Coltrane’s 60 Giant Steps Towards a New Jazz Style

Coltrane front cover

A GIANT STEP IN JAZZ: JOHN COLTRANE / MALNECK-SIGNORELLI: Stairway to the Stars. JACKSON: The Late Late Blues; Bags and Trane; Blues Legacy. RUBY: Three Little Words. DENNIS: The Night We Called it a Day. GILLESPIE: Be-Bop. EDISON: Centerpiece / John Coltrane, t-sax; Milt Jackson, vibes; Hank Jones, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Connie Kay, drums. COLTRANE: Giant Steps (2 tks); Spiral; Countdown; Syeeda’s Song Flute; Mr. P.C.; Cousin Mary / Coltrane, t-sax; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Chambers, bass; Art Taylor, drums. COLTRANE: Naima; Like Sonny; Countdown; Syeeda’s Song; Cousin Mary / as above, but Cedar Walton, piano & Lex Humphries, drums. VALENTINE-TREADWELL: I’ll Wait and Pray (2 tks). COLTRANE: Little Old Lady; Like Sonny; Harmonique; Naima; Some Other Blues; Fifth House; Village Blues. ARLEN: My Shining Hour / Coltrane, t-sax; Wynton Kelly, piano; Chambers, bs; Jimmy Cobb, drums. CHERRY: Cherry-Co. COLEMAN: The Blessing: Focus on Sanity. MONK-BEST: Bemsha Swing / Coltrane, t-sax; Don Cherry, cornet; Charlie Haden, bs; Ed Blackwell, drums. COLTRANE: Village Blues; Central Park West; Mr. Syms; Untitled Original (Exotica); Mr. Knight; Mr. Day; Blues to You (2 tks); Blues to Bechet; Satellite; 26-2; Liberia; Equinox. RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: My Favorite Things. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: Summertime. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul (2 tks). JONES: Blues to Elvin. PORTER: Every Time We Say Goodbye. GERSHWIN-GERSHWIN: But Not for Me / Coltrane, t-sax/s-sax; McCoy Tyner, piano; Steve Davis, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. COLTRANE: Ole; Dahomey Dance. TYNER: Aisha. FRAZIER: To Her Ladyship / John Coltrane, t-sax/s-sax; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Eric Dolphy, flute/a-sax; Art Davis, bass; Tyner, piano; Elvin Jones, drums (add Reggie Workman, bass on “Ole”) / Rhino Atlantic 603497987832, available as download only (iTunes, Amazon, Microsoft Store)

It is generally conceded that saxophonist John Coltrane is the third, and last, great legend in jazz, the first two being Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker. Unlike Beiderbecke, who was generally unknown to the general public during his lifetime, or Parker, who was known but misunderstood until the last seven years of his life, Coltrane was blessed to have been recognized as a jazz giant from the mid-1950s, when he first started playing with Miles Davis, until his death in 1967, although his last musical directions baffled many in the jazz community. Moreover, his position during those dozen or so years was not just a high one but towering, and he was not appreciated only by jazz lovers but also by young people who otherwise only listened to rock music due to his powerful sound and potent emotional feeling.

As an improviser, Coltrane generally worked around the advanced changes that came into being during the bebop era, but he kept wanting to play—as he put it to Davis and other colleagues—“all the notes.” To this end, he spent some time with Thelonious Monk and studied George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept (he even played on one of Russell’s record projects, the big band he assembled for his New York, N.Y. album), but eventually he was drawn to the circular chromatic exercise book produced in the 1940s by conductor and pedagogue Nicholas Slonimsky. These exercises, meant as nothing more than that, now suddenly became a major part of Coltrane’s musical vocabulary, and he incorporated so many of them and played them so fast and furiously that they became known to the public under the generic title “sheets of sound” (a technique that also influenced rock music producer Phil Spector, who adapted it to a solid block of horns that he called the “wall of sound”). The recording that catapulted Coltrane and his sheets of sound to superstardom was, of course, his almost 14-minute marathon performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s innocuous little tune from The Sound of Music, “My Favorite Things.” By the mid-’60, when FM radio stations became more popular with young people and extra-long recordings were played regularly on that medium, the full version of My Favorite Things almost became a hypnotic musical mantra for many of the Hippie generation, but there was also an abbreviated 45-rpm single of it that was played on regular AM radio. This was probably the first unadulterated jazz improvisation to become a major hit record since Coleman Hawkins’ Body and Soul back in 1939.

This imposing collection, spanning no less than 60 tracks—most of them seven to nine minutes long, not counting the marathon pieces like My Favorite Things (13:47), Focus on Sanity (12:12), Summertime (11:31) and Ole (18:17)—covers the whole of Coltrane’s association with Atlantic Records between January 15, 1959 and May 25, 1961, the latter session being completed in between his first two recording dates for Impulse!, the Africa-Brass Sessions. As you can see from the personnel information, by the time he left Atlantic he had just about arrived at his normal working quartet of himself, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones. This set was originally issued by Rhino Records, that outstanding indie label which made available to two generations of “beat” listeners some of the best jazz (early Ornette Coleman, early Mingus, Ken Nordine’s “word jazz” albums, etc.) and spoken word (lots of Jack Kerouac) albums from the late 1950s-early ‘60s before they were gobbled up by Warner Entertainment. Now this set is being “distributed” by Naxos of America, but since it is only available as downloads and not as hard discs, I’m not sure exactly how this distribution angle works for them. I’ve looked at the download platforms on iTunes, Amazon and the Microsoft Store, and at none of them have I seen the magic word “booklet,” so I have to assume there is none. Happily, there is a full Coltrane discography available online at the Jazz Discography Project here.

Of course, it’s really the music that counts, and since this massive collection is selling for roughly $34-$36 depending on where you go to get it, even if you burn it to CDs (as I did) you’re talking about six discs’ worth of Coltrane. This averages about $6 per disc plus the price (not much, of course) of blank CDs. Happily for me, I already had two of the albums included here in my collection, Giant Steps and Coltrane Jazz, so I could skip about 20 selections to put on disc.

Essentially, this collection shows just how quickly Coltrane was moving towards his mature style. In the 1959 selections, we hear a musician who, although his own man in terms of the substance of his improvisations, was still under the stylistic spell of Charlie Parker (when the music was playing through my computer speakers, before I came downstairs from my bedroom in the morning to see who it was, it sounded eerily like Bird to me) and a little of his contemporary Sonny Rollins, but by the time we reach the rather strange session with Ornette Coleman’s sidemen of the time, cornetist Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell, we hear Trane moving towards a new form of expression that involved, in addition to his more convoluted, rapid playing, a greater relaxation of the basic pulse, often running across bar lines in a headlong rush to get it all out. When we reach the Ole/Dahomey Dance session, the familiar Coltrane of the Impulse! albums is all there, breaking out into newer and more exploratory regions. The massive, 18-minute long Ole, in fact, could easily have been a track from one of his later discs, except that it includes Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Eric Dolphy on flute. I find it interesting that both Coltrane and Charles Mingus thought of Dolphy as their musical offspring, though they used him quite differently: Trane as composer-arranger of the Africa/Brass Sessions as well as a solo voice, Mingus exclusively as an extended soloist within his longer compositions (particularly Meditations) where Dolphy was allowed to go on as long as he wanted, as Coltrane did in the Impulse! years. In Ole, as was often the case in later Coltrane Quartet performances, pianist McCoy Tyner is given a great deal of latitude to contribute to the developing structure. I’ve always liked Tyner because, no matter how long his solos, he always seemed to have an idea where he was going and how to get there, even when he comped for two full choruses as he does here. Here, too, Coltrane uses (unusually) two bassists, Art Davis and Workman, and in one chorus one of them plays in a droning, Middle Eastern style against the other, suddenly lifting Ole from Spain and bringing it to its more exotic roots.

Trane’s stinginess in granting reviews with reporters and critics and his refusal to talk to his audiences between numbers or sets led many to assume he was arrogant, but in truth he was almost pathologically shy, thus for him keeping up that invisible wall of slight distance from his audiences gave him the courage to go out and perform. Those who knew him well knew he was a seeker of truth and love, and in fact A Love Supreme from 1965 may just be the most sheerly sensuous jazz album ever recorded. He kept trying to play “all the notes,” a quest that led him to explore Indian, Malaysian and other ethnic music, eventually running them all together in his mind and through his horn. Many in the avant-garde community looked up to him as a harbinger of such “outside” players as Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, but to be honest Trane wasn’t trying to play outside the way they did; he was just Trane and didn’t try to influence anyone. In fact, if anything he was always somewhat apart from the mainstream, particularly via his straight, vibratoless tone which created an almost “tubular” sound, as if he were playing a shawm (a conical bore instrument, forerunner of the oboe). Eventually he reached the point where his music was incomprehensible to most listeners, even those fans who had followed him through every phase of his career; his late concerts with his wife Alice on piano were either poorly attended or had patrons walking out after 10-15 minutes of what sounded like incoherent rambling. Mingus, angry that he never played any of his compositions, complained that “Coltrane thinks he’s the greatest saxophone player in the world,” but once again it was a misunderstanding. For the most part, Trane didn’t respond well to tight compositional structures like those Mingus wrote; what he wanted was enough room to go back and forth over a tune until he was satisfied that he had wrung every last bit of expression out of it. Listen here, for instance, to Satellite which is just barely a “tune;” rather, it is a set of changes over which Coltrane creates a tune (of sorts) before working it over and over and over throughout its duration. Though only six minutes long, every second is crammed with Coltrane’s probing mind to the expense of the pianist and bassist, who are helpless to do anything but keep time. When Trane died suddenly at age 40, even his latter-day detractors were shocked and saddened, knowing that a jazz giant had passed from the scene.

Despite the somewhat rambling, unissued For Her Ladyship that ends this collection, this set goes a long way towards showing why there was so much love and admiration for Coltrane. By and large, his Atlantic years were his most consistent and varied in musical styles and approach, and I for one often return to those Atlantic albums in my collection because they are so musically satisfying. (At times, as in Blues to You, he sounds a little like Sonny Rollins—and why not?—whereas in But Not for Me, his first chorus sounds like a swing saxophonist before he gets rolling on a stream of sixteenths.) Often, in his Impulse! albums, it sounds as if Coltrane goes on a chorus or two longer than he should have, but here everything is in beautiful proportion; even his use of space is interesting. I highly recommend this set to anyone who does not have his Atlantic recordings, or who, like me, only has a couple of albums from them.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz

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