Thursday, December 20, 2018

John Coltrane - 1963: New Directions (Impulse, 2018)

Earlier this year, there was a welcome addition to the discography of John Coltrane with the release of the album New Directions, a previously unreleased 1963 session from the "classic quartet" of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. This follow up collection gathers all of the music from that collection with the rest of the music Coltrane recorded in 1963, including the albums John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Live at Birdland and selections from Dear Old Stockholm and Newport ’63. So it does offer the chance to see Coltrane in motion, the year before he would really begin to burst out with a wave of creativity that would only stop with the the ending of his life. The first disc and a half of this collection is made up of the Directions material, and it is truly fascinating to be a fly on the wall at a hitherto unknown Coltrane session, as they work through some untitled original compositions, four takes at the indelible "Impressions," and the standard "Nature Boy" which would turn up radically changed a few years down the road. The very next day, March 7, they were back at Rudy Van Gelder's studio to record one of my least favorite John Coltrane albums, his collaboration with vocalist Johnny Hartman. Look, I know the suits at Impulse wanted to make him more approachable and that he chose Hartman himself, but it's just not my thing. Hartman sings/croons smooth and slick, you can imagine the cocktail in one hand and the cigarette in the other (he died of lung cancer) just as easily as you can see the record spinning in the background of some hip Mad Men knockoff. But I digress. The band plays with the epitome of subtlety and tact, and Coltrane sneaks in some beautiful if truncated solos. "Dear Old Stockholm" and "After the Rain" come from April 29 with Roy Haynes sitting in for Elvin Jones who was incarcerated, giving the group a slightly lighter and more straight ahead feel, but Haynes is a master under any circumstances, so it's like replacing Bob Gibson with Sandy Koufax. The former is a nice blowing vehicle for the group, but "After the Rain" is one of Coltrane's finest ballads, a performance of heartrending beauty that is a wellspring of emotional resonance. Fast forward to July 7 at the Newport Jazz Festival (Newport '63 Impulse CD) Haynes still on drums for a very exciting set beginning with a wistful "I Want to Talk About You"  incorporating some breathtaking unaccompanied tenor saxophone, and lengthy excursions on "My Favorite Things and "Impressions." Jones finally returns for the Live in Birdland sessions recorded during October and November, and his presence is immediately felt in the live tracks, beginning with a powerful version of "Afro Blue" with a cruising rhythm section interlude before Coltrane returns to put the hammer down and develop a scalding collective improvisation that is felt as much as heard. "I Want to Talk About You" is repeated, once again adding a daredevil solo saxophone improvisation that is vibrant and thrillingly alive, and "The Promise" is the final live track, where Jones effortlessly develops beautiful rhythms, and Tyner sparkles aside Garrison's weighty bass and Coltrane's extraordinary soprano saxophone towers over it all. As impressive as the live tracks are, the most extraordinary track on this "live" album was recorded in the studio. It's another ballad, "Alabama," written after the racist church bombing in Birmingham killed four African American children. It is a sad, quiet tune, but the power and the grace that it represents goes far beyond the world of music and remains one of John Coltrane's towering achievements.1963: New Directions -

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