Monday, March 09, 2009

John Coltrane - The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse, 1961, 1997)

Tenor and soprano saxophonist John Coltrane had recently signed with the newly formed Impulse! record label and settled on what wold be his greatest band featuring pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones when these epochal recordings were committed to tape in 1961. Coltrane's friend and colleague Eric Dolphy sits in on several performances on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, adding another unique solo voice and added texture in the ensemble passages. Only three performances were released on the original LP, with the remainder trickling out over the years on different albums and compilations. Gathered here on one four-disc set and nicely remastered, it is clear that Coltrane's band was the state of the art at that time, and threw down a gauntlet that few have approached in the intervening years. There are relatively few compositions on this set, and each is given multiple performances, allowing the listener to see how the band developed different improvisations for each composition as the time went on. The headlong rush of the tenor saxophone features "Chasin' the Trane" and "Impressions" still leave me amazed even though I have heard them many times. The sixteen minute version of "Chasin'" that was featured as side two of the original LP is still in my mind one of the most amazing and audacious accomplishments in the history of jazz. Tyner lays out and Garrison is drowned out as Coltrane and Jones break free of structure and reach for the stars. This was one of the things that led tin-eared critics to label Coltrane as a deliberately ugly "anti-jazz" musician, but closer listening reveals this to be an awesome, logical and inherently beautiful piece of music. "Impressions" would become one of the pieces that all future tenor saxophonists would measure themselves against, and the performances here are blistering examples of saxophone mastery. Like many musicians of the period, Coltrane was interested in the sounds produced by people of other countries and this led him to compose the beautiful "India" which receives several exploratory readings allowing Coltrane and Dolphy to continue their search for new sounds unabated, as do the performances of "Spiritual" which review the gospel tradition and the standard "Greensleves" which is a haunting feature for soprano saxophone. The music here is so much larger than life it is hard to believe that it was created by mortal beings in the basement club or a concrete and steel city. One of the high water marks of modern jazz, the music presented here is absolutely life affirming.
The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings -

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