John Coltrane (tenor sax, soprano sax)
McCoy Tyner / Hank Jones / Cedar Walton / Tommy Flannagan / Wynton Kelly (piano)
Paul Chambers / Steve Davis / Charlie Hadden/ Percy Heath /Reggie Workman (bass)
Elvin Jones / Connie Kay/ Lex Humphries, Art Taylor / Jimmy Cobb / Ed Blackwell (drums)
Milt Jackson (vibes)
Don Cherry / Freddie Hubbard (trumpet)
Eric Dolphy (flute & alto sax)
Recorded between 15th January 1959 and 26th October 1960 in New York City
Disc 1: Stairway to the Stars; The Late, Late Blues; Bags & Trane; Three Little Words; The Night They Called It a Day;Be-Bop; Blues Legacy; Centerpiece; Giant Steps (alternate version); Naima (alternate version); Like Sonny (alternate version).
Disc 2: Spiral; Countdown; Countdown (alternate take); Syeeda’s Song Flute; Ssyeeda’s Song F;ute (alternate take); Mr P.C.; Giant Steps, Cousin Mary; Cousin Mary (alternate take); I’ll Wait and Prey; I’ll wait and Prey (alternate take); Little Old Lady.
Disc 3: Like Sonny; Harmonique; Mt Shining Hour; Naima; Some Other Blues; Fifth House; Cherryco; The Blessing; Focus On Sanity; The Invisible; Bermsha Swing.
Disc 4: Village Blues; Village Blues (alternate take); My Favorite Things; Central Park West; My Syms; Untitled Original (Exotica) Summertime; Body and Soul; Body and Soul (alternate take); Mr Knight.
Disc 5: Blues to Elvin (alternate take); Blues To Elvin; Mr Day; Blues To You (alternate take); Blues To You; Blues To Bechet; Satellite; Everytime We say Goodbye; 26-2; But Not For Me.
Disc 6: Liberia; The Night Has A Thousand Eyes; Equinox; Ole; Dahomey Dance; Aisha; Original Untitled Ballad (To Her Ladyship).
Disc 7: Outakes of Giant Steps; Naima; Like Sonny; Blues To Elvin.
John Coltrane’s solo on “So What’ on “Kind of Blue” can be seen as the jumping off point for the major achievements he was to make in the coming seven years; a time of outstanding innovation and creativity. He has learned from Miles: “ Due to the free flowing lines of his music, I found it easy to apply the harmonic ideas that I had…. Miles’ music gave me plenty of freedom. It’s a beautiful approach.” He had also spent a spell working with Thelonious Monk in 1957 and had also learned from him:” Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way…. I would talk to Monk about musical problems and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them.”
Miles was a great encourager of his band members to establish their own careers while staying in his band. In that way he gave a soft start to the careers of so many of the great jazz performers of the sixties, seventies and eighties. John Coltrane eventually took his chance to break free completely with a recording contract with Atlantic. “The Heavyweight Champion” brings together in a seven disc collection the whole of Coltrane’s recording with the label. It is a very powerful record of a major artist in a period of innovation and transition and contains some of the best jazz ever recorded. The takes from these sessions were turned by Atlantic into no fewer that ten album releases, some of them made after his death in 1967. The albums are:
“Giant Steps” (1960); “Coltrane Jazz” (1961); “My Favorite Things” (1961); “Bags and Trane” (1961); “Ole Coltrane” (1962); “Coltrane Plays The Blues” (1962); “Coltrane’s Sound” (1964); “The Avant-Garde” (1966); “The Coltrane Legacy” (1970); “Alternate Takes” (1975).
“The Heavyweight Champion” contains the music from all of these albums together with an additional disc of outtakes and very good documentation that includes an in depth article by Lewis Potter, “John Coltrane: The Atlantic Years”, from which the above quotes are taken. .
So, how to describe this wonderful music? John Coltrane moves beyond the modal approach pioneered in “Kind of Blue”. He innovates by drawing on other scale forms (for example a modified version of the pentatonic scale) and experiments with building his own scales by stacking together chords on a common tonality. He takes on board Ornette Coleman’s “harmolodics” (as investigated on the “Coltrane Ole” sessions). He ventures into African and Indian sounding scales. As a bi-product of this approach, he starts to make much more use of soprano saxophone since it gives him sounds more like African instruments. This all anticipates by a decade or more the awareness of the different musics of the world that would emerge from the cultural redefinition that would be set off by the late sixties / early seventies youth rebellion and would eventually find a place in fully opening up pop music following the Beatles’ breakthrough into the mainstream.
Yet for John Coltrane this is no easy transition. It is a music formed from an intense personal struggle and one that foreshadows a wider, greater social struggle. For a number of years he had been fighting the twin problems of heroin and alcohol addiction. This had got so bad in 1956 that Miles Davis was forced to rest John from the Miles Davis band. He had overcome these addictions and had used music as a means of transcending the low esteem that comes with addiction. His music becomes informed by the knowledge of strength and single mindedness that is required to prevail over these personal problems. And there is also real outrage and anger at the nature of the wider human condition and in particular the position of Black Americans in the early 1960s. It is difficult to recall now that large parts of the US were segregated along racial lines and that in many states blacks were disenfranchised by not appearing on the electoral role. Even a man of Miles Davis’ stature was not immune from the routine racism, being beaten up on night while taking a break outside during a gig. Not to mention the treatment of Bud Powell. Part of the sense of anger in John Coltrane’s music is connected with the outrage he feels at this state of affairs. Using modal and scalar devices he deconstructs safe, secure, acceptable songs like “My Favorite Things” and reconstructs them with a ferocity of invention and sheer brilliance of musical ingenuity into a wholly new realisation that symbolises the simple truth that life can and should be different. The distance between the safe prissiness of Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” enumerating her completely blinkered understanding of what is important ("Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens........." ) to John Coltrane’s deconstruction / reconstruction is a million miles musically and conceptually. And in later years (after moving to Impulse!) he would take on similar targets; seemingly trivial mind sets such as the almost unredeemable “The Inch Worm” or the plainly awful “Chim Chim Cheree” and transcend them.
It was a huge departure for jazz. Many of the best jazz critics of the time denounced it as destructive “anti-jazz”. Of course, as with Miles Davis, as with Thelonious Monk, the language of jazz was being extended, enriched.
Beyond these virtuosic acts of deconstruction and reconstruction, John Coltrane also emerges as a composer and interpreter of unique talent. The words that come to almost everyone's mind when listening to his music are: honesty, trust, truth, integrity, sprituality, strength........... His “Giant Steps” is the benchmark piece for any tenor sax player; his ballad to his wife “Naima” is one of the most beautiful themes in any music; his reworking of standards such as “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” or ‘Summertime” reveal new musical horizons. Importantly this period saw the development of musical ideas that would lead to the great works that were to emerge following John’s move to Impulse! in 1961.
“The Heavyweight Champion” also reveals a further more minor insight, now only available in the world of digital music and high capacity CDs. What we see is how an artist like John Coltrane really participated in a number of sessions rather than mainly setting out to make a series of albums as such. His sessionography with Atlantic for 1959 and 1960 is brilliantly and completely documented in “The Heavyweight Champion”. His producer Nesuhi Ertegen harvested the products of these sessions and the result is the seven successful albums released before 1964 (and the three later albums). With this well documented release we are taken inside this process and given a clear picture of one man’s creativity and its development in this intense two year period.
Star rating: *****
Related reviews: John Coltrane "The Classic Quartet" John Coltrane "Live At The Village Vanguard" Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane "At Carnegie Hall" John Coltrane "One Down One Up"
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Other useful information on John Coltrane:
John Coltrane Complete Discography and Sessionography
John Coltrane - My Favorite Things
John Coltrane, Avant Garde Jazz,
and the Evolution of "My Favorite Things" by Scott Anderson
Audio podcast interviewing jazz greats on their recollections of John Coltrane
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