Jones – drums
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman album cover
• Mid Tier

Having Hartman on vocals puts major constraints on Coltrane. His solos and fill-ins are short and sweet as a result. Unfortunately, Hartman's voice is the epitome of cheese. It's still an interesting listen as Coltrane never recorded with a vocalist again after this (nor had he before in his solo career). The final track, "Autumn Serenade" is brilliant though.
Newport '63
Recorded: July 1963 (One track recorded November 1961)
Released: 1993
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
McCoy Tyner — piano
Jimmy Garrison – bass
Roy Haynes – drums
Eric Dolphy – alto saxophone (Chasin' Another Trane")
Reggie Workman – bass("Chasin' Another Trane")
Newport '63 album cover
• Top Tier

This is a recording of a July 1963 concert by the classic quartet (with Roy Haynes sitting in on drums), with another Village Vanguard track from '61 tagged onto the end. It's also one of the greatest performances and recordings the group ever made. On "I Want to Talk About You", John takes an epic solo break/cadenza at the end of the song which is totally a capella. It's moments like these that you realise exactly why he's considered the legend of saxophone legends.

Roy's presence definitely changes the dynamic. He's much more focused on the snare rather than the ride as Elvin is. He's also more "rock" sounding compared to Elvin, whose drums all seem to merge into one furious blur. This gives "My Favourite Things" a more swinging style than what we're used to. It's interesting to hear McCoy respond to that and alter his playing accordingly, too. His solos are a highlight here. John's soprano playing has finally reached into "the zone". He commands the instrument with authority, and its piercing tone obliterates everything else around it. His final gargantuan solo would just get bigger and more insane as the years crept towards 1967.

Although there have been dozens of live versions of "My Favourite Things" recorded before this one, I have chosen not to review them, as they have appeared on live albums not issued by Impulse!. But it's well worth hearing some of the performances from '61 and'62 to hear how they got to this point. Of particular note is Eric Dolphy's flute contributions when he was in the band.

"Impressions" has not evolved quite as much as "My Favourite Things", but it's still an exciting listen, and I think a better performance than the one found on Live! at the Village Vanguard. The track really gets going when McCoy and Jimmy drop out, leaving just the famed drum/sax pairing to go at it.

Finally, we jump back two years to the Village Vanguard sessions for "Chasin' Another Trane" which is another exploratory blues piece whose form disintegrates as the piece drags on. It's certainly enjoyable, but Coltrane wasn't as good at performing sans piano here as he was in '63.
Live at Birdland
Recorded: October to November 1963
Released: 1964
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
McCoy Tyner — piano
Jimmy Garrison – bass
Elvin Jones – drums
Live at Birdland album cover
• God Tier

This blistering live performance captures the excitement of (yet another) 6/8 jam "Afro Blue" which was one of the strongest in the band's repertoire. It would also survive the band's transition into their final form. Elvin's drumming is fantastic, more furious than he ever got on "My Favourite Things". "I Want to Talk About You" features another epic 4-minute cradenza, but it's not quite as good as the one on Newport '63. Still, it's here that the real magic happens - free of any other influences, John plays what he really wants to play. And it's beautiful.

"Promise" is intense, but is forgotten quickly as the opening notes of "Alabama" kick in. "Alabama" is one of those slow, dark burners in no discernable time signature that Coltrane would get incredibly good at. It may well make you tear up. "Your Lady" is a curious piece that doesn't sound like a lot of other tracks the band released. It's the sort of thing you'd expect to hear on "Coltrane" (1962) if it wasn't for the incredibly technical drumming going on.
Crescent
Recorded: April to June 1964
Released: 1964
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
McCoy Tyner — piano
Jimmy Garrison – bass
Elvin Jones – drums
Crescent album cover
• Top Tier

On this album, the band temporarily turns down the temperature for a dark and beautiful performance featuring a number of slow pieces similar to "Alabama". The absolute highlight is "Wise One", which begins with a reverent and haunting melody in free-time before ratcheting up into a sizzling slow latin groove. The title track is just as memorable, with a similar development to a more structured theme before returning to the simple melodic explorations of the intro. "Lonnie's Lament" features the first extended bass solo we've heard from Jimmy Garrison, and he proves to be more than adequate. He knows how to blend in with the rest of the group and then stand out when he needs to. "The Drum Thing" is an unusual track, but definitely one of the better drum solo showcases you will hear in jazz.

All the things on this album would be done again and done better on A Love Supreme, but this is still a fan favourite for good reason. It's a great one to listen to if you loved A Love Supreme and aren't too sure where to go next.
A Love Supreme
Recorded: December 1964
Released: 1965
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
McCoy Tyner — piano
Jimmy Garrison – bass
Elvin Jones – drums
A Love Supreme album cover
• God Tier

Finally, we reach the Coltrane album to end all Coltrane albums! Or so the internet would have you believe. Well, make no mistake, this album deserves every little shred of praise it gets. Spiritually invigorating, game-changing, furious, it is all of those things and more.

After years of searching, it feels like, for a short 35 minutes, that Coltrane has finally found peace. He's finally found the outlet for this thing inside him that has been haunting him. And although seasoned Coltrane fans will know that's not the case, it's wonderful to hear an album where it sounds like he's reached his endgame. The opening tam-tam and subsequent modal interrogation seems like the culmination of so much work. The latin transition that follows sounds amazing, but despite its power (just listen to Elvin's drums there!) it is above all humble - something we haven't heard much of from Coltrane so far.

After an iconic bass intro, the band drops into one of the most electrifying pieces of music in their career: "Resolution". The superb melody is underpinned by restless piano chords which in turn drive the drums to hit every possible subdivision of the bar. Every player comes together to make this track a stunner. This is the track where Elvin's ride cymbal proves that it can carry the entire track alone (if it needed to). Coltrane's playing is both searching and triumphant - as if to say "there is so much more sound out here that I have yet to find but Goddamn what I have found is beautiful".

"Pursuance" opens with a dense drum solo before blossoming into a full-band jam with another highly-catchy melody. That's the thing you don't expect with this album - in between all the heavy soloing and block chords are some parts that you'll get stuck in your heads for weeks. McCoy's solo here is great - you can just hear him respond to Elvin's propulsive rhythms on the fly. Some of the best improvisation you'll hear. Coltrane comes flying in with sheets upon sheets of notes as the drumming just gets more intense.
v A long but melodic bass solo bridges "Pursuance" with the final part, "Psalm", which is another freeform slow burner. It's one of the best. Elvin Jones' drums are the highlight with deep booming timpani and dry cymbals. As the final wash of cymbals dies away you can be sure you just witnessed something incredible. There are other Coltrane albums as exciting as this, but none so groundbreaking, and none so effortlessly enjoyable.

Although not part of this review series, there exists exactly one live recording of A Love Supreme, and it was several months after the studio dates. This version is included on the deluxe edition of this album, and it a must-hear. Even in the short time between the two recordings, you can hear a staggering difference in approach and output. Many might find it even better than the original.
The John Coltrane Quartet Plays
Recorded: February to May 1965
Released: 1965
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
McCoy Tyner — piano
Jimmy Garrison – bass
Art Davis – bass (Nature Boy, Feeling Good, Nature Boy)
Elvin Jones – drums
The John Coltrane Quartet Plays album cover
• Top Tier

This is a fascinating record, it represents the last remaining remnants of bebop - the "last gasp" of the classic quartet sound, although not the last appearance of the quartet itself. After this album there was no going back. With this in mind, the few standards that make up this album are almost frightening.
"Chim Chim Cheree" is a totally different beast of a broadway cover than the band's previous efforts. The band is very soon beginning to enter a transformation stage, and you can see it gearing up for the long and painful process by expending all the energy left in its current stage. The drums are all over the place, and the piano is insistent, not beautiful but repetitive. The song ends on a fadeout where it seems like Coltrane could easily have come right back in for round two. His soprano playing is more wild than ever.
The bass intro to "Song of Praise" is one of my favourites. You can really hear Jimmy battling and succeeding to create something out of nothing. The band comes in in free-time with some catchy improvisations by Coltrane. The song feels like one long credenza, but it's still just as enjoyable as any of the other tracks on here.
"Nature Boy" is one of the highlights for me, its odd-time signature a rarity in Coltrane recordings. It becomes a lumbering, menacing piece of music, but Coltrane absolutely nails it. You can definitely hear where the sounds of Zheul a few years later would come from.
A challenging album but one I think everyone needs to hear to get the clearest sense of where the band went after A Love Supreme.
Live at the Half Note: One Down, One Up
Recorded: March to May 1965
Released: 2005
Label: Impulse!

John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
McCoy Tyner — piano
Jimmy Garrison – bass
Elvin Jones – drums
Live at the Half Note: One Down, One Up album cover
• Top Tier

This radio broadcast was recorded in surprisingly high fidelity, and Impulse! chose to release it in 2005 as a two disc set chronicling the band's performances in early 1965. I pair this album with The John Coltrane Quartet Plays in my mind as they were recorded approximately at the same time.

Being a live document, the band stretches out much more than they do in studio. Hearing their dense sound for half an hour at a time, like on "One Down, One Up" might seem like an exhausting prospect and in many ways it is. Luckily, the band is innovative enough to keep the whole maelstrom exciting all the way through. The back 15 minutes of this mammoth track is just Elvin and John in a chaotic charge. You WILL be exhausted by the end of it.

"Afro-Blue" is a much more accessible track, but is criminally cut short in the radio broadcast, just as Coltrane is getting going on his soprano solo. Still, it's probably the most listenable cut here. "Song of Praise" is lovely but pretty abstract. The version of "My Favourite Things" that finishes of this album is so different from the one we hear on Newport '63 outside of the melody - Elvin's drumming style couldn't be further from Roy Haynes, and Tyner is much higher in the mix. (A blessing.) As the structure that once reigned them audibly slips away, so too does the sun set on the classic quartet era of John Coltrane's career. Although the band would stay together for a few more months, the music would never ever be so straightforward and innocent again.
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