Fans will rush to acquire this 4-CD set of saxophonist John Coltrane in his prime, comprising live selections and studio recordings, from the heady period following the release of his seminal 1960 album, Giant Steps.
Disc one opens with a Stockholm performance of So What, taken from the legendary saxophonist’s final tour as Miles Davis’s sideman, recorded in March 1960. Busy and efflorescent, So What in this live version has evolved and is no longer the stately, composed exercise it is on the Kind of Blue studio version, released just a year previously in 1959.
Coltrane had shook drug addiction in two years earlier, and had recently signed a lucrative contract with Atlantic Records boss Neshui Ertegun, worth 7,000 dollars. He even received a brand new Lincoln Continental as a bonus. Giant Steps, his debut album for Atlantic, signalled the arrival of the highly-innovative saxophonist as leader in his own right. Yet his final album for Atlantic was released in May 1961, as he signed to Impulse, with a 10,000 dollar advance.
He endeared and alienated in equal measure, and one reviewer declared that Coltrane’s tone resembled “an ill-tuned cello ineptly scraped.” An explosive, but frequently lyrical chameleon of the sax, Coltrane was a fan of the music of Debussy and Ravel, and listened intently to Spanish, West African and Indian music.
The bass players at work here are mostly Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison, with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones also part of the regular line-up. Multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy is also prominent in the track listing.
So he was blessed with – and kept a canny eye out for - the best. Coltrane, incidentally, was unusually tolerant of Jones’ wild excesses. The drummer took Coltrane’s car once and wrecked it ( one cringes to think it was the Lincoln Continental, a sleekly beautiful thing.) The sax-man responded: “I can always get another car, but there’s only one Elvin.”
The title track of the first disc, Exotica, is strange and evasive, more head than heart perhaps, the kind of jazz track you never get tired of because it refuses to yield up its secret. Dreamy and cool, you could imagine it on Kind of Blue, and Miles would no doubt have supplied deathless trumpet. It’s undoubtedly one of the most interesting tracks on this fine and varied collection.
The tracks Mr Sims and Mr Day lope along somewhat less adventurously than Exotica, but are nevertheless fascinating bluesy vehicles. In 1962, in fact, he recorded an album entitled Coltrane Plays the Blues, featuring Blues to Bechet and Blues to Elvin, both of which feature on disc one.
For the poppy, accessible side of Coltrane, check out his delightfully chirpy take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things, which, with an eye to a wider market was released as a 45rpm single. Or check out the two versions of Greensleeves herein. Disc two includes Coltrane’s 16-minute exhilarating work-out, Africa, from the album Africa/Brass. (That album was recorded with an ensemble that varied between 14 and 18 players on individual tracks.) About half of disc three is drawn from Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard album, recorded in 1961.
While he had left Miles Davis’ touring unit by the time most of these recordings were made, he would guest on the Davis composition, Teo, from Miles’s Someday My Prince Will Come record, also released in 1961. This graceful, Flamenco-tinged Miles composition is also included in this exciting anthology of music from the man who died in 1967, aged 40.