Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

 Main page 

 New additions 

 Pop: 00s  90s 80s 70s 60s 50s


 Top 20: DBW JA 


John Coltrane

Reviewed on this page:
Tenor Conclave - John Coltrane-Paul Quinichette Quintet - Dakar - Blue Train - Lush Life - Soultrane - Bags and Trane - Giant Steps - Coltrane Jazz - The Avant-Garde - My Favorite Things - Coltrane Plays The Blues - Coltrane's Sound - Olé Coltrane - Africa/Brass - "Live" At The Village Vanguard - Coltrane - Ballads - Duke Ellington and John Coltrane - John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman - Impressions - Live At Birdland - Crescent - A Love Supreme - The John Coltrane Quartet Plays - Dear Old Stockholm - Transition - One Down, One Up: Live At The Half Note - Ascension - My Favorite Things: Coltrane At Newport - The Promise - Sun Ship - First Meditations - Live In Seattle - The Unissued Seattle Broadcast - Om - Kulu Sé Mama - Meditations - Live At The Village Vanguard Again! - Live In Japan - Offering: Live At Temple University - 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. I've also reviewed a book about Coltrane on our Book Reviews Page. (DBW)

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

After Coltrane got out of the navy (where he cut a few 78s that are best forgotten), he returned to Philadelphia, and began touring and recording with a succession of well-known bandleaders: Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and Johnny Hodges. All of whom are worth hearing on their own - Bostic in particular must be heard to be believed - but Trane's contributions are unremarkable. Starting in 1955, though, he started working with Davis, and both his playing and his profile improved dramatically. In 1957 he was recruited by Monk, then went back to Davis before he finally able to work primarily as leader of his own group. I'm still missing most of the records from this period.

Tenor Conclave (The Prestige All Stars: 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: To oversimplify, tenor players either went for smooth and pretty or low-down and bluesy, but Coltrane, even in this early period, sounds urgent to the point of being harsh - like he's trying to wake you out of a deep sleep because the house is on fire. (DBW)

Interplay For 2 Trumpets And 2 Tenors (The Prestige All Stars: 1957)
Coltrane and Bobby Jaspar were the tenors, Idrees Sulieman and Webster Young were the trumpets; the rhythms section is Mal Waldron (piano), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Paul Chambers (bass) and Art Taylor (drums). Four tunes, all by Waldron, who was Prestige's house pianist at the time; "Soul Eyes" became a standard after Coltrane revisited the tune in 1962. I used to have this record but I can't remember it too well. Shortly after this recording, Coltrane began working with Thelonious Monk, a partnership I've documented pretty thoroughly on W&A's Monk page. (DBW)

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

Coltrane (1957)
Coltrane's first album as a leader, not to be confused with the 1962 Impulse LP with the same name. Two originals and four tunes I suppose are standards though they don't seem familiar to me. (DBW)

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

Blue Train (1957)
Not his first credit as a leader, but in some 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)

Wheelin' And Dealin' (The Prestige All Stars: 1957)
Coltrane, Quinichette, Waldron and Taylor are joined by Fred Wess on flute and sax, plus Doug Watkins on bass. Two standards - Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used To Be," "Robbin's Nest" - and two by Waldron, who was a prolific composer though only "Soul Eyes" achieved lasting recognition. (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 Tadd Dameron's "Good Bait" and Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullaby." Also his first recording of Billy Eckstine's "I Want To Talk About You," which he continued to perform until at least 1965. (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)
Coltrane kicked off his Atlantic period with a masterpiece, composed entirely of originals. The two most successful tunes could hardly be more different from each other: the full-speed-ahead title track, which changes keys every second or two, and the lovely, subdued ballad "Naima" - named for his then-wife - which is barely in a key at all, a series of suspended chords over a sustained bass note. Many of the other compositions are blues-based ("Cousin Mary"; "Mr. P.C.," for Chambers) while others foreshadow Coltrane's interest in modal music ("Syeeda's Song Flute," for Naima's daughter), but every one is hummable (with the possible exception of the frantic "Countdown"), and Trane's endlessly authoritative soloing is just as memorable. Unlike pretty much any other Coltrane release, this album is an epic, eye-opening listen whether you're a transcription-obsessed jazz student, a neophyte who thinks most jazz is abstract and diffuse, or anyone in between. The CD release is even better, with interesting alternate takes of five of the seven songs. (DBW)

Coltrane Jazz (1960)
This suffers by comparison to the other albums Trane cut for Atlantic, but there are some fine originals, including "Like Sonny" and "Some Other Blues." Coltrane also experiments with saxophone multiphonics - playing more than one note at a time - on "Harmonique," presaging some of the most "far out" stuff he started playing in 1965. "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 Coltrane's Sound. (DBW)

Live At The Jazz Gallery 1960 (rec. 1960, rel. 2011)
If you're as crazy as I am, you'll want to hear this audience recording of dubious provenance: Recorded shortly after forming his first working quartet (the lineups on previous albums were recruited for the occasion), the set not only includes the earliest known recordings of Coltrane with McCoy Tyner, it also has his earliest recorded work on soprano saxophone ("I Can't Get Started"). But at this point the group didn't sound that great, and interestingly it's not the two who were soon replaced (Steve Davis and Pete La Roca) who are the culprits, but Tyner and Trane: The half-hour opener "Liberia" is the best illustration of how far they had to go, as Coltrane's lengthy solo only connects in spots (mostly in the modal B section) while Tyner's approach is so tentative and twee I had to triple-check it was really him (in his defense, he was 21 at the time). The set list is almost all material he would record in the studio several months later, including three of the four songs that would appear on My Favorite Things (everything except the title tune). (DBW)

The Avant-Garde (John Coltrane - Don Cherry Quartet: rec. 1960, rel. 1966)
Basically this is the Ornette Coltrane Quartet: Ornette Coleman's regular working group with Coltrane instead of Coleman, playing mostly Coleman tunes ("The Blessing"). (Percy Heath replaces Coleman's regular bassist Charlie Haden on three of the tunes.) There's also one Cherry original and a Monk tune ("Bemsha Swing"). For once it's not hard to see why Atlantic initially shelved these recordings: Coltrane seems out of his element, so it's mostly of interest to Cherry and/or Coleman fans. It is noteworthy, though, that even as he built his reputation in mainstream jazz, Coltrane was already open to alternative approaches - sometimes people act like Trane was bitten by a radioactive Albert Ayler in 1965 and went straight off the deep end, but it's just not so. (DBW)

My Favorite Things (1960)
Coltrane made several major contributions to jazz theory and practice even before forming his classic quartet, and every one of them is present on this disc, recorded during three marathon sessions in October 1960. The title track alone encompasses 3/4 time (then rare in jazz); Coltrane's acerbic attack on soprano sax, which redefined an instrument theretofore known for Sidney Bechet-style sweet 'n' syrupy interpretations; and modal jazz, i.e. extended exploration of one scale rather than a succession of chord changes. Historical concerns aside, this transformation of a simple kitschy tune - almost a nursery rhyme - into a searching, kinetic powerhouse made Coltrane's reputation and remained one of his most requested songs for the rest of his career. At the same time he was working with fewer chords than anyone else, he was also working with more chords than anyone else, pioneering a complex system of chord subsitutions ("Coltrane changes") which he applies to Gershwin's "But Not For Me." He also unleashes his soprano on another standard, Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," and reverts to tenor for a complex reharmonization of the Gershwin chestnut "Summertime." (DBW)

Coltrane Plays The Blues (rec. 1960, rel. 1962)
Drawing from the same sessions as the previous and following LPs, Atlantic put together this album shortly after Coltrane left the label. Nearly all by Coltrane - "Blues To Elvin" is by Jones - and as he'd shown on Giant Steps, he's a heavy blues player, if somewhat abstract: though this was the heyday of "soul jazz," there's no discernable R&B influence, just straight-ahead jazz ranging from the brooding "Mr. Day" to the wild "Blues To Bechet," played on soprano. The CD has a bonus track that's not a blues, but is a fine if not earthshaking addition to the canon ("Exotica"). (DBW)

Coltrane's Sound (rec. 1960, rel. 1964)
By the time Atlantic pulled these tracks out of the vault Coltrane had moved into vastly different territory, so this release didn't make a huge splash but it's important stuff. Recorded at the same sessions as My Favorite Things, these pieces are mostly Coltrane originals and share a contemplative, introspective mood, with a lot of space created by light-touch arrangements. Coltrane's playing shines brightest on "Equinox," "Liberia," the standard "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes" and the CD-only "26-2." "Satellite" covers the same ground as "Equinox"; "Central Park West" recalls "Naima" - Coltrane continually modulates by minor thirds but makes it sound perfectly logical. (DBW)

Olé Coltrane (1961)
Coltrane's first session for Atlantic since the previous October - which became his last work for the label - and Recorded in between the two large-group sessions that produced Africa/Brass, the groupings here are larger than a quartet but smaller than a big band. Freddie Hubbard is on trumpet; Eric Dolphy plays flute or alto sax, while on bass there's Reggie Workman (Tyner's "Aisha"), Art Davis, or both ("Dahomey Dance"). "Olé" is one of Coltrane's most successful modal workouts, with Workman and Davis setting up a hypnotic groove, and the other performances are thoughtful and entertaining. The CD version also includes the lovely "To Her Ladyship" (Dolphy on flute and Davis on bass). (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. By the way, I know the label name is supposed to have an exclamation point after Impulse but I generally omit that because it's silly.

Africa/Brass (1961)
An experiment in large group work, with Dolphy and Tyner arranging a large horn section including (among others) Hubbard and Booker Little on trumpet; Julian Priester on euphonium (sort of a mini-tuba); Pat Patrick on bari sax; Garvin Bushell on woodwinds; plus either Chambers or Davis as second bassist. So it's different but I don't find it very enlightening: the tunes are familiar or familiar-sounding, and some are quite long although they don't say much. The traditional "Greensleeves" is played as a modal waltz, the first of several Coltrane would add to and then drop from the repertoire, which makes me think Coltrane wasn't convinced that "My Favorite Things" was the best possible vehicle for the concept. There have been multiple reissues - the most comprehensive is the 1995 two-disc release, with three takes of "Africa," two takes of "Greensleeves" and two additional tunes: "Song Of The Underground Railroad" and "The Damned Don't Cry." (DBW)

Complete Live At The Sutherland Lounge 1961 (rec. 1961)
A couple of weeks before the landmark Village Vanguard recordings, Coltrane appeared in Chicago with Tyner, Jones, Workman and guest Don Garrett. This 3-CD set finds him looking backward as well as forward: he revisits "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Vierd Blues" from his time with Davis, "Blue Train" from the late '50s, then-unreleased material he'd cut for Atlantic ("Equinox," "Liberia") and one song he hadn't yet recorded ("Impressions," performed twice). I thought this would be an interesting comparison with Village Vanguard, assuming that Garrett played bass clarinet in the role Dolphy would soon play, but no, Garrett apparently stuck to double bass all evening. (DBW)

"Live" At The Village Vanguard (1961)
Impulse wanted to capture Coltrane on stage, so they hauled Rudy Van Gelder in from Englewood to record three nights (and part of a fourth) at the small club. Trane came prepared with a bunch of new compostions and a bunch of guests, prominently including Dolphy on alto sax and bass clarinet. I found the original LP underwhelming - "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" is an unexceptional ballad; "Chasin' The Trane" is a long, formless blues - apart from "Spiritual," the first of his ecstatic pieces, where he plays a strong, simple melody with fervid intensity over dramatic backing based on a single scale (sometimes a single chord), with a theme that's often explicitly religious and at any rate concerned with matters eternal. It feels like he's calling you to something, even if you don't know what, and to call this music compelling is an understatement: it makes nearly all devotional music so hollow, even as it makes nearly all secular music seem trivial. Though he never lost his ability to create rich improvisations over complex chord progressions, over the years he gravitated increasingly to this ecstatic approach. Anyway, the 1997 release of The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings has many versions of "Spiritual" as well as "India" and "Impressions" (the two of which became the backbone of a future LP), and some other wonders including a version of "Naima" with Dolphy adding a lovely harmony line - that configuration merits four stars easily. (DBW)

Coltrane (1962)
Technically this isn't the first joint appearance of all four members of the "classic quartet," because Garrison had split bass duties with Workman on the Vanguard recordings, but it is the first album to feature all four and no one else. 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 Waldron's ballad "Soul Eyes," which Trane had originally recorded in 1957, Dolphy's "The Red Planet" (retitled "Miles' Mode") - the opening theme is based on a 12-tone row which is then reversed, creating a musical palindrome - and Coltrane's own "Tunji." There's a two-disc reissue I don't have which features the quartet's take on "Big Nick" (later recorded with Duke Ellington) and a ton of other extras. (DBW)

Ballads (1962)
A bunch of pop tunes, but rather than radically reinterpreting, Coltrane is 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; Coltrane was a masterful ballad player but it's hard to detect that here. (DBW)

Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1962)
Despite Ellington's greater reputation and fame (especially at the time), this record really is co-led; half features Garrison and Jones, the other half Duke's Sam Woodyard and Aaron Bell. As he so often did, Ellington whipped up a tribute to his collaborator ("Take The Coltrane"), and Coltrane responded with a tribute to... Big Nick Nicholas ("Big Nick," the only tune he plays on soprano). There's another fine new piece from Ellington ("Stevie"); the rest are from his book, including perhaps the definitive "In A Sentimental Mood" and Strayhorn's "My Little Brown Book." If you've never heard Duke in a quartet setting, this record will be a revelation - he's not a dazzling technician like Oscar Peterson but he has an unerring sense of the appropriate response to any given situation - in other words, of fitness. (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 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" with Roy Haynes on drums; the livelier "Up 'Gainst The Wall"). Some CD configurations have a bonus track, "Dear Old Stockholm," recorded at the same 1963 session as "After The Rain." (DBW)

More Live At The Showboat (rec. 1963)
Sound is not that good even for a gray market release - lots of crowd conversation and clinking bottles - but it is an unusual show. Tyner turned up late and Jones was on hiatus, so the first half of the set is just Trane, Garrison and Haynes, leading to some atypical song selections: "Chasin' The Trane" (which was usually played without Tyner), "Up 'Gainst The Wall," and the standard "It's Easy To Remember." Things get back to normal for a few tunes ("Impressions"), and then at the end, Trane sits at the piano for an unaccompanied performance of "After The Rain." (DBW)

Newport '63 (rec. 1961, 1963; rel. 1993)
A Frankenstein release you should avoid: The full Newport 1963 set is available on on My Favorite Things: Coltrane At Newport ("Impressions" is truncated here), while "Chasin' Another Trane" (not from 1963 or from Newport) is on The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings. About a month after this, the rhythm section got together with three horns and recorded an album, Illumination!, as the Elvin Jones - Jimmy Garrison Sextet. (DBW)

Live At Birdland (1963)
I passed over this album for decades, perhaps confusing it with some other live record. Anyway, it contains three new Coltrane originals - "The Promise," "Alabama" and "Your Lady," and if you have the right edition, "Vilia" - plus Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" and Billy Eckstine's "I Want To Talk About You," which Trane had first recorded way back in 1958. On the original LP "Alabama" (like "Your Lady," a studio recording) appears to have an odd recursive structure, but in fact an outtake that breaks down in the middle was accidentally prepended to the master take. The outtake has a brief solo but the master is through-composed, the first such in Trane's catalog. So it paved the way for the climactic fourth movement of "Love Supreme," and the grief expressed for the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is palpable, though by the same token it's a tough listen. Meanwhile, "Afro-Blue" and "The Promise" are successors to "My Favorite Things": the first is also in three but incorporates African, Latin and blues influences, as the title suggests; "The Promise" is in 4/4 but has the same lilting feel and singsong quality of "Favorite Things." (DBW)

Live Trane: The European Tours (rec. 1961-1963)
A seven-CD box of early '60s Trane, so obviously it's a treasure trove. Despite lots of repetition - six versions of "Favorite Things," five each of "Impressions" and "Mr. P.C.," four of "Naima" - there are also a lot of under-recorded pieces like "Traneing In," "Lonnie's Lament" and "Cousin Mary." The first disc and a half feature Dolphy and Workman; the rest is the classic quartet. Do check Dave Wild's page for the correct recording details; the liner notes are full of mistakes. My only caution here is, if you're going to go this deep you might as well go all the way and find all the concerts from this period - for example, the 4-CD set So Many Things covers the same six-day period as the first disc in this set, but in much greater detail. (DBW)

Crescent (1964)
The first full-length quartet (no guests) studio recording since Ballads - believe it or not - and it's worlds away. Recorded as Coltrane's marriage to Naima was ending: "Wise One" is apparently about her, while the title track may be related to her Islamic faith, unless I'm overreaching. And whatever the reason, the melancholy tone that had often appeared in Coltrane's music is more pronounced here, except on the exuberant, swinging "Bessie's Blues." Uniquely among the quartet's studio releases, Garrison and Jones are each spotlighted on one track, "Lonnie's Lament" (a tribute to Liston Smith unless I'm mistaken) and "The Drum Thing" respectively. ("Song Of Praise" was originally attempted during these sessions; the version released in 1965 was a re-recording.) (DBW)

Pep's Lounge Philadelphia 18 September 1964 (rec. 1964)
The only portion of this performance that's available is a half-hour exploration of "Resolution," which became the second movement of A Love Supreme. Poorly recorded; I don't recommend listening to it for entertainment, but it's fascinating if you want to study Coltrane's process, as it's the only known recording of any Love Supreme tune performed outside of that context. (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)
Shortly after creating that masterpiece, Coltrane returned for the last time to the traditional originals-plus-standards album format he'd employed on records like Coltrane. Perhaps for that reason it's generally overlooked in discussions of Coltrane's work, but if you don't compare it to A Love Supreme it's quite good, with two wonderful originals, "Song Of Praise" and "Brazilia," and two radically reworked standards: "Chim Chim Cheree" (from Mary Poppins) and "Nature Boy." If you find the right CD reissue there's another standard ("Feeling Good") and one or two more takes of "Nature Boy." (DBW)

New York City '65 Vol. 1 (rec. 1965, rel. 1993)
The Quartet played a string of shows at the Half Note, and this quasi-bootleg is from the March 19th appearance. Three songs: "Impressions," the recently recorded "Chim Chim Cheree," and a new original, "One Down, One Up." (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 so many other recordings of those songs, and try as I may, 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)

New York City '65 Vol. 2 (rec. 1965, rel. 1993)
Another Half Note set, this time from April 2; notable for a otherwise unheard original, officially untitled but generally known as "Creation." The transition between that high energy, barely composed, free blowing piece and the ballad "I Want To Talk About You" could hardly be more extreme. (DBW)

At this point, Coltrane's discography becomes kind of messy: He recorded about ten albums of new material between May and November of 1965, most of which wasn't released until years later, and many of the tracks were haphazardly compiled into a variety of releases - most of which are now out of print - over the ensuing decades. The best way to get that stuff is on an 8-disc boxed set, The Classic Quartet, though even that is missing numerous alternate takes.

To The Beat Of A Different Drum (rec. 1963, 1965, rel. 1978)
Roy Haynes filled in for Jones again on May 26, 1965, and the session produced three songs (plus a rejected attempt at "Welcome"): the quiet, almost mellow "Dear Lord"; wild but purposeful screaming on "One Down, One Up"; and "After The Crescent," somewhere between the two. This album also contains two 1963 recordings from a different session with Haynes: "Dear Old Stockholm" and the previously released "After The Rain" - the same configuration was released on CD as Dear Old Stockholm. "Dear Lord" was originally released on Transition; an alternate take of that tune wasn't released until Classic Quartet. (DBW)

Transition (rec. 1965, rel. 1970)
Perhaps the most overlooked album in the Coltrane catalog. Two long pieces recorded on June 10 express deep spirituality and move at a measured pace: "Transition" never fails to floor me, and the 21-minute "Suite" is nearly as powerful. The closest you can get to A Love Supreme Volume 2, and as with that album, these songs were rarely performed live. The original LP release overseen by Alice Coltrane contained "Dear Lord" from the previous session. A later CD issue contained "Welcome" from the same June 10 session, which had been released during Coltrane's lifetime on Kulu Sé Mama, and "Vigil"; two other June 10 recordings weren't available until 1998's Living Space: "Untitled Original 90314" and "The Last Blues." (DBW)

Living Space (rec. 1965, rel. 1998)
Mostly drawn from a June session, this set points toward the high-energy, freer playing of the Ascension period (title track; "Dusk-Dawn"), far from the stately sounds of 1964. (Also on June 16, Coltrane recorded "Vigil" as a duet with Jones, and released it on Kulu Sé Mama, the only album from this era to mix quartet and large group recordings.) Most of this session was released on the 1978 LP Feelin' Good and later on the CD Living Space. (DBW)

Late Impulse! Period

The June 28, 1965 session which produced Ascension is often viewed as the dividing line between the Classic Quartet period and the final "far out" period. It's true that the larger group, longer songs, and ecstatic feel of that date are worlds away from something like "Bessie's Blues" - firmly grounded in traditional jazz - recorded just the year before, and certainly the composition of the band changed shortly thereafter, with avant-garde tenor Pharoah Sanders becoming a near-full time member and Tyner and Jones departing. Really, though, the change was more gradual than that: Coltrane had added Archie Shepp and Art Davis to the quartet during the recording of A Love Supreme, though the sextet takes of "Acknowledgement" were ultimately rejected, and the Classic Quartet recorded some excellent work in the fall of 1965 with no additional players. (DBW)

Ascension (1965)
Coltrane ventures into territory initially explored by Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman, adding six horn players (including Hubbard, Sanders and Shepp) and another bassist (Davis) to the quartet and playing one tune (built on a five-note blues riff) for the entire album. It's not exactly collective improvisation - ensemble passages alternate with individual solos - but it sure isn't bebop, and it shocked the jazz-buying public. He recorded two takes on the same day, initially released take two (known as "Edition I"), then changed his mind and released the first take ("Edition II") - both are now available on the same CD, so don't get shortchanged. (DBW)

My Favorite Things: Coltrane At Newport (rec. 1963, 1965; rel. 2007)
The quartet's complete appearances at Newport in 1963 (with Haynes) and 1965 ("One Down, One Up" and "My Favorite Things"). After this appearance Coltrane took the group to Europe; recordings of several of these shows have surfaced, and at nearly all of them he played a slimmed-down version of "Ascension," generally known as "Blue Valse." (DBW)

The Promise (rec. 1963, 1965; rel. 1994)
Starts out like Live At Birdland Redux: the same three tunes in the same order ("Afro Blue," "I Want To Talk About You," "The Promise"), also cut in 1963. Side Two is more unusual: one of the latest live recordings of the classic quartet (August 1965), featuring two songs he played all the time ("My Favorite Things" and "Naima"), and one that, far as I can tell, he never played again: it's listed as "Modal Excursion" though it's unknown whether or how Coltrane titled it. Based on a very brief melodic figure, like most of the material that would appear on Sun Ship recorded later that month, it's not going to change anyone's conception of Coltrane but if you've heard the rest you'll want to hear this too. (DBW)

Sun Ship (rec. 1965, rel. 1971)
Recorded in one session on August 26, 1965, back in New York; 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." A two-disc version, Sun Ship: The Complete Session, was released in 2013, chock full of alternate versions that weren't included on Classic Quartet. (DBW)

First Meditations (rec. 1965, rel. 1977)
Just a week after cutting Sun Ship, the quartet was back in the studio recording entirely different material. A wonderful suite made up of loosely composed, thematically connected pieces ("Compassion"): like Love Supreme, it follows a hero's journey arc - "Love" through "Consequences" to "Serenity" - and would have been a natural followup to that album if he'd been the kind of artist to repeat himself. Instead, he shelved these takes and rerecorded most of the tunes - with Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali added - as Meditations. As much as Jones and Tyner stated that they didn't understand what Trane was doing in this period, the group sounds remarkably congruent moving through moods from placid to raucous; Garrison is particularly well heard on his intro and outro features. The disc includes an alternate take of "Joy" recorded three weeks later - the latest known recording of the classic quartet. (DBW)

Live In Seattle (rec. 1965, rel. 1971)
Coltrane took the Quartet and Sanders to the West Coast, where he recorded some sessions for Impulse but others on his own dime (Ellington often did the same). This live recording has one additional guest, Donald Garrett on bass and clarinet here (not bass clarinet as the liner notes originally stated). Originally four tunes were collected on a double LP; the CD release has six, breaking down into three standards ("Out Of This World"), a six-minute Garrison feature ("Tapestry In Sound") and two full group improvisations ("Evolution"). Two of the standards follow a relatively mainstream head/solos structure, and they're outstanding: "Body And Soul" is beautiful, and the mammoth Garrison-Garrett duet on "Afro-Blue" may change your views on acoustic bass solos. The improvised pieces are freer than Ascension, and far more intense ("Cosmos") - Sanders and Coltrane in particular make extensive use of squeaks, squeals and honks, to the point that it sounds more like a roadshow revival than a musical performance - like something you either walk out of or join in with, not sit and listen to. (DBW)

The Unissued Seattle Broadcast (rec. 1965, rel. 2011)
Though the liner notes aren't clear, this is not a separate session from the previous disc but rather the unreleased portion of the same session. So "Untitled Original" is really the first part of "Cosmos," "Afro Blue" is a continuation of the Live In Seattle performance, and so on. Unfortunately it's from an amateur recording of a radio broadcast so the sound quality isn't as good, but if you dig Live In Seattle you'll want to have the rest of the show. "My Favorite Things" is cut off before the end. "Lush Life" gets pretty out there, but in a Quartet way - the guests aren't audible. By the way, the actual performance started with the improvisations and then went into standards, though the CD releases obscure that fact: if you consider this Disc Three, the real running order should be 03-01 Cosmos Part 1, 01-01 Cosmos Part 2, 02-01 Evolution, 01-04 Tapestry In Sound, 01-02 Out Of This World, 01-03 Body And Soul, 02-02 Afro Blue Part 1, 03-02 Afro Blue Part 2, 03-03 Lush Life, 03-04 My Favorite Things. (DBW)

Om (rec. 1965, rel. 1968)
Recorded the day after the previous two albums, with Joe Brazil (flute) joining Garrett, Sanders and the Quartet. One long piece, beginning and ending with recitations from the Bhagavad Gita and chanting. In between, it's non-stop high-energy cacophony: this record can be used to heat your apartment on cold days. So it's farther out than Ascension but it has more structure than "Evolution" - which incidentally also featured repeated moans of "Om" at one point. Note that Coltrane didn't authorize the release of any of the four hours of music recorded over these couple of days, and it may have been exploratory in nature - on the other hand, he did perform "Om" live once in early 1966, with both Ayler brothers. (DBW)

Kulu Sé Mama (rec. 1965, rel. 1967)
The final studio session of Coltrane's West Coast trip yielded two side-long pieces featuring Juno Lewis (percussion), Frank Butler (drums), Sanders, Garrett and the quartet - the last time Trane recorded with such a large ensemble. "Kulu Sé Mama (Juno Sé Mama)" is a feature for Lewis, who wrote it and performs vocals. "Selflessness" is my favorite of the late "large group" tunes, with Coltrane laying down a solemn theme before the group goes into rampaging elephants mode. However, "Selflessness" was not selected for the version of the album released during Coltrane's lifetime (it was originally released on the 1969 LP Selflessness Featuring My Favorite Things, then Major Works, then the Expanded Edition of Kulu). Instead he included "Welcome" and "Vigil," quartet tracks recorded several months previously. I don't see how the three songs fit together as one LP but Trane clearly had definite ideas about what he was doing. The Expanded Edition also includes two takes of "Dusk Dawn" - the second take was somehow omitted from The Classic Quartet. (DBW)

The Major Works of John Coltrane (rec. 1965, rel. 1992)
Not a greatest hits, this 2-CD set collects both versions of "Ascension," "Om" and the comparatively concise "Kulu Sé Mama" and "Selflessness." When this came out it was a huge deal because Edition 1 of "Ascension" was nearly impossible to find, and I think "Om" was out of print as well; it's still a cool set but if you are into late period Trane you'll probably end up buying a more comprehensive compilation. (DBW)

Meditations (1966)
For many years I held this record in awe but didn't actually enjoy listening to it: I couldn't hear any structure beneath the chaos, so it seemed directionless and unrewarding. There is a narrative, though, and it's roughly the same narrative from First Meditations, the pre-West Coast trip quartet recording of the suite. However, it's much harsher this time around: comparing the albums side by side, "Compassion" and "Serenity" combine for almost sixteen minutes on the early version but less than eleven on the later one, while the relatively peaceful "Joy" was dropped in favor of the scream-filled "The Father, The Son And The Holy Ghost" (the only song from either session where the title doesn't seem to match the mood). I don't always feel like Sanders develops his solos - he can screech at the same intensity level throughout - but on "The Father, The Son And The Holy Ghost" he proceeds from fairly melodic repeated figures all the way to impassioned, abrasive overblowing before coming back down to Earth. I'm still not sure I get what Ali and Jones are doing, but warts and all, this set is the best single example of Coltrane's direction in late 1965. Believed to be Coltrane's final recordings with Tyner or Jones. (DBW)

Cosmic Music (John/Alice Coltrane: 1968)
In stark contrast to the prior year, Trane only made it into the studio three times in 1966, and none of the material he recorded is easy to find. Four songs were cut on February 2, the first session to feature Alice Coltrane on piano: "Manifestation" (with Sanders prominent on piccolo) and the bluesy "Reverend King" (a rare Trane appearance on bass clarinet) were released on the posthumous Cosmic Music, which also included two tunes with her as leader - it's been out of print for years. "Peace On Earth" and the hectic, jumpy "Leo" appeared on 1972's Infinity as overdubbed versions overseen by Alice Coltrane; an unedited version of "Peace On Earth" appeared on 1978's Jupiter Variation. As far as I know, the version of "Leo" recorded on this date has never been released without overdubs. Two further 1966 studio sessions, which included new takes of both "Leo" and "Peace On Earth," have never been released in any form. Notably, unlike so much of the material he wrote and recorded during these years, both those compositions went directly into the group's live repertoire. (DBW)

Live At The Village Vanguard Again! (1966)
Side-long versions of two songs: "Naima" and "My Favorite Things." Revisiting such big hits was either a way to reassure listeners who were thrown by Ascension, or to reinforce the point that his approach had changed for good: "Naima" starts out gently enough, but soon Sanders - after a relatively melodic start - starts screaming, and you know you're not in 1959 anymore. Trane and Sanders do nearly all the soloing - if you want to hear Alice Coltrane stretch out in this context you'll need to check out Live In Japan. Percussionist Emanuel Rahim supplements Ali. (DBW)

Last Performance At Newport 1966 (rec. 1966)
A gray-market release, with "Welcome," "Leo" and "My Favorite Things." (DBW)

Live In Japan (rec. 1966, rel. 1973-4)
Two complete July 1966 Tokyo dates, with both Coltranes, Sanders, Garrison and Ali. Just six songs fill four CDs: 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. There is a lot of Sanders here, but there are also extended solos from Garrison and Alice Coltrane that are well worth hearing. The tour of Japan is noteworthy because Yamaha gave altos to both Sanders and Trane, who duly played them at the shows although neither of them normally played alto. If this does it for you, you can dig up a less-than-legit recording of a show at Kobe on the same tour. (DBW)

Offering: Live At Temple University (rec. 1966, rel. 2014)
A two-CD set recorded in November 1966. Garrison wasn't at the show, making this the first Coltrane recording in many years without any members of the classic Quartet; local bassist Sonny Johnson filled in. Other guests include Arnold Joyner and Steven Knoblauch on alto sax, and Algie DeWitt, Robert Kenyatta and Umar Ali on percussion. Overall it's roughly similar to the Japan recordings, featuring many of the same tunes ("Leo," "Crescent," "My Favorite Things") but relatively compact and even more chaotic - the solemn title tune, not recorded in the studio until early 1967, is in striking contrast to the rest. (DBW)

Stellar Regions (rec. 1967, rel. 1995)
A complete session, long believed lost until Alice Coltrane located a box of tapes in the early 90s. 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 (rec. 1967, rel. 1974)
A duet session, just Coltrane and Ali; in some ways it seems like a fresh take on the Stellar Regions material: "Venus" has the same theme as "Stellar Regions"; "Mars" contains long melodic lines which resemble "Iris." In a way it may be the opposite of the two recordings of Meditations - where that album was first attempted with a quartet, then later with a larger group, this time he went smaller. On the other hand, though, "Jupiter" and "Saturn" are new themes, and where the Stellar Regions tunes capture a variety of moods and employ recognizable tension and resolution, here Trane keeps the intensity high throughout - you only know the tune is about to end when he stops playing sax and starts shaking sleigh bells. To be sure, there are lyrical moments in both "Saturn" and "Venus," but they come and go without any pattern I can discern. Though freed from keeping time in a traditional sense, Ali has the much harder task of keeping the momentum moving forward without meter, tempo, or any other structure, and generally speaking he succeeds, playing rhythmic fragments that don't match but are somehow analogous to Coltrane's melodic fragments. The CD release contains an alternate take of "Jupiter," and there's another version of "Leo," which Coltrane attempted to record on at least four separate studio dates. (DBW)

Expression (1967)
Coltrane's last authorized release is curiously calm, and the recordings have an eerie beauty unlike his other late work (title track; "Ogunde," based on a Yoruba melody). "Offering" does build to a furious peak, but then winds down to a misty piano-led coda. Coltrane's first and only recorded flute performance, "To Be," is touching despite his technical limitations, though it is longwinded. 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 Variation - Number Two and Numbers Four through Eight were recorded at a March 29 session but remain unissued. (Apparently the Coltrane family has lots of session tapes a la Stellar Regions but has been unable to agree on terms with Impulse.) (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 in his inimitable fashion ("Ogunde"). There are just two songs - the recordings of "Tunji" and "Acknowledgment" are apparently MIA - and neither is identifiable except in spots; bridging the two is a lengthy Garrison solo. But Coltrane's impassioned, frantic soprano solo on "My Favorite Things" makes the whole enterprise worthwhile - while he's playing, at least. (DBW)

Ready for ascension?

 Main page 

 New additions 

 Pop: 00s  90s 80s 70s 60s 50s


 Top 20: DBW JA