When I first heard that a recently discovered John Coltrane was being released, I didn’t have high expectations. I mean, I’ve heard collectors state emphatically that if Coltrane farted on record, they’d listen. I eschewed it, assuming that it was poorly recorded or perhaps the playing was so underwhelming as to merit its being tossed aside, or perhaps most blasphemously, just too many notes for too many notes’ sake.
I certainly stand corrected. This is a good listen. And not just for the staunch Coltrane devotee, but for any casual listener or individual looking for their introduction to Coltrane’s sound. In fact, it may be perfect for just that point, as it straddles between two of Cotrane’s transformative periods. The recordings may actually be more reflective of what he was achieving through his concert performances than what he conceded to in the studio during this time period (i.e. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman).
I’d like to refer to this as a “collection” rather than an album (without diminishing its value whatsoever). Compiled by Ravi Coltrane and studio exec Ken Druker from a number of tapes that Coltrane’s first wife, Jaunita Naima, once had possession of, there seem to be two offerings…a standard single album and a deluxe double album consisting of alternative takes to the primary disk. I’ll trust Ravi’s judgement over mine, but what gets included in any posthumous release is always subjective.
The collection opens with “Untitled Original 11383”. Both reminiscent of 1961’s “My Favorite Things”, and at times hinting towards 1965’s “A Love Supreme” (suggestive of the second track “Resolution” in particular). Coltrane leans on his soprano sax for this one. A simple, bluesy melodic and harmonic construct quickly turns into a flurry of notes, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones pushing the tune hard beneath Coltrane. (I believe that Garrison may have just recently joined on bass, completing the ‘Classic Quartet’.) McCoy Tyner’s piano is typically brilliant both in his block-chord accompaniment and his own dizzying flourish of notes when it’s his time to solo. Jimmy Garrison blows through an equally brilliant bowed bass solo, a feature typically called for by Coltrane during this period. This is a true highlight.
The band performs “Nature Boy“ as if it’s a deeply exotic discovery rather than a Nat King Cole standard. It’s a fascinating perspective, with some remnants from Coltrane’s Sheets of Sound period as he augments the standard melody with a flourish of melodic embellishments, eventually allowing the tune to trail off to a very drone-like vamp from bass and drums.
“Untitled Original 11386“ dances between a latin A-section and straight-swing B section, leading directly into the solos. Again on soprano sax, Coltrane’s range on this extends well into the upper register. “Slow Blues“ is implicative of his 1960 Coltrane Plays the Blues album (another fine jumping-off point for any aspiring Coltrane or post-bop jazz fan). As the title suggests, the tune begins with your standard slow-blues feel, but there’s a very interesting (and successful) move to a double-time feel midway through McCoy Tyner’s piano solo, which continues through to the end of the song. “One Up, One Down“ ends the ‘proper’ album, and really takes off with the quickest tempos so far (I’m not sure if Tyner is intentionally laying down at points, or was unable to maintain). Elvin Jones’ drumming is particularly notable on this track, with a lot of solo room granted him.
“Impressions“ would go on to become one of Coltrane’s more canonical tunes. On this collection, you can hear the genesis of that composition (a number of times, with four different versions). Interestingly I prefer one of the ‘alternative’ versions from the deluxe collection to that featured on the primary album. On “Impressions Take 1” (from the deluxe offering) Coltrane lands his notes much more strongly, while he can be heard to falter much throughout the “Take 3” version. I also prefer the soprano-performed version of “Vilia“ over the version from the ‘primary’ disc (again, a benefit of the streaming era is that one can compose their own subjective song cycles, à la the personal playlist.)
There may not be anything historic or heroic unearthed with this collection. There is, however, a lot of good listening. It may not be as lofty as things to come, but it’s instantly attainable. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of two key periods in Coltrane’s career, recorded at a time when record execs were suggesting that he record material more friendly to the marketplace. To those who have digested all they can from the key recordings from the early-to-mid sixties, this is something new and worthwhile. To those who don’t know where to commence their Coltrane journey, this is as good a start as most (unless ambition dictates that you jump right into Coltrane’s Om).
Untitled Original 11383
Untitled Original 11386
One Up, One Down
*I’m rating this solely in the context of Coltrane’s Classic Quartet’s other recordings. A comparison to any other group, outside of Mile’s Second Great Quintet, is just not fair!