John Coltrane (1926-67) only had a 12-year playing prime (1955-67), but during that time he changed jazz, essentially breaking the sound barrier several years before Jimi Hendrix. While originally a tenor-saxophonist based in the straight ahead jazz tradition of bebop and hard bop, Coltrane was always pushing at the boundaries, stretching himself at a relentless pace. After he formed his quartet in 1960 (doubling on soprano sax), he went through several phases, took marathon solos over one and two-chord vamps, and in 1965 crossed over into fiery free improvisations that found him engaging in often-ferocious sound explorations. In each of his phases, Coltrane influenced a countless number of younger saxophonists and expanded the choices that jazz improvisers had in their playing. He is considered, along with Charlie Parker, arguably the finest saxophonist of all time.
It took John Coltrane awhile to get going in his career. He was originally an alto-saxophonist influenced by Charlie Parker, making his first recordings on some fascinating private discs from 1946. He had stints with the bands of King Kolax, altoist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson (during which he switched to tenor), and Dizzy Gillespie. While he was not featured during his period with the Gillespie big band (1948-49), he was heard a bit with the trumpeter’s sextet during 1950-51. Other low-profile jobs followed, including playing with Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges and Jimmy Smith. However at 28 he was a complete unknown in 1955 when Miles Davis noticed his potential and hired him for his new quintet.
That was the real beginning of John Coltrane’s career. His recordings with Miles Davis and in other jam session-flavored settings found him growing rapidly during 1956-57, developing a distinctive sound, and playing modern and unpredictable ideas. By then he was considered, along with Sonny Rollins, the most important new voice of the tenor sax.
# 1 – Blue Train (Blue Note)
John Coltrane spent the summer of 1957 evolving quickly as a member of the Thelonious Monk Quartet. Among his many recordings of the period was his lone Blue Note album as a leader, Blue Train. From Sept. 15, 1957, this set teams him with trumpeter Lee Morgan (who was brilliant at just 19), trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Coltrane takes a long and superb solo on “Blue Train,” introduces “Moment’s Notice” (one of his finest compositions), and roars through “Locomotion.” The other musicians, particularly Morgan, are also in top form on this hard bop classic.
# 2- Giant Steps (Atlantic)
Coltrane was back with Miles Davis during 1958-60 in a sextet also featuring Cannonball Adderley that recorded several notable albums including Kind Of Blue. In 1959 ‘Trane pointed towards a possible future with his complex composition “Giant Steps.” Up till then, nearly all jazz solos were played over chord changes that were repeated each chorus. Coltrane brought that type of improvising to its logical extreme with Giant Steps” which became a test piece for young jazz musicians to conquer. He also introduced his beautiful ballad “Naima,” his catchy “Mr. P.C,” “Locomotion” and “Cousin Mary” on this quartet set. It was obvious that he would not be a sideman much longer.
# 3 – My Favorite Things (Atlantic)
Leaving Miles Davis after a European tour in 1960, John Coltrane formed his classic quartet which soon featured pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and (by 1962) bassist Jimmy Garrison. Having formed an original style on tenor, Coltrane duplicated the feat on soprano sax, leading to the instrument’s renaissance. On the title cut of 1960’s My Favorite Things, Coltrane shows that, unlike on “Giant Steps” which had many chords that zoomed by rapidly, he was capable of jamming endlessly on a two-chord vamp. This tune, featuring his soprano, became a regular part of his repertoire, sometimes being played for a half-hour in clubs. The other three selections on this album include a warm treatment of the ballad “Everytime We Say Goodbye” and modernized versions of “Summertime” and “But Not For Me.”
# 4 – Live At Birdland (Impulse)
John Coltrane and his quartet recorded prolifically in the studios for the Impulse label and there also have been quite a few bootlegs of his live performances that have been released through the years. Nearly every one of these recordings is inspired for ‘Trane never let up and his sidemen were among the most innovative and influential of the 1960s, creating a new type of jazz. Live At Birdland from 1963 has Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison and Jones at their best, stretching out on “Afro Blue” (which receives a similar extended treatment as “My Favorite Things”), playing the somber “Alabama” (a protest against the murder of four African-American girls by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham), introducing two other originals, and a memorable rendition of the ballad “I Want To Talk About You.” The second half of the latter has Coltrane on tenor playing unaccompanied (the only time that he did that on record), creating music that is both adventurous and beautiful.
# 5 – A Love Supreme (Impulse)
Among the gems that John Coltrane recorded for the Impulse label were Live At The Village Vanguard, Newport ’63, Ballads, Crescent, and collaborations with Duke Ellington and singer Johnny Hartman. The album that meant the most to him was A Love Supreme which he regarded as his gift to God. The four-part suite from Dec. 1964 contains spiritual performances that grow in interest with each listen. Get the two-CD Deluxe Edition which also has a few alternate takes plus the only live version (from 1965) that exists.
More Gems from John Coltrane…..
In 1965 John Coltrane gradually changed his focus to lengthy free explorations, recording Ascension (a wild work with seven horn players), Meditations (which added the intense tenor-saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali to the band) and other avant-garde performances. His classic quartet broke up at year end and his new group with Sanders, his wife pianist Alice Coltrane, holdover bassist Jimmy Garrison and Ali performed his brand of very intense music up until the time of his death in 1967. John Coltrane’s duet album with Rashied Ali from Feb. 1967, Interstellar Space, was his last of many gems.
More John Coltrane Albums to check out…..
Coltrane Jazz (1961)
Olé Coltrane (1961)
Live! at the Village Vanguard (1962)
Written by Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author of eleven books including…………