Monday, August 6, 2018


Much excitement greeted the news of the discovery of this previously-unheard music from Coltrane. For his fans, it's the same as, say, a full unknown Beatles album uncovered from 1965, or a Robert Johnson 78 from 1936. It's from his most important era, 1963, when he was leading his so-called Classic Quartet, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and drummer Elvin Jones. That's right after My Favorite Things, and just before A Love Supreme. Coltrane was by this point a star, albeit a controversial one, with free jazz dividing the jazz community.

Recording sessions were very different events then, not spread over days and weeks, with parts layered on multiple tracks. Bands went in, played complete takes and in Coltrane's case, planned to make an album in one day's work. Exactly why this day's work at Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio didn't result in an album is now guesswork, but considering there were four other Coltrane albums released that year, including one with vocalist Johnny Hartman recorded the very next day, it might simply have been too much of a good thing.

The tapes remained on the shelf until Coltrane's untimely death in 1967, when Van Gelder handed over everything he had to the record label. Those were shipped to storage in Los Angeles, and classic bureaucratic thinking, all non-master tapes were destroyed to save space. As luck would have it, Coltrane was also given second, mono copies of his day's work when he left the studio. Those he had given to his first wife to hear, and decades later, that's why we get to hear them as well.

It's remarkable what can be done in a few hours, when you have a band at full stride. The quartet was just finishing a two-week run at Birdland, and had been playing some of this material, including one of Coltrane's major live works, Impressions. He was also working on versions of two well-known melodies, Nat King Cole's Nature Boy, and Vilia, best known as an Artie Shaw big band number. There were also untitled pieces, or at least those titles weren't recorded and aren't obvious now. Added up, the different selections would make an album. For this release, the different full takes done by the group are here as well, adding up to nearly 90 minutes, spread over two discs. Before you worry about wading through different takes of the same tune, a practice which bogs down so many retrospective rock albums, remember that this is a group of improvisational genius. On some takes, Tyner doesn't play, leaving the solos to Coltrane. On others, he switches from tenor to soprano sax. The group never plays it the same way twice.

As for the music, it's a fascinating session where Coltrane plays some old, some new, some conservative, some ground-breaking, both playing it safe and stretching. He was willing to be more accessible, but also wanted to take his music and perhaps his audience further. That's quite a day's work. Coltrane fans are making a fuss, and for good reason. It's providing a clearer picture of a crucial time for one of the giants of jazz.

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