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Special CD Review: Impulse’s "The New Thing" Series – The Legacy of John Coltrane.

By Brian L. Knight

During the 1960s and 1970s, Impulse records took an exciting step in jazz music and began recording the works of the style’s most innovative players. These musicians were taking their music beyond the standard jazz styles as they were abandoning the melodies of swing and big band and exploring chordal changes and rhythmic beats. This new music often resulted in a sound that was extremely spiritual, with extended solos that went beyond any standard melody. To some, this music was discordant and unpleasant to the ear. To others, the music was a new bold direction for jazz.

No individual typified "The New Thing" than John Coltrane. Born in the small village of Hamlet, North Carolina in 1926, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia in 1943 where he became exposed to incredible music scene of the City of Brotherly Love. Coltrane’s first big step was touring with Dizzy Gillepsie who was exploring new ways to play the trumpet. From one great trumpet player to another, Coltrane moved on to play with Miles Davis’ quintet. It was during these five years with Davis that Coltrane experimented with the sounds of both the tenor and soprano saxophone. Up to that point, the soprano saxophone was a relatively obscure instrument in the world of jazz, which made Coltrane's work both fresh and revolutionary. Coltrane soon became known for his extended solos and his constant references to both Africa and religion. A lot of this has do with the fact that both of his grandfathers were ordained ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Coltrane’s influence has transcended the world of music, as there is now a John W. Coltrane Cultural Society and the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church of San Francisco, California. Both organizations embody the spirit that Coltrane conveyed as the musician. The John W. Coltrane Cultural Society has "taken his words and translated his spiritual energy into building an organization to honor his work and his name." This is accomplished through concerts, lecture series and children’s workshops. The congregation of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church believe that God’s word is conveyed through the music of the ‘Trane. Every sermon consists of playing Coltrane’s classic, "A Love Supreme", and they usually conclude with a frenzied jam session in which the entire congregation sings or jams on their instruments.

Coltrane was not a one-man show of creativity. He always attracted musicians who shared the same spiritual vision. When Coltrane saw a musician play that he felt would complement his own sound, Coltrane would recruit that player. This is how pianist McCoy Tyner eventually joined the ranks of the John Coltrane Quartet. These Impulse re-releases not only chronicle the work of Coltrane but also the musicians who shared the stage with him.

 

 

John Coltrane/Live At The Village Vanguard-The Master Takes

For two weeks in 1961, the legendary John Coltrane Quartet played at the Village Vanguard in New York City. For the final days of the stand, the producer for Impulse Records, Bob Thiele, brought in his recording equipment to the Village Vanguard. His intentions were only to record one night of music, but as soon as he heard the first notes of the quartet, he was sucked in for the remaining sessions. By the end, Thiele had recorded twenty-two different tunes and this album is the cream of the crop.

All 22 tunes can be found on the boxset, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings, and this album can be considered the greatest hits. The special CD box set was released on Coltrane’s birthday – September 23rd, 1997. At the time of the recordings, the John Coltrane consisted of McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet) and Reggie Workman (bass) sat in on selected tracks. It is through these recordings that it is quite evident that the four core musicians were the perfect combination. Tyner’s piano style was a perfect tonal accompaniment to Coltrane’s soloing while Jones and Garrison were able to maintain a perfect tempo throughout Coltrane’s vast explorations.

The first three songs on the CD - Spiritual, Softly as In A Morning Sunrise and Chasin’ Trane were originally released on the April 1962 album - Coltrane Live At The Village Vanguard. The final two selections - Impressions and India - were hand picked by Coltrane himself as his personal favorites from the Vanguard sessions. The sessions were landmark for both Coltrane as an individual and jazz as a whole. The recordings captured Coltrane and his band at a their creative peak as well as narrating the new exploratory directions of jazz.

 

John Coltrane/Living Space

There are so many albums that chronicle John Coltrane’s Quartet at its finest: A Love Supreme, My Favorite Things and the Village Vanguard recordings are on many a music fan’s top ten list. One album that escaped the media scrutiny and was almost lost in time was Living Space. Consisting of the classic quartet of McCoy Tyner (piano) , Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones(drums), Living Space was recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in June of 1965. This album was recorded between the release of A Love Supreme (December 1964) and Meditations (November 1965).

The recording session for Living Space was a case of "Carpe Diem" – Seize the Day. At the onset of the summer of 1965, the veteran quartet had a brief respite from their rigorous touring. Since the quartet loved playing and they always needed a little extra cash, the band decided to head into the studio for an impromptu jam session. The fact that two songs from the session were titled Untitled 90314 and Untitled 90320 was indicative of the looseness of the recording session.

The music that was made during those summer days was lost at the Impulse Studios. Producer Bob Thiele shelved the recordings, not because they were bad, but because he had so many more "official" recordings to handle. As a result of the recordings weren’t released until after Coltrane’s death in 1967. The real gem of the recording is "Last Blues" which was found in Coltrane’s house only recently and Living Space marks the song’s first release ever to the public. A rather appropriate title for the song for it is one the last "new" songs Coltrane fans will get to hear.

 

McCoy Tyner/Reaching Fourth

Coltrane's music and influence carried well beyond the limits of his own band and compositions. Coltrane had an innate ability to identify musicians who shared the same passion as himself. Once located, Coltrane would immediately recruit those players to share the passion, which carried into those players' solo efforts as well. Two such players to accompany Coltrane were pianist McCoy Tyner and multi-instrumentalist Pharoah Sanders.

McCoy Tyner, born in Philadelphia, first started playing the piano at age thirteen and within two years, he was playing the instrument professionally. At age 16, Tyner received a visit from the great Bud Powell who played on his piano in his family’s living room. A year later, he met his future bandleader, John Coltrane. With that type of exponential learning curve and early exposure to greatness, it is hard to imagine how good Tyner is playing these days (Vermont residents witnessed Tyner’s virtuosity firsthand at Burlington’s Jazz Festival in 1997).

Tyner’s first foray into the recording business was his work with Benny Golson and Art Farmer, which was just the tip of the iceberg for Tyner’s playing career. When Tyner joined up with Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and John Coltrane in the mid 1960s, he really shook the world with his playing and immediately became known for his thundering playing style which involved an all out attack on the piano keys.

Like so many other musicians, McCoy Tyner could not stop playing. In addition to his work with Coltrane, he set out to record his own albums as well. On his first album, Inception, Tyner recruited his fellow bandmates from John Coltrane's outfit. This album met immediate critical applause. For his second album, Tyner wanted to start with a fresh slate. The trio for this album was a gathering waiting to happen. McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, and Henry Grimes had all played together in one group or another but Reaching Fourth was the first time they played together as one unit.

 

Pharoah Sanders/Jewels of Thought & Pharoah Sanders/Thembi

Like McCoy Tyner and so many other brilliant musicians, Pharoah Sanders made his first big impact on the jazz scene with his stint with John Coltrane. From 1964-67, Sanders provided Coltrane with the tenor saxophone, flute, and clarinet. Accompanying these instruments was also an incredible amount of creativity and innovation.

Born Ferrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas, Pharoah grew up amidst a family of musical background. With his father, mother and aunt all being music teachers/tutors, it was inevitable that Pharoah would follow a similar path for his future. After a brief stay in Oakland, California, Sanders moved to New York City. Upon his arrival in the Big Apple, Pharoah faced economic struggles, found himself homeless and pawning his horn for food and shelter. After picking up numerous odd jobs, Sanders finally started his own band in 1963. Within a year, Sanders caught John Coltrane’s attention and he began to regularly sit in with the quartet. Eventually Sanders would perform on classic Coltrane albums such as Ascension, Meditations and Cosmic Music. Upon Coltrane’s untimely death in 1967, Sanders set out to record his own albums that would eventually have a tremendous impact on the musical world.

Two of Sander’s 1960s and 1970s albums, Jewel of Thought and Thembi, have been re-released by Impulse. Both albums clearly display Sander’s spiritualism and his love for Africa. Just like John Coltrane, Sanders held a passion for the motherland and showed this passion through his music. The end result is that his albums contain highly rhythmic and extended compositions. Sanders’ enchanting sound is exemplified on Jewel of Thought. Sanders employs the vocals of Leon Thomas who creates a dream-like, meditative trance in the tune The Creator Has A Master Plan. Through this type of music, Sanders was also able to capture the ears of both jazz and rock and roll audiences. Sander’s music was able to cross musical boundaries and appeal to all sorts of listeners. On both Thembi and Jewel of Thought, pianist Sonny Liston Smith appears as Sander’s secret weapon. Years later, Smith would gain mass appeal through his funky organ work as he led the 1970s acid jazz movement. Jewel of Thought and Thembi displays Smith's pre-funky, grand piano days.

These are a just a few of the albums that made it into Impulse’s New Thing Series. It was not simply Coltrane and his colleagues who were taking jazz into directions. The Series also features works by Archie Shepp and Sun Ra who were also known for their innovative approach to music. In addition to the quality of music, the re-releases contain informative liner notes as well as rare photographs. Just pick any CD from the series and be prepared to listen to some of the most exciting jazz to arise out of the 1960s and 1970s.

 

Read about the Coltrane and Davis years here.

There are more some more Coltrane reviews here.