Tuesday, November 06, 2007

John Coltrane – The Complete Impulse Albums, Vol.1 (Impulse! 2007)

With my collection of John Coltrane LP's getting a little long in the tooth, I decided to pick up this discount boxed set of his first five albums on Impulse. The five discs are Africa/Brass, Live at the Village Vanguard, Ballads, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, and Coltrane. All of these albums are shorn of the extra tracks and alternative takes that have come out on previous reissues. The box claims that all of the albums ave been remastered (does this mean re-remastered?) and they do sound good. The packaging leaves a little but to be desired, however with each of the albums coming in it's own cardboard case, which I normally like, except in this case the original liner notes are re-produced on the inside cardboard in such a small mirco-font that they are unreadable.

Packaging quibbles aside, the music itself is of course extraordinary, and familiar to most jazz fans. It's nice to listen to this wonderful music again with fresh ears. Africa/Brass was Coltrane's first recording as a leader with a large ensemble, with the charts written by Eric Dolphy and McCoy Tyner. The epic length “Africa” dominates with Coltrane improvising against a velvet dark backdrop and wonderful percussive work from Elvin Jones. The ancient standard “Greensleeves” is a wonderful soprano saxophone feature. Live at the Village Vanguard contains the epic blues improvisation “Chasin' the Trane” that breaks down into a storming free duet with Coltrane and Elvin Jones. It is an extraordinary performance as is the haunting “Spiritual” with Eric Dlophy sitting in on bass clarinet. Ballads and Duke Ellington and John Coltrane were made during producer Bob Thiele's attempt to bring Coltrane back to the mainstream after accusations of playing “anti-jazz.” The record with Ellington is a joyous encounter, erasing any doubt of the great men's compatibility. Duke's line “Take the Coltrane” is a launching pad for a furious yet swinging improvisation. The whole album is a model of pithy swinging jazz and under Ellington's influence, Coltrane began to move away from recording multiple takes of each tune to a more spontaneous recording style. Ballads takes the pithy style to it's logical extreme, with performances clocking in at 3-4 minutes and Coltrane sticking to the melody in a vocal style. The box set leaves off with the simply titled Coltrane which strikes a balance between the minimal and the exploratory. Wonderful takes of Mal Waldron's composition “Soul Eyes” and the open-ended “Miles Mode” are standouts.

It will be interesting to see if MCA/Impulse will continue this series. Volume 2 would probable cover the collaboration with Johnny Hartman through A Love Supreme, and then things would get interesting as some of the more caustic free albums would come into play on a supposed Volume 3. Since each of these records has been released before, one more than one occasion, I am curious to see if enough copies of this will sell to make continued sets viable. As the authors of the Penguin Guide to Jazz have asked, just how many ways can you cut this particular salami?

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