Recording dates: 1st – 5th November 1961
Recording Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder
20 Bit remastering: 1997
John Coltrane (soprano & tenor saxophones)
Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone, bass clarinet)
Garvin Bushell (oboe, contrabassoon)
Ahmed Abdul-Malik (oud)
McCoy Tyner (piano);
Reggie Workman, Jimmy Garrison (bass)
Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes (drums)
DISC 1: India, Chasin' The Trane, Impressions, Spiritual, Miles' Mode, Naima
DISC 2: Brasilia, Chasin' Another Trane, India, Spiritual, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise
DISC 3: Chasin' The Trane, Greensleeves, Impressions, Spiritual, Naima, Impressions
DISC 4: India, Greensleeves, Miles' Mode, India, Spiritual
It is now over 50 years since John Coltrane's death. Back in November 1961 and at the height of his musical imagination, he was touring with an experimental band that included the Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone and bass clarinet) in addition to the great quartet line-up (John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones). It was good fortune that the group was booked to play five nights at New York's Village Vanguard and even greater good fortune that Bob Thiele (John Coltrane's new producer at Impulse!) had the foresight to arrange for the sessions to be recorded by Rudy Van Gelder. The result is four and half hours of groundbreaking improvised jazz of the highest importance.
John Coltrane's fast developing musical imagination is given the most conducive conditions in which to shine. Unlike so many of his recorded live performances where you are left in awe of the music but wishing that you could have heard it with the clarity in which it was performed, here the Village Vanguard venue (as with Bill Evans' and Sonny Rollins' fine recorded performances there) really does seem to have delivered the best of both worlds – the sound quality of a recording studio (with fine audio quality, enhanced by 20-bit remapping in 1997) and the rapport and communication between the performers and a small but intent audience.
This is a rich sound tapestry with John Coltrane switching regularly between tenor and soprano saxes, Eric Dolphy alternating between alto sax and bass clarinet and McCoy Tyner providing open voiced piano with glittering runs and blocked chords. Further adventure is provided on a number of the performances by Garvin Bushell playing oboe and contrabassoon and by Ahmed Abdul-Malik playing oud, a drone-producing African version of the guitar. Contrabassoon is used to provide what must be the lowest register notes ever heard on a jazz recording. Rhythmic underpinning is provided by Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison playing bass (John Coltrane was experimenting with groups featuring two bass players at this time) and, of course, the searing, near brutal attack of Elvin Jones on drums. And as Michael Cuscuna's enquiries with Jimmy Garrison revealed, Roy Haynes also sat in on drums on "Chasin' Another Trane".
The musical approach in some ways follows John Coltrane's first recording on his move from Atlantic to Impulse!, the "Africa /Brass Sessions" which had been recorded in his studio by Rudy Van Gelder in May and June of 1961 in which the basic Quartet had been supplemented by the more conventional brass additions of Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little (trumpets) and Julian Priester and Charles Greenlee (trombones) as part of a seventeen piece ensemble. But here at the Village Vanguard, the line-up, though enhanced, is very much less standard and more in keeping with the early development of a project to recover in jazz (and for the blues more generally) a world perspective and tradition that includes African and Oriental modalities.
What is clear is that during the forty years since John Coltrane's death, it is only very recently that the full dimension and scale of his work in this period is being realized. With so much material 'in the vault' Impulse! raided the store repeatedly and at times almost randomly to winnow out 'new' albums. Five of these performances featured on the original "Live At The Village Vanguard" album released in 1962. One of the versions of "Impressions" headlined on an album of that name released in 1963. Much later more of this material featured on "The Other Village Vanguard Tapes" (1977), "Trane's Modes" (1979) and "From The Original Master Tapes"(1985). Meanwhile, material owing its origins to these sessions (including a version of "Brasilia") appeared on the 1965 release "The John Coltrane Quartet Plays". We have had to wait until 1995 for "The Complete Africa / Brass Sessions". This release of "The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings" in 1997 finally completed the picture and the excellently researched booklet notes (by David A Wild) comprehensively set the record straight over the correct track titles and who played on each take (not fully known until 1997).
Within this picture, good things have happened. The small UK budget record label Castle Communications in 1995 signed a deal with GRP records and MCA Records to release two 70 minute CDs of John Coltrane's music in this period under the titles "John Coltrane - The Collection (Volumes 1 and 2)". And at a bargain price it was possible to engage with 140 minutes of this breathtaking music, including a still hard to source version of "After The Rain". It is not an exaggeration to say that the Castle Communications releases were the key introduction to John Coltrane's music for many.
"The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings" features eight original compositions by John Coltrane and a single standard, the Romberg –Hammerstein composition "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise", played as a trio piece featuring McCoy Tyner and then finished of with a soprano saxophone solo by John Coltrane of penetrating beauty.
Of the eight John Coltrane originals, much can be said about the way in which each version skillfully explores different aspects of the extended Quartet's capabilities, meaning that there is almost no redundancy in the different takes. But perhaps more significantly, this music is a collaboration between John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. The two had been discussing music theory and new possibilities in modal music for some time. Eric Dolphy had played a significant role as arranger for the Africa / Brass sessions and while still unacknowledged here it is almost certain that he had strong input as arranger on many of the Village Vanguard takes. More generally, he is credited with introducing bass clarinet as a jazz instrument.
Not everyone 'got' this music. UK critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that John Coltrane's playing around this time was "superficially stimulating, lonely, and rather pathetic self-seeking" (Down Beat August 6, 1959) and that his solos displayed "overtones of neurotic compulsion and contempt for the audience" (Down Beat April 14, 1960) and later, on hearing the John Coltraqne / Eric Dolphy collaboration, he called this music "anti-jazz". Though this is now an old controversy, it did have a negative effect on John Coltrane's career and perhaps explains the time it has taken for the seminal music of this period to see the light of day in coherent form. Immediately after the Village Vanguard sessions, the group set off on an acclaimed tour of Europe. They returned to the US surprised to find the "anti-jazz" argument raging. Bob Thiele, John Coltrane's producer at Impulse! has acknowledged that the label moved to quieten the critics. The 1963 albums "Ballads", "Duke Ellington and John Coltrane" and "John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman" all concentrated on the conventional and the less challenging of aspects of John Coltrane's music (and it can be heard that he is clearly uncomfortable to have his music downscaled in his way). The most productive link with Eric Dolphy was broken. Eric Dolphy went on to work with Charles Mingus, Gunther Schuller and others before dying tragically aged just 36 in Berlin in June 1964 from a diabetic coma.
It is almost impossible to select highlights from music of such quality and innovation.
The two versions of "India" with John Coltrane's soprano sax harmonizing with Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet and with oud and piano combining to produce the drone like underpinnings of Indian raga normally heard on sitar (and to be discovered in the pop world some eight years later when George Harrison listened to and met Ravi Shankar) are as intensely beautiful and transcendent as they are innovatory. In the second take, Garvin Bushel is added on oboe.
The two versions of "Naima", this time with John Coltrane on tenor sax harmonizing with Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet over a more conventional piano/bass/drums backing, head the list for sheer beauty, the more so when Eric Dolphy's long and involving bass clarinet solos unfurl.
"Impressions", which David A Wilde tells us began life as a version of Miles Davis "So What" (on which John Coltrane played on "Kind Of Blue") but has evolved into a modal masterpiece deserving of a name of its own, is outstanding for its sheer technical brilliance in all three versions. The track released on the "Impressions" album features just the basic John Coltrane Quartet, but an earlier, more frenetic version includes Eric Dolphy on alto sax and a later version has extended soloing from John Coltrane.
"Greensleeves", said by some to have been written by King Henry VIII, may seem an unlikely choice for a modal workout on soprano saxophone yet as with "My Favorite Things" or "The Inch Worm" or "Chim,Chim Cheree" what has become trite can be recovered by radical deconstruction. Both versions feature the basic Coltrane/Tyner/Workman/Jones quartet, the first with plenty of space for an extended piano solo from McCoy Tyner. The second version is taken somewhat more slowly but aims at a greater intensity once Soprano sax returns after the piano solo.
"Brasilia" presents extensive solos in dorian mode from tenor sax, alto sax and piano over a loping bass from Reggie Workman and driving drums from Elvin Jones. The theme was returned to in 1965 on "The John Coltrane Quartet Plays".
"Miles Mode" also has John Coltrane on tenor sax and the quartet augmented with Eric Dolphy on alto sax. The second version has the same instrumentation but includes both Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison on bass. Both versions contain some of John Coltrane's most adventurous playing in all these sessions. Once again on alto sax, Eric Dolphy is only just inside and is close to free jazz.
The two remaining originals "Chasin' The Trane" (three versions) and "Spiritual" (four versions) illustrate the breadth of the music.
"Chasin' The Trane" (and its near variant "Chasin' Another Trane") is an initially untitled and unpreconceived long blues that was eventually named at the suggestion of Rudy Van Gelder. The first version has Eric Dolphy on alto sax and Reggie Workman on bass, Elvin Jones on drums and, notably, perhaps in an echo of Sonny Rollins work with a pianoless quartet, no place for McCoy Tyner. As Sonny Rollins had demonstrated, the absence of piano opens up the space for saxophone. The second version replaces Reggie Workman with Jimmy Garrison and again is a pianoless quartet but now Eric Dolphy does not appear (save to play a single note at the end). The Eric Dolphy improvisations on alto sax in the first version are even closer to free jazz than John Coltrane's but the blues form, though pushed to new limits, is extended rather than overturned. Throughout both versions John Coltrane is challenging from the start, aided by Elvin Jones' completely committed drumming. "Chasin' Another Trane" is a lighter, slower, more approachable blues, more recognizable as a standard blues but still with room for both John Coltrane on tenor sax and Eric Dolphy on alto sax to develop challenging lines. Again it is pianoless and, perhaps accounting for the change in mood, Roy Haynes has replaced Elvin Jones on drums. Though altogether more conventional, the reach is still considerable.
The four versions of "Spiritual" offer some of the most accessible and warm hearted takes in all these performances. The theme is remembered by John Coltrane from research that he had been doing on spirituals and other American music forms. In the first version, against a loping, uplifting backing, soprano sax, bass clarinet and piano take turns with freewheeling improvistion. By version two, the coloration is initially somewhat darker with the addition of Garvin Bushell playing contrabassoon but those low, low underpinnings are reserved only for the opening and closing themes and the sense of well being reasserts itself. In version three, the lightness returns as contrabasoon is omitted and the piece is taken at a slower, more meditative pace, suggesting greater introspection. Version four, an over twenty minute outpouring that completes these discs, is full of potency and omen as throughout contrabasoon maintains a lower and lower, almost growling presence.
It seems almost redundant to talk of influences on John Coltrane's playing at this stage. Coleman Hawkins' take on "Body And Soul" or Sidney Bechet's use of soprano sax have all been totally surpassed as John Coltrane creates a second voice in his playing on both tenor and soprano saxes by blowing overtones of rare complexity. At the same time, Eric Dolphy's playing of bass clarinet (especially on "Naima" and "Spiritual'), though always on the edge of drifting into free jazz, is equally outstanding.
The highlighting of this music and its listing as one of the 100 greatest jazz albums of all time is a tribute to these two fine and influential musicians.
Star Rating *****
Related reviews: John Coltrane "The Heavyweight Champion" John Coltrane "The Classic Quartet" Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane "At Carnegie Hall" John Coltrane "One Down One Up"
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John Coltrane Complete Discography and Sessionography
John Coltrane, Avant Garde Jazz, and the Evolution of "My Favorite Things" by Scott Anderson
"The Classic Quartet"
"The Heavyweight Champion"
John Coltrane overview
John Fordham's homage to John Coltrane
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