Coltrane: The Atlantic Years

Sometimes overshadowed by the weight of the Impulse catalog, Coltrane’s work on Atlantic is no less ambitious. It tells the transition from complicated bop to the stretched-out modal pieces, and there’s a load of variety in these albums. Of course, his Impulse work was always in transition as well - that’s just the nature of this artist. The Atlantic sides balance a “work in progress” feel with a sense of arrival, from the “Giant Steps” challenges to the transcendent areas of “Naima” or “Ole”. Most of it is essential listening.

Bags & Trane
Jan. 1959

This is a pretty even collaboration and not a shabby way for Coltrane to say hello to his new label. Hank Jones, Paul Chambers, and Connie Kay are the feelgood rhythm section. The sound and style of Milt Jackson’s vibes dominates the album, though Coltrane cuts through with some of his finest first period playing. Almost every solo entry he makes is a dramatic one. It’s a good benchmark for his blues playing, because anyone who can hold their own in a 12-bar alongside the ultra-fluid vibraphonist has got it together. Jackson’s original material includes the blues-noir “Bags and Trane” and the catchy “Late Late Blues”, and there’s Dizzy’s “Be-Bop” for good measure. A couple of standards flesh it out. Although not the sort of album to go forming a group over, it’s a completely enjoyable one-off, especially for listeners who like hearing Coltrane’s traditional roots. Three extra tracks from the session have appeared elsewhere, including a short and sweet “Stairway to the Stars”. All are in the Atlantic boxset.

Giant Steps
May-Dec. 1959

Coltrane’s quest for improv challenges led to his “Giant Steps” chord changes, a methodical application of thirds-based chord movement that was his major contribution to jazz theory. It wasn’t new to see chords in these particular alignments, incidentally at least, but Coltrane was the first to so deliberately explore the area. Something like:

[Em7 - A7 - Dmaj7] over four bars would become, via Trane’s superimposition:

[Em7 - F7 - B flat maj7 - D flat7 - G flat maj7 - A7 - Dmaj7] in the same amount of time.

For those not in the know, those original chords have several common tones and are fairly easy to navigate in sequence, while Coltrane’s substitutions make for a much trickier course that will crash anyone on autopilot. Coltrane applied these ideas to both originals and reworked standards, most famously the title track of this album, which has its own thirds-based matrix. Apart from the theoretical challenge of the piece, what’s good is that it is listenable as well, with an engaging melody pulled from the chord tones. Trane had a lot of quick licks prepared in advance for his solo, but there are moments where he sings across the changes, rather than tracing them all with scale fragments. In other words, “Giant Steps” is balanced between a technical study and an exhilarating bop piece, and it can be heard either way. (Or both.) Even more thrilling is “Countdown”, which uses the above chord substitution example to complicate the popular “Tune Up” and which Coltrane takes as a frantic tenor/drums duet until a rallying melody appears at the end.

A short detour there into technical matters to hint at what’s going on in Coltrane’s music at this time. Giant Steps is his first full album of originals, with support from Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers, and Art Taylor. (Except on “Naima”, which has the Kelly-Chambers-Cobb rhythm trio). Along with the daunting “Giant Steps” and “Countdown”, the other material maintains the same edge, including the minor blues blitz “Mr. P.C.” and the long-lined “Syeeda’s Song Flute”. “Spiral” is slightly abstract, countered by the happy blues “Cousin Mary”, while the gorgeous “Naima” almost steals the whole show. “Naima” is a stately peace piece that goes beyond being just a ‘ballad’, and the sincerity in Coltrane’s horn foretells his Impulse tone poems. Here, it works as an antidote to the more aggressive material.

Giant Steps is a busy, advanced record. In a sense, Coltrane was working out his obsessions on wax, as in the dizzying shower of notes on “Countdown” (the alternate take is twice as long), and that’s what I think of when this album is mentioned - lots of notes. It summarizes what Coltrane had learned from bop and how he added to it. And just to frame part of his journey: can you imagine a more fundamentally opposite record to A Love Supreme?

Coltrane Jazz
Nov. 1959 - Oct. 1960

A generic title for a catchall album. The session with Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb that produced the last album’s “Naima” also produced seven of these tracks, with the eighth track, the peaceful “Village Blues”, coming from a session with McCoy Tyner, Steve Davis, and Elvin Jones. (So there’s a game of leapfrog going on.) There’s nothing too special about the standards here, although the renderings of “Little Old Lady” and “My Shining Hour” are pretty good. The originals present specific challenges to the leader, like the giant step bridge in “Fifth House” and the modal shifts in “Like Sonny”. Can I go on record and admit that Wynton Kelly plays wonderfully on this album? Somehow his straightahead piano work complements Trane well, where it just sounds dull behind, say, Miles at the Blackhawk. Another piece of interest is “Harmonique”, which per the title is a waltzing excuse for Coltrane to show off his new multiphonic sax technique (blowing two or three notes at once), but which ends up slightly obnoxious and clumsy. Far more judicious use of this technique occurs at the ends of “Fifth House” and “I’ll Wait and Pray”.

So what is Coltrane Jazz? Is it the sound of rejuvenated standards, or simple blues pieces, or the shifting modes of “Like Sonny”? I think “Fifth House” comes closest to defining Coltrane at this point, as it alternates relative freedom and chordal sophistication. Note that over the rhythm section’s vamp, Trane returns anyway to his Giant Step formulae; note also that the chords simplify for the piano solo, and the tune reverts to its “What Is This Thing Called Love” harmonic ancestry while Kelly is playing. Nothing wrong with a grab bag record like this, where Coltrane is in proud form and the tunes want lots of different things for Xmas.

The Avant Garde
June-July 1960

For this album, Coltrane hijacked three of Ornette Coleman’s cohorts (Cherry, Haden, and Blackwell) and some of his tunes and spent a couple sessions in the iconoclast’s shoes. On the one hand, it’s the sincerest form of flattery; on the other, it was Trane’s way of seeing what was available in Ornette’s situation that could be adapted for his own purposes. Unfortunately, the album that resulted is a dull, awkward dress-up game. Trane sounds out of his element against the staid backdrop of drummer Ed Blackwell and the bassists (Charlie Haden’s in for two tunes, Percy Heath plucks the other three). For their part, the rhythm players - so accustomed to Ornette - probably kept it toned down in order to give Coltrane a wide berth, and the end product lacks all the spark and unpredictability that should have been there by right. In deference, everyone cancels each other out. Don Cherry finds himself without his usual sparring partner, and suddenly he’s just some guy playing skittering pocket trumpet, even if he does have a better idea of what to do with tunes like “The Invisible” and “Cherryco” than Coltrane. Trane spends some funny moments, on tenor and soprano, trying to crack Ornette’s language, but as in “The Blessing”, he turns to his own blinding technique for phrase endings. There are no cries of frustration, just the occasional agitations of someone trapped in a dead end. The group also tackles “Bemsha Swing”, and never could one imagine a more lifeless version, even taking into account that composer Monk may have sleepwalked through it on occasion.

Atlantic rightly kept this on the shelf for five years and then released it, probably to ride the wave of Trane’s true avant-garde work of the mid-60s. No record titled thusly should sound so safe. It doesn’t work as an Ornette spinoff, it doesn’t work as a John Coltrane record, and the only smidgen of intrigue I can find is Heath’s funky bass mutations in the midst of “Focus on Sanity”.

My Favorite Things
Oct. 1960

A couple of days in October produced this and the next two LPs, so how’s that for efficiency? The sessions marked the earliest version of Coltrane’s famous quartet, with pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones in place, and Steve Davis on bass. Davis would become a footnote of the band, but he does a good job here.

This album culls the popular standards from the sessions. “My Favorite Things” makes great use of Tyner (his chord voicings make the track) and Jones (his tumbling polyrhythms likewise) in cushioning Coltrane’s passionate soprano explorations. The familiar melody turns exotic in Trane’s hands, and the song form is made much more flexible. Needless to say, it runs to some length, and it earns it. “Summertime” is similarly stretched out and turned into a pulsing playground. Coltrane’s tenor solo gets agitated almost immediately and takes chances as it progresses. Without harmonic constrictions, he’s free to fit the puzzle pieces as he wants, and we’re listening to an epiphany on these two tracks.

His recent interests are not forgotten, however, in “But Not For Me”, where Coltrane re-harmonizes parts of this standard into miniature chord minefields, and even though the benchmark “Giant Steps” was not far in the past, Coltrane is noticeably looser in navigating his self-penned obstacle courses. He’s certainly loose in his second solo on the song, a spontaneous improv over a recurring turnaround. Meanwhile, Tyner gets in a good solo that sounds delightfully like Red Garland. Offsetting these three weighty tracks is an intimate version of “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, with Coltrane issuing the melody on soprano and the bulk of the song given to a sparkling piano solo. It doesn’t take many listens to realize that McCoy Tyner was a major acquisition for Coltrane. What a terrific pianist.

The album is a popular one, mainly because of the title track’s ability to seduce even non-jazz listeners. It gives Trane connoisseurs plenty to admire as well. It has a nice consistency, being all standards, and each of them serves to further Coltrane’s ideals, so it’s not a pandering record in any way. Not that it’s ever been accused of that.

Coltrane Plays the Blues
Oct. 1960

The above was the pseudo-pop collection, and this is the, well, you know. It’s interesting that Coltrane would treat bop-based jazz in a complicated way and yet remain so direct in his blues compositions. The three-chord essence apparently was not something he wanted to obscure, as the boppers had been doing with blues tunes that had 20-odd chord changes over 12 bars. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Anyway, this album programs six of the blues pieces from the October sessions, and ironically enough, none of them really rank with Coltrane’s best work in the form. The most convincing is “Blues to Elvin”, done at a nocturnal tempo with drawling solos. “Mr. Syms” has a mysterious feel to it, and the major-key piano vamp of “Mr. Knight” is really attractive - it could have gone anywhere, not necessarily into a 12-bar form. But what to say about a throwaway like “Blues to Bechet”, apart from noting the sinuous soprano work? Or “Blues To You”, which sounds like an impromptu excuse to do a no-piano track? “Mr. Day” (all these mister misters!) at least has a tempting vamp a la “Mr. Knight” yet the actual improvising is forgettable. It’s not a very compelling record, and the slight variety of the arrangements doesn’t hide the fact that the forms are as basic as can be. No disrespect to Coltrane’s playing, which is actually quite daring in places, but a full album of simple blues progressions is dull no matter who’s soloing. Any of these tracks would be fine in a more eclectic context.

Coltrane’s Sound
Oct. 1960

The leftovers of the 10/60 sessions were finally released in 1964, and far from being a dregs collection, I’d like to tout this album as one of Trane’s most underrated. The album title is spot-on, as it’s kind of a cross-section of how he was developing at Atlantic. In the way of standards, there is an exuberant “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and a compact “Body and Soul”, which every tenor player has to tackle sooner or later, and for which Trane came up with a revamped setting. “Equinox” captures the essence of the blues, very slow and deliberate, and it’s better than anything on the dedicated Blues album. The driving original “Liberia” owes at least one of its components to “A Night in Tunisia”. For involved harmony, look to “Satellite”, where Tyner sits out and Trane pours out a number of complex ideas. Best of all, and my personal favorite Coltrane composition, is “Central Park West”, which presents some unusual chord modulations a la “Giant Steps”, only at a ballad pace. The simple melody sews up the harmonies into a gentle ode, concise and full of emotion. A lovely piece.

The only flaw to the album is that the ugly cover has nothing to do with the beauty inside. It makes a stimulating companion to either Giant Steps or My Favorite Things, which are generally acknowledged to be the key Atlantics. Coltrane’s Sound isn’t a better album than those two, but it shares their sense of discovery, and it has a little more variety.

Ole Coltrane
May 1961

The Africa/Brass sessions were already underway for Impulse, and this last Atlantic shares some of that feel. The personnel is expanded to include Freddie Hubbard and Eric Dolphy in the front line, Tyner and Jones in their usual roles, and two bassists, Art Davis and Reggie Workman. The 18-minute centerpiece “Olé” is built on polyrhythmic bass exchanges, Tyner’s insistent piano vamp, and a semi-dark (“Spanish”) theme for the horns. Despite a good flute solo from Dolphy, the main attraction of this piece is the way the rhythm section ebbs and flows. Coltrane’s eventual soprano solo, which one would have thought to be the highlight, has more meaningless squeals than solid ideas. Perhaps his attention was on the other album. The formal similarities between “Olé” and “Africa” are obvious, though the latter wins as a total performance. Regardless, in the context of the Atlantic recordings, “Olé” signifies a new world opening up, without precedent.

The other two pieces are more successful, to my ears. “Dahomey Dance” is a very basic 12-bar with a sparse theme arranged in close harmony for the horns. It has a vaguely spiritual cast about it, and the soloists stay within its emotional boundaries. Even better is McCoy Tyner’s ballad-like “Aisha”, and on the evidence of this superb composition, you wonder why Coltrane didn’t tap his pianist to write more for the band. It creates a sophisticated mood from bar one and develops nicely. The melody is perfect for Coltrane, or maybe Tyner’s keyboard voicings subliminally make it seem that way.

Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings

One fell swoop with all of the Atlantics above. Chronologically ordered, one can hear the transitions as they come, centered by the incredible October 1960 sessions that produced three of the albums listed above. Alternate takes are strewn throughout, and there is a bonus disc for esoteric outtakes, including breakdowns and various attempts at “Giant Steps” . These extra reels are more geared toward the musician who knows a little about the technical challenges of that tune and wants to hear how Coltrane approached it every single time, be it a complete take or not. Kudos to the box producers for realizing that Trane fanatics would eat this stuff up.

The remastering is good, considering that these aren't the greatest source tapes to begin with, as Atlantic’s jazz sound at the time of the recordings was often thin and strangely mixed. The music comes through well enough here, though if one wants to pursue individual albums, I would recommend the deluxe editions that followed this box and also the Atlantic Masters import series on Warner Jazz. The hardbound booklet is decent, notwithstanding a few goofy and/or boastful headlines and layouts. (“He Was Real Particular About His Eggs”, informs one interview. “I’m going to be enigmatic and you can’t stop me” is the underlying message of Yusef Lateef’s quote.) The main essay comes from Lewis Porter, who would go on to write the definitive Coltrane book in a few years. The booklet also lays out a clear sessionography along with the original LP tracklistings, should the listener want to reconstruct the individual albums. In sum, this box covers all the bases and throws a relief inning as well, so it’s a five-star package.

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