For most of the '50s, John Coltrane was merely a first-rate jazz saxophonist. (He recorded a mountain of albums during that time, which aren't included in the discography above.) On or about March 2, 1959, he abruptly became God, and that's where we pick up the story. Between Coltrane's first session for Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (taped that day) and his death from liver cancer at the age of 40 on July 17, 1967, he recorded a massive, brilliant, perpetually evolving, and staggeringly influential body of work.
If you’re just starting to listen to Coltrane, the sheer mass of stuff out there can be paralyzing (our discography omits most of the zillion or so compilations and best-ofs currently in print). It’s useful to bear a few things in mind, though. First of all, parts of Coltrane’s early-’60s records now seem like fairly normal jazz, but if anything he did is a cliche, it’s because everyone after Trane has copped his ideas. At the time, in fact, his playing seemed shockingly radical, and he was called “the most avant-garde of the avant-garde.” Second, as far out as Coltrane could get, he loved tunes. There’s the pure melodic sense of the American popular song tradition hiding in the core of almost all of his work, and if you get lost in any period of it, you can always orient yourself by the simple waltzes he played right up to the end—especially, believe it or not, “My Favorite Things.” Yes, the “raindrops on roses” one.
Giant Steps, the first album Coltrane released on Atlantic, was where he declared that everyone had to sit up and pay attention to him. It includes three stone classics: the light-speed title track (which burns through chords so fast that pianist Tommy Flanagan famously can’t keep up in his solo - Coltrane swoops in and rescues him), “Mr. P.C.,” and an exquisite slow tribute to Trane’s then wife, “Naima.” (Bags and Trane, a collaboration with vibraphonist Milt Jackson, was actually recorded four months earlier; it’s one of those solid but unexceptional jazz discs Trane piled up in the ’50s.) As occasionally happens in his discography, Coltrane followed up a radical album with an attempt to prove he wasn’t so radical as all that; Coltrane Jazz is nicely played, but disappointingly straight-ahead, aside from some freaky blowing on “Harmonique.”
The Avant-Garde, credited to Coltrane and trumpeter Don Cherry, is a fascinating diversion, recorded in 1960 but not released for another six years. Three of its five tracks are Ornette Coleman tunes, and a fourth is by Coleman’s associate Cherry; the rhythm section is Coleman’s, too. Normally a tenor saxophonist, Coltrane tries out soprano sax for the first time. He’s not entirely at home in the harmolodic maze, but you can hear him trying to open himself up to its possibilities.
The next time he recorded, he played the soprano again, and scored a hit with the title track of My Favorite Things: a brilliant 13-minute-plus reimagining of the singalong from The Sound of Music as a waltz-time framework for modal improvisation. His racing scales and trills are neatly accompanied by the block chords of pianist McCoy Tyner and the simpatico swing of drummer Elvin Jones; both became part of his group for almost the rest of his life. The three standards that make up the rest of the album are pretty nifty, too, including a tweaked variation on George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The same three days’ worth of sessions that produced My Favorite Things also yielded two more albums, Coltrane Plays the Blues (what it sounds like) and Coltrane’s Sound (smoother originals and another couple of standards)—the former, particularly, has some entertaining twists on basic blues structures.
In early 1961, multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy—sort of the Brian Jones of jazz—joined Coltrane’s group and became his creative foil, and in May and June they recorded two albums with expanded lineups. Ole Coltrane is loose and casual—the two spur each other on over the two-chord Latinate vamp of “Ole,” featuring a seven-piece band, and bat around a simple blues and a calm Tyner original. Africa/Brass, on the other hand, sounds like a Major Project; built around Dolphy’s big-band arrangements, it features “Africa,” a hulking, dramatic piece featuring African-inspired rhythms and bass drones. It’s also got the first of Coltrane’s many versions of “Greensleeves,” another modal waltz on which he plays soprano. (He was contractually unable to rerecord “My Favorite Things” for a few years after he left Atlantic, but he treats “Greensleeves” basically the same way.) The currently available version is The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions, which pads the album out to two discs with five alternate versions and outtakes.
For all he could do in the studio, though, Coltrane’s real wizardry happened onstage, where he could solo as long and intensely as he pleased, and the tapes of his performances at a New York club from early November 1961 were his next big breakthrough. Live at the Village Vanguard, in its original incarnation, is three long, astonishing tracks—most notably “Chasin’ the Trane,” 15 minutes of Coltrane blazing away without a theme at all. A couple of infamous reviews subsequently accused Coltrane and Dolphy of “musical nonsense...being peddled in the name of jazz” and called “Chasin’ the Trane” “one big air-leak.” More nonsense and air-leaks, please: Two more stormers from the Vanguard tapes, “Impressions” (a variant of Miles Davis’“So What”) and the drone-based “India” supplement the original three on the current CD version (The Master Takes); they also make up the bulk of Impressions, along with two brief studio tracks (including the exquisite ballad “After the Rain”). The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings is the motherlode: 22 tracks on four discs, some even more daring than the familiar versions, like a take on “India” with Trane’s usual crew supplemented by an extra bassist, Dolphy on bass clarinet, Garvin Bushell playing oboe, and oud player Ahmed Abdul-Malik! It’s a splendid opportunity to hear how Coltrane’s music could evolve over the space of a few days.
Dolphy left the group in the spring of 1962, and the “classic quartet” was solidified: Coltrane, Tyner, Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison. Their first studio project, Coltrane, is slightly tamer than the Vanguard tapes. It’s basically an attempt to show off all the saxophonist’s specialties: long, discursive solos (“Out of This World”), polite balladeering (“Soul Eyes”), the “My Favorite Things”/“Greensleeves” routine (“The Inchworm”), bluesy modal struts (“Tunji”), and formal experiments (“Miles’ Mode,” based on a 12-tone row - a trick from European classical music). The “deluxe edition” appends a disc of unsurprising outtakes and alternates.
By this point, Coltrane had a reputation as a radical bomb-thrower, so his next three albums were essentially an image-rehabilitation program. Ballads is jukebox-length renditions of eight tunes from his slow-dancing days, all done up for a night in at the bachelor pad - only a few, like “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” even hint at his “sheets of sound.” (The “deluxe edition” is recommended to those who crave five consecutive alternate takes of “Greensleeves,” followed by seven of “It’s Easy to Remember.”) Duke Ellington & John Coltrane is effectively an endorsement from jazz’s Old Guard: Duke contributes most of the songs, Trane plays gracefully but conservatively (he stretches out just a little on “Angelica”), and nobody feels threatened. An anomaly in the Coltrane catalogue, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman finds the classic quartet backing up a smooth torch singer on half a dozen more ballad standards. It’s one of Coltrane’s least innovative records, but impeccably dignified and elegant.
All this time, though, the group was honing its less restrained art on stage, night after night. They toured Europe several times between 1961 and 1963; those performances have been widely bootlegged, and seven discs’ worth of them are collected on Live Trane: The European Tours (parts of which had previously appeared as The Paris Concert, Bye Bye Blackbird, The European Tour, and Afro Blue Impressions). The sound quality’s a little murky, but the band is gliding on air, finding new perspectives on its central repertoire over and over. (The set includes no fewer than six versions of “My Favorite Things,” totaling over two hours.) Note, though, that Coltrane discographers believe that the box’s recording information is seriously flawed - three tracks even appear to be from New York!
Elvin Jones was incarcerated for a while in mid-1963, and the somewhat splashier Roy Haynes filled in for him on drums. Newport ’63 is the altered quartet’s three-song plumage-display from that July’s Newport Jazz Festival (including a radiant, trilling “My Favorite Things”), plus another piece from the 1961 Vanguard tapes. Coltrane celebrated Jones’ return with Live at Birdland. Only the first three tracks were actually recorded at the New York club in question, and as virtuosic as they are (particularly Trane’s unaccompanied coda for “I Want to Talk About You”), they’re basically a status report. The real gem of the set is a devastating, elegiac studio track, “Alabama,” which became a classic of the civil rights movement. (The album’s initial pressing included a long false start by accident; eventually, everyone decided they liked it that way.)
Crescent shows off Coltrane’s rhythm section: “Lonnie’s Lament” and “The Drum Thing,” respectively, let Garrison and Jones stretch out. The title track swoops elegantly, though the album as a whole drags a bit. A Love Supreme, on the other hand, is a hands-down masterpiece of ensemble musicianship: a four-part suite in which the quartet moves as with a single mind. Intended as a piece of sacred music, it’s one of the most eloquent prayers of the 20th century. “Acknowledgement,” a masterful exegesis of a four-note call to God, appears on virtually every Coltrane anthology, and with good reason.
Recorded in February and May of 1965, The John Coltrane Quartet Plays was the last gesture Coltrane made toward the pop audience; from there on out, they’d have to come to him. Its covers of “Chim Chim Cheree” (another soprano waltz) and Nat “King” Cole’s “Nature Boy” are bases from which the quartet locks together and heads for terra incognita, and the two originals are dense, bold, and painterly. The posthumously released Transition and Living Space, both recorded over the following month, are beautifully played (the experimentally overdubbed extra saxophone part on the latter’s title track is a bracing, original idea), but suffer from underdeveloped material - Transition’s “Suite” can’t quite let go of its more conventional jazz passages, and three of Living Space’s five tracks never got real titles.
At the end of June, Coltrane took his next giant step. Ascension, recorded with an 11-piece mob including the up-and-coming tenor saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, bypasses the elegant modal techniques Coltrane had mastered for a howlingly intense 40-minute free-improv monsoon. (The originally released version was immediately supplanted by an alternate take; the CD includes both.) Over 35 years later, it still blows the roof off.
The classic quartet’s days were numbered by then, but they still recorded two more albums’ worth of material on August 28 and September 2. Sun Ship, an album-length exploration of rhythm with rudimentary, raw thematic material, plays with opened-up time. Jones’ drumming is the hardest he ever recorded with Coltrane; sometimes there’s a regular tempo, usually there’s not, and the group surges forward eloquently, alternating tenderness and force. The session issued as First Meditations is a suite on the model of A Love Supreme, but much more abrasive in places - you can hear Coltrane trying to push the rest of the group toward the shriekadelic extremes of Ascension in “Consequences,” and they’re clearly more used to the smoother waters of “Love” and the cheerful bop of “Joy.”
Pharoah Sanders, whose specialty in those days was screeching, growling extended sax techniques, joined the group as a second saxophonist, and the two-disc Live in Seattle documents the expanded group (also featuring bassist/bass clarinetist Donald Rafael Garrett) at the end of September. The ruckus-raising of “Cosmos” and “Evolution,” and the way “Out of This World” veers away from its theme and into the wilderness, are what you might expect; the free-sailing but respectful and relaxed 21-minute rendition of “Body and Soul” is more of a surprise.
By the middle of October, it’d been almost a month since Coltrane’s last radical move, so the sextet hooked up with singer Juno Lewis and percussionist Frank Butler for the 18-minute title track of Kulu Se Mama (which was filled out with two long quartet pieces from June). Heavily influenced by African music, especially in its multiple percussion parts, it often seems more Lewis’ show than Coltrane’s, and anticipates some of the Afro-pop of the following decade - except when Sanders starts pulling bubbling demons out of the dark corners of his tenor sax.
November’s breakthrough was Meditations, in which the quartet (plus Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali) revisits its suite from a few months before in much freer, more chaotically energetic style. The highlight, though, is the all-new opener, “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” on which Coltrane and Sanders blow so hard they practically splatter the rest of the group against the walls. It’s not pretty, and not much like A Love Supreme, but it’s undeniably powerful.
Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner both left Coltrane’s group after Meditations; Garrison and Sanders stayed on, Ali joined full-time, and Alice Coltrane (John’s wife) took over on piano. The new group’s sessions from early 1966 are currently unavailable, so the earliest music we have from them is May’s extraordinary Live at the Village Vanguard Again! Even in the middle of the free-music vortex, Trane never gave up his love of tunes, and the album consists of extended cruises through, above and around two of his favorites: “Naima” and “My Favorite Things.” Sanders slashes the melody of “Naima” to ribbons and then tears the ribbons into confetti, Alice imitates Tyner’s style as well as she can, and John keeps gravitating back toward the themes as if they were the North Star.
Live in Japan, a four-disc set from two July dates, is even more expansive - this time “My Favorite Things” goes on for almost an hour, though the first quarter is a bass solo. Coltrane and Sanders had been given alto saxophones on the tour, and they gave their new instruments a workout. The group was thinking on a grand scale by this point, and it can be exhausting to wait out their leisurely free ruminations, but if you’ve got the patience for it, there’s some gorgeous, challenging music here.
Expression, recorded in February and March of 1967, was the last album personally approved by Coltrane. It’s a bit scattered: “Ogunde” is built around a stately fanfare, and “Offering” and “Expression” work up some free-improv steam, but “To Be,” featuring Coltrane on flute (!) and Sanders on piccolo (!!), churns on far too long. On the other hand, Stellar Regions, recorded at the first of those sessions but unreleased for 28 years, is a gem, jagged as a rock-lined shore but as lyrical as anything in Coltrane’s catalogue. The new quartet (without Sanders) runs the tiniest of thematic ideas (like the fragmentary head of “Tranesonic”) through the improvisational mill, and they emerge sparkling and razor-sharp. A week later, Coltrane and percussionist Ali recorded Interstellar Space as a duo. They match each other’s frantic energy - “Leo,” which had been in the quartet’s repertoire for the better part of a year, emerges at hardcore speed and intensity. Trane has picked up some of Sanders’ blatantly abrasive tone on the tenor, but he’s still thinking - and playing - at a million notes per minute.
A private tape of one of Coltrane’s final performances, from April 23, 1967, surfaced recently as The Olatunji Concert, and it sounds like the statement the other 1967 recordings were heading toward. The recording is rough and bristly, but thankfully, so is the performance: The new quartet (plus Sanders and an extra percussionist or two) lunges into half-hour-long savagings of “Ogunde” and, what else, “My Favorite Things,” and it’s a marvel that the Olatunji Center’s walls were still standing when it was all over. By ten minutes into the show, the group has become a screaming white-noise machine. The rest is silence: Three months later, Coltrane was dead.
The Heavyweight Champion collects every extant bit of music Coltrane recorded for Atlantic on seven discs, including one that’s all alternate takes and false starts (nine of “Giant Steps” alone) - and he’s one of those artists where every scrap counts. The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings is an eight-disc monster that could singlehandedly justify Western civilization: all of Coltrane, Ballads, Crescent, A Love Supreme, Quartet Plays, Sun Ship, First Meditations, Transition, and Living Space, plus odds and ends and a disc of “works in progress.” The Major Works of John Coltrane is fantastic but misleadingly titled; it might better be called The Major Works of John Coltrane That Used an Expanded Ensemble During a 15-Week Period in the Middle of 1965. It’s got both versions of “Ascension,” as well as “Kulu Se Mama,” “Selflessness” (from the “Kulu” session), and a shrieking half-hour-long blowout called “Om,” recorded the day after Live in Seattle, that’s possibly the most difficult track of Coltrane’s original albums - but still influential in the noise world.
Dear Old Stockholm compiles five studio tracks on which Roy Haynes substitutes for Elvin Jones in the classic quartet; all good stuff, but as a set it has no real reason to exist. The unbalanced two-disc anthology The Last Giant spends rather a lot of time on Coltrane’s formative years (as early as 1946!), lingers over the Atlantic era, throws in a live 1961 “My Favorite Things,” and then vaults straight over the Impulse! period to 90 seconds from 1967. A John Coltrane Retrospective: The Impulse! Years is three discs’ worth of Trane’s more accessible and tuneful stuff from the ’60s, mostly in studio renditions (with a few Village Vanguard treats). Impulse!’s Very Best of likewise plays up his smoother side; its bait is an otherwise unavailable studio version of “Impressions.” (DOUGLAS WOLK)
From the 2004 The New Rolling Stone Album Guide