Unquestionably John Coltrane stands as a colossus of modern music. With maybe only the exception of Lisa from The Simpsons, every major sax player has been influenced by him. Space limits forces me to forgo any discussion on Lisa Simpson , but what is quite obvious about Coltrane and his standing amongst non-cartoon musicians is that few can rival it. It is this importance which makes the release of this box set so important. That, and the sheer brilliance of the music it contains.
Many could not comprehend music of such intensity of such brutal beauty
The set is one of four compact discs which comprise the complete recordings of Coltrane and his band playing four nights in November 1961 at New York’s Village Vanguard. Collected together and released in performance order for the first time, you are given the opportunity to hear how Trane develops and grows into his ideas; producing a gig of historic importance (previously the material was scattered over 5 separately released albums with three tracks available here for the first time). This was a key moment in the growth of his music. Over those few days Coltrane laid out for the world to hear where he was going after leaving Miles Davies. It shocked a few audiences and angered a few more critics. Many could not comprehend music of such intensity of such brutal beauty. This was the set which introduced Chasin’ the Trane, an improvised number over fifteen minutes; and improvisations of length were far from the norm in 1961. Indeed, it would take a couple of years for both Coltrane and impulse to recover from the critical mauling he had received. But then, so much for critics.
By bringing together he recordings you are able to hear how the interpretations of the numbers altered from night to night. Thus allowing you to experience the jazz players art of constantly redefining a tune. So, for example, India, was played on each night, but yet it is never the same, or even similar. Coltrane has a different thing to say with his soprano sax on each occasion. On two of the nights he is joined by Abdul-Malik on our and Gavin Bushell on obe. For me these are the more satisfying of the versions as they give the track a slightly more Eastern feel (without losing the jazz basis of the composition).
The collection also allows you to hear the movement of the musicians to and from the stage, with Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman sharing the duties on the double bass and Eric Dolphy dropping out for five of the twenty-two tracks.
The trio use a simple blues riff to improvise around, weaving a hypnotic spell whilst assaulting all your senses
With Chasin the Trane on the on the second night you hear Dolphy join in for just the very last night. For the remainder, it is just the trio of Trane, Garrison and Elvin Jones on drums. The trio use a simple blues riff to improvise around, weaving a hypnotic spell whilst assaulting all your senses. The superb sound quality enhances the calibre playing and makes it so real that you believe that you can actually touch the music. Jones is especially good, with his drumming placed upfront in the mix as he partners Trane, maintaining the temp. This track and Miles Mode are quite possibly the best moments of the collection.
The fact is though, that all the musicians play to the highest standard and it is difficult to pick out highlights. But then, let us be indulgent: Trane’s blowing on the ballad Naima is beautiful; and his soloing on Spiritual is as the title suggests. He starts the tune on tenor before Dolphy takes over and then finishes on soprano. McCoy Tyner’s piano is another ever present feature of the collection (well, he’s not on every track but you get my drift) with my two personal favourites being largely standard workings of Softly As In A Morning Sunrise and the number played only on the first date, Brasilia (formally known as United Original on the 1977 release The Other Village Vanguard Tapes). Dolphy on alto sax and bass clarinet is another who in top form and, if nothing else, this collection shows what an essential ingredient he was to mid-period Coltrane (just hear him on Miles’ Mode!).
Sonically, the quality has the assertive feel which is required. Seventeen of the twenty-two tracks have been taken from the original tapes, with the remaining ones derived from second generation LP masters. But call me audio-dullard (and the editor does) but I can hear little difference between them. This whole set plays wonderfully between them. Because it is a live recording you do occasionally pick up some stage talk and more often applause, and there is some minor image shifting due to the musicians moving on stage. But that’s live performances for you; what do you want, Madame Tussaud’s?
Finally, for your cash you get all this in superb packaging which contains detailed recording and biographical information, a number of fine photographs and some still illustrations. This is a box set which glories in its music. And the music is glorious.