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John Coltrane

Reviewed on this page:
Tenor Conclave - John Coltrane-Paul Quinichette Quintet - Dakar - Blue Train - Lush Life - Soultrane - Bags and Trane - Giant Steps - The Avant-Garde - Coltrane Jazz - My Favorite Things - Coltrane's Sound - Coltrane Plays The Blues - Olé Coltrane - Africa/Brass - "Live" At The Village Vanguard - Coltrane - Ballads - Duke Ellington and John Coltrane - John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman - Impressions - Crescent - A Love Supreme - The John Coltrane Quartet Plays - Dear Old Stockholm - Transition - One Down, One Up: Live At The Half Note - Ascension - First Meditations - Live In Seattle - Om - Meditations - The Major Works of John Coltrane - Stellar Regions - Interstellar Space - Expression - The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording

Along with Miles Davis, the dominant jazz musician of his generation, but unlike Miles, John Coltrane died before any career embarrassments could interfere with his legend (the Ché Guevara of jazz). The most influential tenor sax player in jazz history, and probably the most influential soprano player as well, he was also a leading force in bringing spirituality and/or mysticism (depending on your perspective) to jazz. He was incredibly prolific during his last five years, and Impulse continued to release first-class Coltrane recordings for almost a decade after his death in 1967 at the age of 40. (They even released a first class recording, Stellar Regions, in 1995.) Generally, dates listed here are recording dates, not release dates.

Everything recorded with Coltrane as a leader is worth hearing, the star guides are just suggestions on where to start. The star ratings are relative within each period, so I rated Blue Train at although I don't really think it's as good as, say, First Meditations, because I do think it's the early record that you should start with if you want to hear his early sound. Also, many of his most important early contributions were recorded with other artists as leaders, most notably Round About Midnight (1957) and Kind Of Blue (1959), both recorded with Miles Davis. He also appears on a few Thelonious Monk records. To add to the confusion, some records originally recorded with Coltrane as a sideman have been rereleased with Coltrane listed as the leader. I haven't tried to review these because of the bewildering amount of retitling and repackaging that's gone on. (DBW)

There's a terrific web site that's definitely worth the trip.

I've also reviewd a book about Coltrane on our Book Reviews Page. John Coltrane Quartet was formed in April 1960 with Steve Kuhn, piano; Steve Davis, bass; Pete LaRoca, drums. Kuhn replaced in 1960 by McCoy Tyner. LaRoca replaced in 1960 by Billy Higgins, who was replaced by Elvin Jones. Davis replaced in 1961 by Reggie Workman, who was replaced by Jimmy Garrison. Tyner, Jones and Garrison formed the "classic quartet" that recorded many of Coltrane's most well-known recordings. Tyner replaced in late 1965 by Alice Coltrane; Rashied Ali added on drums late 1965, Jones left March 1966.

Early Work

I'm still missing most of the records from his time as a sideman and at Prestige.

Tenor Conclave (Four Tenor Saxes: 1956)
A generation before the World Saxophone Quartet, a record with four tenor players (Al Cohn, Hank Mobley and Zoot Sims). Otherwise, a typical "blowing session" - jazz musicians who didn't usually work together recording a few standards and an original or two, for quick cash. Now that Coltrane's sound is so widely imitated, it's interesting to hear how different he sounded from his contemporaries. (DBW)

John Coltrane-Paul Quinichette Quintet (rec. 1957)
The tunes are by Mal Waldron (who also plays piano here), but Coltrane and Quinichette, an underrecorded tenor player, are spotlighted. (DBW)

Dakar (1957)
Two good baritone sax players (Cecil Payne and Pepper Adams) add interest; a solid 50's bop record, although without the distinctive qualities of Coltrane's later output. (DBW)

Blue Train (1957)
Although he'd released a few other albums under his name, this is in many senses Coltrane's first solo album: the first album of mostly Coltrane originals; the first album where he picked the personnel and the tunes beforehand, rather than just walking in off the street and blowing on whatever tunes happened to be around. The solo on the title blues is harsh and foreboding, and while it got him a lot of attention much of it was negative. The tunes are decent, though standard for the period, and his sidemen - particularly trombonist Curtis Fuller and trumpeter Lee Morgan -- add interest and excitement. (DBW)

Lush Life (1958)
This is sort of a Coltrane record for people who don't like Coltrane: the tunes are standards (the only Trane original, "Trane's Slo Blues," is a version of Milt Jackson's "Bag's Groove"), and Coltrane's playing is unusually lyrical (Billy Strayhorn's title track), without the harsh pyrotechnics that earned him so much criticism in this period. Another point of interest is Coltrane playing in a trio setting on the first three tracks... his playing is so rich you'll never miss the piano. (DBW)

Soultrane (1958)
My favorite early Coltrane album, features his versions of "Good Bait" and Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullaby." (DBW)

Bags and Trane (Milt Jackson & John Coltrane: 1959)
Really an Atlantic recording, but since there are no Coltrane compositions here (three by Milt "Bags" Jackson, the rest are standards) and he's more like the featured soloist than co-leader, it's more characteristic of his earlier recordings, so I'm including it in this section. Another unrehearsed blowing session, lifted above average by Milt's compositions (title tune, "The Late Late Blues") and vibes solos. My CD re-release adds three bonus tracks, which aren't very inspired except for Milt's "Blues Legacy" - there is a version of "Centerpiece," later recorded by Joni Mitchell. (DBW)

The Atlantic Years

Giant Steps (1959)
A masterpiece, containing two of his most successful compositions, the full-speed-ahead title track and the lovely, subdued ballad "Naima." All the compositions are excellent, from "Cousin Mary" to "Syeeda's Song Flute" to "Mr. P.C." (for Paul Chambers, not a comment on political correctness), and the CD release is even better, with interesting alternate takes of five tracks. (DBW)

The Avant-Garde (John Coltrane & Don Cherry: 1960)
Not really co-led, once again; the longer compositions are by Cherry's mentor Ornette Coleman, then there's one Cherry original and a Monk tune. Coltrane seems out of his element; of more interest to Cherry's students than Coltrane's. (DBW)

Coltrane Jazz (1960)
There are some fine originals, including "Like Sonny" and "Some Other Blues," as well as Coltrane's experiments with saxophone harmonics - playing more than one note at a time. "Village Blues" is jarring here; it was recorded almost a year after the other material on the album, and is very much in the stark style found on the later Coltrane's Sound. (DBW)

My Favorite Things (1960)
Coltrane's energetic soprano workout on the title song (in 3/4, then rare in jazz) made his reputation and remained one of his most requested songs for the rest of his career. He also unleashes his soprano on another standard, "Every Time We Say Goodbye"; Coltrane opened up a new direction for soprano, which up to that time was limited to Sidney Bechet-style sweet 'n' syrupy interpretations. He also reverts to tenor for a fine, extended take on the Gershwin chestnut "Summertime." (DBW)

Coltrane's Sound (1960)
Minimized backing arrangements create a lot of space here, and contribute to a contemplative, introspective mood. Coltrane's playing on "Equinox," "Liberia," the standard "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes" and the CD-only "26-2" is brilliant; "Satellite" covers the same ground as "Equinox," while "Central Park West" is almost a rerun of "Naima." (DBW)

Coltrane Plays The Blues (1960)
Blues, yes, mostly Coltrane originals, recorded at the same sessions as Coltrane's Sound and My Favorite Things. Trane's a heavy though somewhat abstract blues player, and this will consistently hold your interest, particularly on the brooding "Mr. Day" and the wild "Blues To Bechet," played on soprano. Any fan of Trane or jazz takes on the blues should get into this, but for me it doesn't have the emotional resonance of records like Giant Steps or A Love Supreme. The CD has a bonus track that's not a blues, but is a fine if not earthshaking addition to the canon. (DBW)

Olé Coltrane (1961)
By now Coltrane was moving away from traditional blues-based jazz into lengthy, modal explorations (inspired by his work with Miles Davis). "Olé" is one of the most successful of these modal compositions, featuring two bass players to stunning, hypnotic effect, and the other performances are thoughtful and entertaining. The CD version also includes the lovely "To Her Ladyship." (DBW)

The Early Impulse Years

I should say something about the "classic" quartet: McCoy Tyner has a singular tone on piano - as some other writer noted, he's one of the few pianists you can identify from the first note - intense but not bombastic, introspective but not calm, more likely to play clustered chords than high melodic runs. A major influence on Eddie Palmieri among others. Elvin Jones is one of the greatest drummers you'll hear playing any type of music, constantly playing tricky breaks and fills while keeping a solid pulse; the main inspiration of Mitch Mitchell, drummer for Jimi Hendrix. Both musicians were able to go in whatever direction Coltrane was leading and still remain uniquely themselves (at least until the last years when both left the band). I'm just now developing an appreciation for Jimmy Garrison; he stays in the background, and certainly didn't revolutionize his instrument the way the other quartet members did, but listen to his solo on "Jimmy's Mode" (from Stellar Regions), among others, and you'll be struck by the quality of his ideas and the virtuosity of his execution.

Africa/Brass (1961)
An experiment in full-orchestra arranging (arrangements by Eric Dolphy). I don't find it very enlightening: the tunes (including "Greensleeves") are familiar or familiar-sounding, and some are quite long although they don't say much. The CD issue is a better value, with one unreleased song and two lengthy alternate takes. (DBW)

"Live" At The Village Vanguard (1961)
Maybe there's something wrong with me, but outside of the marvelous "Spiritual," I don't find this album among Coltrane's most essential: "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" is an unexceptional ballad, "Chasin' The Trane" is a long, formless blues. And for some reason Impulse didn't add bonus tracks to the CD release (there are fine alternate versions of "India" and "Spiritual," which I think are available on CD only on the out of print From The Original Masters). (DBW)

Coltrane (1962)
The first record featuring all four members of the "classic quartet"; contains two strange versions of standards: a fourteen-minute "Out Of This World," where Coltrane plays around with tempo and key; and "The Inch Worm," like "Favorite Things" a masterful deconstruction of a silly tune. Also Mal Waldron's ballad "Soul Eyes" and two great originals, "Tunji" and "Miles' Mode." (DBW)

Ballads (1962)
A bunch of pop tunes, but rather than radically reinterpreting, Coltrane's content to play them straight, with a placid rhythm section and not much feeling. Stranger yet, the tunes are not particularly well known or engaging: Rodgers and Hart's "It's Easy To Remember" is hard to remember; Frank Loesser's "Say It (Over And Over Again)" is as repetitive as you'd expect; Haggart and Burke's "What's New" is anything but. Pleasant background music at best. (DBW)

Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1962)
This record really is co-led, despite the Duke's greater reputation and fame (especially at the time). There are two excellent new Ellington compositions, at a time when any new material from him was a major event, plus some of his standards, and one new Coltrane composition, "Big Nick." If you've never heard Duke in a quartet setting, this record will be a revelation. (DBW)

John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman (1963)
How you feel about this record will depend on how you feel about jazz vocalist Johnny Hartman. Coltrane is at his most lyrical, and the quartet is in its usual high form, and unlike Ballads, the material is high quality (Gallop and DeRose's "Autumn Serenade"; Rodgers and Hart's "You Are Too Beautiful"). However, they're basically Hartman's backing band, and while his vocal control is impressive ("Lush Life"), his crooning is so corny and sappy that it comes across as camp. (DBW)

Impressions (rec. 1961-1963, rel. 1963)
A mish-mash: two long live tracks featuring Eric Dolphy that were cut from Village Vanguard, paired with two later compositions. I might as well admit that the lengthy title track doesn't do much for me, but "India" is a fun modal piece, and the two studio recordings are a blast (the solemn "After The Rain"; the livelier "Up 'Gainst The Wall"). (DBW)

Crescent (1964)
There's a deeply melancholy tone on songs such as "Crescent" and "Lonnie's Lament," offset by exuberant swinging on "Bessie's Blues" and Elvin's impassioned "The Drum Thing." (DBW)

A Love Supreme (1964)
It's not easy to describe this album without running off at the mouth and sounding like a cult member. An album-length suite recorded (and later, performed live) in its entirety, tracing the course of a spiritual awakening from "Acknowledgement" through "Resolution" and "Pursuance," and finally "Psalm." The coherence and emotional sweep of the work is breathtaking, as rather simple melodic ideas are stated, and then developed, with power and authority. Each member of the quartet solos at one time or another, but no one's doing their own thing: all the individual contributions are serving Coltrane's overarching vision. (A live performance of the suite, recorded in France in 1965, is circulating on various small labels. The sound quality is poor, and Coltrane was dissatisfied with his performance; it's not worth getting unless you really need to hear what the piece sounded like in concert.) (DBW)

The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (1965)
Generally overlooked in discussions of Coltrane's work, this album contains two wonderful originals, "Song Of Praise" and "Brazilia," and two radically reworked standards: "Chim Chim Cheree" (from Mary Poppins) and "Nature Boy." (DBW)

Dear Old Stockholm (rec. 1963, 1965)
Recorded during two periods of Jones' absence, these sessions feature Roy Haynes on drums. The tracks range from the quiet, almost mellow "Dear Lord" and "After The Rain" (repeated from Impressions) to wild, but purposeful screaming on "One Down, One Up." (DBW)

Transition (rec. 1965)
Reconstituted on its CD release: "Dear Lord" was moved to Dear Old Stockholm and "Welcome" and "Vigil" were added. These compositions express deep spirituality and move at a measured pace, like A Love Supreme, and I'm not sure why they weren't discussed (or performed) more often: the fifteen-minute title track never fails to floor me. (DBW)

Living Space (rec. 1965, rel. 1998)
Recorded at the same session as Transition, but the tunes collected here - "Dusk-Dawn"; title track - point the way to the high-energy, freer playing of his next period rather than the stately sounds of 1964. I have the 1978 LP Feelin' Good, which contains four of these tracks but not "The Last Blues." (DBW)

One Down, One Up: Live At The Half Note (rec. 1965, rel. 2005)
A two-CD set compiled from radio broadcasts of two 1965 Quartet performances, March 26 and May 7 respectively. There are just four songs here, and two of them ("My Favorite Things" and "Afro Blue") are faded out mid-solo, so this isn't one for the casual fan. I'm not crazy about it either, because there are plenty of other recordings of "Afro Blue" and "Favorite Things," and try as I might, I can't get anything much out of the title track: Trane blazes away for twenty-seven minutes (as Tyner and Garrison each fall by the wayside), but I can't tell what he's getting at. So there's just one tune here I'm really excited by: a rapturous, nineteen-minute "Song Of Praise" that has the fervor of a revival meeting and the beauty of a, well, of something beautiful. (DBW)

The Late Impulse Period

Ascension (1965)
Coltrane ventures into the sort of collective improvisation pioneered by Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman, adding several horn players to the quartet and playing one tune (built on a five-note blues riff) for the entire album. He recorded two takes on the same day, initially released one take, then changed his mind and released the other - both are available on Major Works. (DBW)

Sun Ship (1965)
This time Trane starts with a set of compositions which are minimal in the extreme (the title track has a four-note theme, and "Amen" has only three) and leaves it up to the quartet to figure out what he's getting at. The results are mixed: on the title track and on the bass feature "Ascent" the group sounds unsure, as if they're grasping in the dark; on "Amen," though, everything gels, and Tyner leads the rhythm section into some stomping but oddly tense passages, before Coltrane comes back in his upper register, taking everything to a higher level. "Attaining" sounds more familiar than the rest of the session, a deep, moving blues along the lines of "Spiritual" or "Psalm." The Coltrane student or serious fan will get a lot out of this; the rest of us should probably start somewhere else. (DBW)

First Meditations (1965)
A wonderful set of compositions for quartet that would have been a natural followup to A Love Supreme if he'd been the kind of artist to stay in a groove; instead, he shelved these takes and rerecorded the tunes with Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali added to the band as Meditations. (DBW)

Live In Seattle (1965)
Four long improvised pieces compose this double album, with Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax consuming an inordinate amount of solo space; Sanders plays exclusively squeaks, squeals and honks, often without evident purpose. If you're not a Sanders fan, you are likely to find this overlong. On the other hand, if you're a fan of Donald Garrett, who sat in on bass clarinet here, you're in luck. Note: the double-CD release, which I don't have, includes two more recognizeable tunes, "Out Of This World" and "Afro-Blue." (DBW)

Om (1965)
The least successful of his one-tune, free-jazz experiments (reportedly recorded on acid) but has a lot of power: this record can be used to heat your apartment on cold days. In addition to the Quartet and Sanders, the lineup features Garrett on bass clarinet and Joe Brazil on flute. (DBW)

The Major Works of John Coltrane (rec. 1965)
Not a greatest hits, this 2-CD set collects both versions of "Ascension," "Om" and two excellent shorter works (only about 15 minutes each!), "Kulu Se Mama" and "Selflessness." Pick this up now, before the record company gets greedy and pulls it off the market. (DBW)

Meditations (1966)
I'll admit I don't enjoy this nearly as much as I do the Quartet versions of these tunes (First Meditations above has every track except "The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost"), but it's the best single example of Coltrane's direction in late 1965. Once again, Sanders is honkin' all over the place, and I'm not too sure what Ali's doing but it's loud. Tyner's last outing with the band. (DBW)

Live At The Village Vanguard Again! (1966)
Side-long versions of two songs: "Naima" and "My Favorite Things." Alice Coltrane replaced Tyner on piano, and Jones was out on drums: percussionist Emanuel Rahim supplements Ali. Trane only made it into the studio once during 1966, and the four songs recorded are difficult to find: two were released on the posthumous Cosmic Music, which also included two Alice Coltrane tunes and has been out of print for years. (DBW)

Live In Japan (rec. 1966)
A four-CD, six-song set recorded in July 1966 with both Coltranes, Sanders, Garrison and Ali. The shortest tune is 25 minutes ("Peace On Earth," performed twice) while most run nearly an hour ("Crescent"; "My Favorite Things"), so make sure your attention span is dialed all the way up. (DBW)

Stellar Regions (rec. 1967, rel. 1995)
A complete session, just released after being discovered by Alice Coltrane. In early 1967 (as in the summer of 1965), John Coltrane was moving so fast he didn't bother to fully document his new ideas: the only track from this session he authorized for release was "Offering," also found on Expression. But every single take here was successful, and taken together it's an important break with the Sanders-dominated, collective improvisation sound of late 1965 and 1966. The lineup is the quartet, and the tunes are distinctly structured. On several tunes here, he manages to compress the dramatic build-ups, tension, release and denoument of A Love Supreme into a few minutes: "Stellar Regions," "Sun Star," "Offering." Elsewhere he plays with a ferocious intensity that's stunning, straight through to an abrupt ending (both takes of "Tranesonic," "Configuration"). "Iris" has a long intricate melody that recalls Monk, but is clearly Coltrane's. Garrison pulls out all the stops on his featured solo piece ("Jimmy's Mode"), Alice Coltrane contributes an effective, intelligent solo on the atmospheric "Seraphic Light." All three alternate takes are interestingly different from the "best" takes. Anyone interested in Coltrane or modern jazz in general should snap this up. (DBW)

Interstellar Space (1967)
Four duets between Coltrane and Ali (one extra tune on the CD release), and the lack of bass and piano result in freer improvisations than ever; "Venus" is strangely beautiful, like nothing else you'll ever hear. (DBW)

Expression (1967)
His last authorized release is curiously calm, and the recordings have an eerie beauty unlike his other late work (title track). Even the three-and-a-half-minute "Ogunde" changes mood after a furious start, and winds down to a misty piano-led coda. Coltrane's first and only recorded flute performance, "To Be," is touching despite his technical limitations. Sanders adds flute and piccolo on that tune; otherwise the backing is Alice Coltrane, Garrison and Ali. The CD version has one extra track, "Number One," previously released on Jupiter Variations. (DBW)

The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording (rec. 1967, rel. 2001)
Heck, if I had Coltrane's last performance on tape, I'd want to release it too, but make sure you don't buy this unless you're already on board. This was a benefit concert performed in April by a sextet including Algie DeWitt (on bata drum) and Sanders. The sound quality is uneven (DeWitt's inaudible), but not terrible. In style it's completely unlike the 1967 studio recordings, harking back to the chaotic free atmosphere of '65 and '66, with Ali banging away like crazy and Sanders squealing like, well, like Sanders ("Ogunde"). There are just two songs and neither is identifiable except in spots; bridging the two is a lengthy Garrison solo, which was never my favorite part of a Trane set. But Coltrane's impassioned, frantic soprano solo on "My Favorite Things" makes the whole enterprise worthwhile - while he's playing, at least. (DBW)

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