Coltrane: The Impulse Years

The Impulse recordings find Coltrane moving ever further into his own frontier. Extremes range from the mild ballad record to the unforgiving blast-out Ascension, with lots of middle ground that easily stands as some of the most powerful music of its time - or any time, really. More of Coltrane’s early-60s story is told on Pablo’s Live Trane boxset. The titles listed below center around Coltrane’s classic quartet, though it’s not a complete listing of everything he recorded for the label.

The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions
May-June 1961

These two discs collect an adventurous first effort for Impulse with the quartet of Trane, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, and Elvin Jones joined by several brass players and, on “Africa”, a second bassist. The orchestrations are by Eric Dolphy, who based them on Tyner’s piano voicings, and so it’s not really a ‘big band’ sound, rather just an expansion of the quartet’s homegrown harmonies. And despite some big names in the ensemble, the quartet does all the soloing. Producer Creed Taylor ensures a cavernous recorded aura, lending a ghostly haze to the extra horns. The mix conveys subliminal distance, like memories of a trip taken in foreign lands.

The two takes of the soprano waltz “Greensleeves” are right up the “My Favorite Things” alley, with the beautiful theme enriched by horns and expounded upon by Coltrane and Tyner. “Blues Minor” is an uptempo, long-meter blues where Trane discharges two electrified solos. The brass works wonders in “Song of the Underground Railroad”, which charges along on a modal journey; I rank this track among my favorite Coltrane cuts ever. Cal Massey’s “The Damned Don’t Cry” evokes a dark Gil Evans feel. Despite an imperfect ensemble performance, it brings a different flavor to the album.

In the centerpiece “Africa”, dual bass lines, Elvin’s polyrhythms, and Tyner’s ambiguous voicings set a pregnant mood, while the horns shower the field like a rainstorm. An undercurrent of tension runs throughout the rhythms and polytonal harmony. The brass adds whoops and shouts and heaviness to the recurring theme, and the solos (from tenor, piano, basses, and drums) unwind at length. All comes into balance on the two June takes; the earlier version is almost on the same track, but not quite. “Africa”, like its sister “Olé”, takes an audacious step into ethnic rhythms and drastically opens up room for solos. For the moods conjured by all of the tracks, and the often excellent playing, Africa/Brass is my desert isle Coltrane choice.

The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings
Nov. 1961

An exalted historical document on 4 CDs. Personnel: Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, bassists Reggie Workman and/or Jimmy Garrison, and reedist Eric Dolphy, with occasional ensemble colors from oud (Ahmed Abdul Malik) and oboe or contrabassoon (Garvin Bushell). Coltrane’s modal experience with Miles had at least some influence on his own music, as the new material workshopped at the Vanguard leans toward an endless vamp-and-solo bag. Tunes like “India”, “Brasilia”, and “Spiritual” use worldly rhythms and sounds, while an exact, up-tempo recast of “So What” entitled “Impressions” is more provincial. Coltrane’s harmonic labyrinths are replaced by wide-open forms, and in conception, execution, and feel, there was nothing like this in jazz at the time, and barely anything since. Contrasting the tranced-out pieces, and acknowledging the past, are a retrograde “Naima” and a fairly straight “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise”, probably dispatched upon request.

This is music in progress. I find some conspicuous longueurs in the sessions, and they are the very performances that are the most celebrated of the engagement. Take the November 3 version of “Impressions”, clocking in at nearly a quarter of an hour with a marathon tenor solo. To be frank, Coltrane’s choruses on Miles’ “So What” a couple years prior are more memorable. There is no peak to this solo, no development - just a jostling stasis where the man seems to be playing a really long time. At best, he lights upon five-note figures that divide the beat in interesting ways (‘round about the sixth and ninth minute marks), but by the eleventh minute, he’s out of substantial ideas and unwilling to jump ship. It doesn’t help that Elvin and Garrison (McCoy dropped out two minutes in) employ every tactic in the rhythm book except dynamics. The unrelenting swing isn’t bad in itself, but there’s a point where stamina wears down the listener, if not the players, and Coltrane’s solo loses effect against the static bass and drums. For all the innovations of this band, you’d think they’d have intuitively sensed the advantages of rationing their intensity, or altering their rhythms, but no, they live and die by the groove they set at the start of any given piece.

Sacred cow, what? Do I have the chutzpah to say the same thing about the “Chasin’ the Trane” solo, the infamous 15-minute statement that quaked everyone in their boots? Hearing this indulgence going on and on recalls the injunction of Miles: “Just take the horn out of your mouth.” Funnily enough, the sister version “Chasin’ Another Trane” features Roy Haynes on drums and is more accessible as a whole. Coltrane cannot easily disregard Haynes’s bristling accompaniment and thus stays closer to earth. But these are just one listener’s opinions. Clearly the music speaks to lots of folks who feel that Coltrane stumbled into nirvana in this engagement. I’m skeptical. Credit to Coltrane for searching, although it’s hard to tell when something has been found. Sometimes it comes from the past; as one analyst noted, the famous “Impressions” solo contains thirds-related remnants of the Giant Steps days.

If Trane’s improvisations range in quality (as to be expected), then Eric Dolphy, on alto sax and bass clarinet, is totally erratic. His solos veer from complements to sabotage, and there isn’t much else to say on that. But enough negativity. What you do hear in this complete package is Coltrane crossing a threshold between his past and future, and about half of it is required listening, although I would personally disagree with the usual consensus on which tracks would constitute that half. Give me “Brasilia”, the cool 12-tone theme “Miles’ Mode”, and a different version of “Impressions” for starters.

Apr-June 1962

Jimmy Garrison signs on full-time on bass, and here beginneth the classic quartet. The album’s centerpiece is a quarter-hour treatment of Arlen/Mercer’s “Out of this World”, a prototypical 6/8 foray with two inspirational Trane solos (on tenor) that definitively announces the sound and feel of this foursome. The rhythm section is trancelike yet always aware. Hear Elvin juggling a steady stream of variations at his kit, and hear McCoy’s piano brilliance contrasting Coltrane’s grave statements. “Tunji”, another touchstone, brews pure atmosphere from Tyner’s two suspended chords and sparse tenor lines in which every note carries weight. Neither “Tunji” nor “Out of This World” is usually considered to represent the group at its best or most notorious, but here in twenty minutes is the fountainhead of much to follow.

Elsewhere in the tunestack is “Miles’ Mode”, tidied up from the Village Vanguard, and a Mal Waldron composition entitled “Soul Eyes” that previews the melodic beauty of the upcoming Ballads record. Trane’s established waltz/soprano tradition of “My Favorite Things” and “Greensleeves” turns ugly with “The Inchworm”, a trite and wailing bit of fluff. But it’s not enough to harm an album that, despite its watershed nature, has often been overlooked and/or underrated.

Dec. 1961 - Nov. 1962

Is it coincidental that the bulk of this ‘conservative’ record was recorded not long after the critical backlash against Coltrane’s outbound music with Dolphy? Do we really suspect, as Frank “Great White Guilt” Kofsky insinuated in a 1966 interview, that Impulse pushed Trane into sowing a lily-white field of damage control? Coltrane’s own prosaic response to Mr. “Let Me Put Words in Your Mouth” Kofsky involved an explanation of mouthpiece problems, which necessitated laid-back playing. This explanation jibes with the relaxed atmosphere of both this album and the Johnny Hartman collaboration recorded not long after. Not to mention the meeting with Duke. If it was producer Bob Thiele’s desire to counter the anti-jazz charges, why didn’t he “make” Trane do swinging blues and rhythm changes as well? Whether or not he did so to placate the public, Coltrane handpicked these ballads anyway, and considering the surrounding recordings, it’s not like he was Impulse’s commercial pawn. Hell, Thiele even consulted Trane to get more avant-garde artists aboard the label! If you think Shepp signed with Impulse so he could play three-minute versions of “Nancy,” well, guess again Pops.

So forget the petty theories about how this album came to be and enjoy how elegant the band could sound when they wanted to. Coltrane gets his dander up here and there, especially in a magnificent “What’s New”, but he mostly plays with a deep respect for the melodies, more embellishment than improvisation. Is there a finer rendering of “It’s Easy to Remember” out there? Is there a more concise example of Coltrane’s tough tenderness than his melody statement on “Say It”? The album is not to be derided as a chronological anomaly; it is to be savored as such. How many of Trane’s avant-garde disciples had this kind of beauty and sophistication flowing through them? Tyner shares much of the spotlight, in the glitzy solos and intros. Garrison and Jones are supportive but hardly anonymous. There’s no mistaking who’s holding the sticks in “All or Nothing at All”, and Elvin’s brushwork, infrequently heard elsewhere with Trane, is exemplary.

Duke Ellington and John Coltrane
Sept. 1962

So maybe one could question the quartet’s tryst in ballad land, but what was Coltrane to say to Sir Duke - “No thanks?” This quartet scenario is lopsided in different ways; Trane gets the lion’s share of solo space, while Duke’s compositions and regal presence determine the album’s feel. Duke knew well enough he was meeting one of the more important voices in contemporary jazz, and Trane must have had a Cheshire grin on the way to the session for obvious reasons. To keep the respect even more mutual, Jimmy Garrison, Aaron Bell, Elvin Jones, and Sam Woodyard alternate bass and drum duties.

“In a Sentimental Mood” starts the record like an invocation of all that is beautiful, and sure enough it’s the one track everyone fawns over whenever the album is mentioned. Also lovely is Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book”, in which Trane updates the respectful ballad style he began in his Prestige days. Looser Duke tunes include “Stevie”, “Angelica”, and the catchy new item “Take the Coltrane”, which proves inspiring to the saxophonist. There are moments when Trane’s rougher ‘60s persona emerges, as on “Angelica”, where Duke lays out and Garrison and Jones push the tenor into abrasive lines. Yet Coltrane falters at times in the higher registers, proving that his mouthpiece indeed presented some obstacles to his desired intensity at the time. Coltrane’s one composition is “Big Nick”, a throwback soprano ditty, but Duke doesn’t really know what to do with it, which is strange because the amiable melody seems tailor made for him. Overall, a lightweight album with doses of high class.

Live at Birdland
Oct-Nov. 1963

How is it that three nights were taped at the Vanguard in ’61, but only three tracks emerged from this October engagement at Birdland? The live portion of this album runs less than half an hour, with two studio cuts to fill out the LP running time, and with the trivial “Vilia” (recorded back in March) added to the 1996 CD issue. Despite the bastardized makeup of the collection, it includes definitive work by the quartet. “Afro Blue” and “The Promise” unwind busy soprano and piano solos over surging rhythmic foundations. “Alabama” is a heavy prayer of mourning, contrasted by the light waltz “Your Lady”. For the standard, there’s “I Want to Talk About You”, which featured on Soultrane a few years back. Comparing the two versions gives a sense of the distance traveled - check the cadenza on this live version - and there’s no point in saying which one is better. Coltrane is a more advanced player at this time, but to get to point B, he had to be at point A first. Anyway, it’s nice to know that, amongst the progressive delights of “Afro Blue” et al, “Talk About You” was still special enough to Coltrane to be included in his later performances.

The studio tracks appear within the complete Impulse quartet box below, while the three live tracks are found on this disc alone. Wish we could have heard more from the gig.

Apr-June 1964

A restful moon shines. Instead of searching for something, Crescent sounds like it has found it - peace, composure, wholeness. Four of the five tracks have the same form: a half-time/rubato melody followed by a long solo section in steady time. “Crescent” goes entirely to Coltrane; “Lonnie’s Lament” has solos from Tyner and Garrison; and “Wise One” features Tyner and Coltrane. The even-keeled backgrounds for the solos range from the cool gait of the title track to the Blue Note swing of “Lonnie’s Lament” to the Elvo-Latin rhythm of “Wise One”, and Elvin gets his own ritualistic solo in “The Drum Thing”. All of the written melodies are fairly intimate, with a touch of melancholy, even dreariness at times. Lightening the mood is “Bessie’s Blues”, a short 12-bar toss-off, and it’s rare to hear the quartet sounding so, er, bouncy and carefree. “Wise One”, by the way, is the melodramatic sequel to “Naima”, a dedication to Coltrane’s (ex-) wife.

On the title track, it’s easy to follow Coltrane’s solo, which at one point hinges on some Rollins-like syncopation. There’s a strange part where he answers rhythmic queries with elementary overblowing exercises, and not long after, he previews the three-note theme of “Bessie’s Blues”. The sidemen all deliver in their generous solo spots, and it seems to me that the formal intention of the album is to frame four individual voices within somber themes, like a gallery of portraits. Crescent is one of Coltrane’s most consistent albums and an accessible representative of the Impulse years.

A Love Supreme
Dec. 1964

The aura surrounding this ever-popular album begs the academic question of whether or not it’s overrated. Even the hundredth listen to the opening minute - with the stately tenor fanfare, Garrison plucking the immortal four-note theme, Elvin assembling the polyrhythmic beat he was born to play, and Tyner spreading quartal love over all - makes the question silly. It’s one of the most evocative creations in all of jazz. A better question is whether or not this is the definitive sample of the band, and the answer to that is tricky. It’s maybe too specialized to be so, although it’s as creative a studio work as they ever did.

A Love Supreme works as a suite because its four distinct parts happen to fit Coltrane’s concept of spiritual recognition and commitment. They are self-sufficient alone but gather strength in formation. “Acknowledgement”: A reception of a new dimension and inner feeling. Seductive, with promise. A nice touch is Coltrane taking the four-note motif through all 12 roots near the end, with the piano getting chromatic behind him - a symbolic application of a fundamental idea to all levels. “Resolution”: An active decision, with appropriately driving music. There is a literal resolution of a stray note/chord in the melody - symbolic again. “Pursuance”: The intensity rises further in a streamlined blues form. Coltrane takes an exciting solo. “Psalm”: Thanksgiving. A denouement in which Coltrane “reads” his liner note poem through the saxophone, over a swirling background of slow-motion ecstasy.

I like most of the album, but “Psalm” runs too long, and the connection between Coltrane’s plangent solo and the written poem (and its goofy syntax) brings it down a notch. It would have been more effective cut in half, or in giving more space to the floating piano trio textures. This sort of blasphemy would get one kicked out of the Church of Trane, but what can I say? Coltrane did other hymns that were more compelling than “Psalm”. He didn’t, however, make an album that told a preconceived story as well as A Love Supreme, psalm and all. Except maybe First Meditations? Ah, forget the comparisons, ALS deserves the hype, bottom line. In 2002, a newly remastered version was released, sourced from better master tapes, and it improves upon the minor imperfections in the original CD. The double disc edition includes a rare live performance of the entire suite, along with a misguided studio attempt re-do “Acknowledgement” with extra players.

The John Coltrane Quartet Plays
Feb-May 1965

Despite the deceptively back-to-basics title, the playing here happens to be very adventurous, and this gets my vote for sleeper of the Impulse bunch. Of the two originals, the suspended hymn “Song of Praise” is much in line with “Psalm” and that ilk, but a bit more dynamic. “Brasilia” was given a sprawling run back at the Vanguard in 1961, and this update is focused and powerful, as Coltrane surfs the pounding rhythm section. McCoy Tyner takes a fluid excursion, and even though the piano can’t match the varying timbres of tenor sax, Tyner’s long lines carry a lot of information.

The dingbat waltz “Chim Chim Cheree” is insipid enough for your average American musical, but the actual tune is irrelevant to how the quartet plays it. The song rides a potent 6/8 beat (Elvin sounds like he’s wielding hammers) and the fever is high in Coltrane’s soprano improv. The deconstruction of “Nature Boy” involves two basses (Art Davis sits in) and an arrangement that comes off like a dream sequence - Trane crying in one ear, a bowed bass gnawing away, ghostly piano traces. Very sensual. The alternate version of “Nature Boy” investigates different rhythm punctuations. Both “Nature Boy” and “Cheree” could have marked a return to pop hits for Coltrane, but he makes them sound like original compositions. Don’t miss this great album.

Sun Ship
Aug. 1965

All aboard. In recording chronology, post-Transition and post-Ascension, the quartet is already past the point of no return. This material was first released three decades after being recorded, which says more about the abundance of recording Trane did for Impulse, rather than any failings of the music. Free yet accessible, Sun Ship gives each quartet member a lot of space. Coltrane plays like a lightning rod channeling electricity from the spheres, and McCoy Tyner demonstrates that he certainly can improvise in a volatile style - on the title track, “Attaining”, and “Amen”, his piano is more dissonant than usual and totally in line with Coltrane’s orbit. I mention this because Tyner would soon depart the group, but not because he didn’t comprehend the new levels of freedom. Rather, the extra drummers and sax players would drown him out.

“Sun Ship” takes off with short tenor bursts and a stunning piano solo, and then “Dearly Beloved” brings back the hymn approach with slightly diminishing returns. The reverential beginning of “Attaining” develops into an uptempo improv. (One notices how often the group falls into traditional swing on this collection, albeit burning swing.) “Ascent” comes and goes on a Jimmy Garrison solo that surrounds group turbulence. “Amen” is one of the quartet’s most thrilling performances. The first part creates the same mood as the opening fanfare of A Love Supreme, then the band races off into exciting solos, including one from the leader that shreds wallpaper. “Amen” achieves an overwhelming energy level, and it’s odd that this track, for one, sat on the shelf for so long.

Sun Ship takes a challenging journey and lives up to standards set by some of the more celebrated albums. My only complaint is that the piano and bass are squashed into one channel together, reducing some of the impact of both instruments. But that’s a minor quibble.

The Classic Quartet: The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings
Dec. 1961-Sept. 1965

This 8CD set presents, in chronological session order, Coltrane, Ballads, Crescent, A Love Supreme, Quartet Plays, and Sun Ship, interspersed with the following: some tracks with Roy Haynes in Elvin’s chair, issued as Dear Old Stockholm; two studio tracks that wound up on Live at Birdland; material from the belated grab-bag Living Space; the posthumous Transition album; and a quartet version of the lengthy “Meditations” suite. And other stuff as well. Figuring out exactly where and when some of these performances were originally issued can get confusing, especially when were repeated on different albums, sometimes as reissue bonus tracks. But the point is that it’s all here. Oh, and the final disc collects a handful of previously unreleased alternate takes.

There’s enough between-the-cracks material here to justify the complete coverage of the boxset versus the individual album route, although this is an instance where paying attention to the original LP configurations is important. Albums like Crescent and obviously A Love Supreme were ordered to achieve specific effects. (The latter is in order here.) On the other hand, the abundance of the quartet’s recorded output goes far beyond those titles issued in Coltrane’s lifetime.

The music tells a story of Coltrane’s departure from what we may call traditional jazz and the simultaneous progress of the quartet as a unit. The first two discs find them test-running various options (rewired standards, idiosyncratic originals), then A Love Supreme becomes the galvanizing moment, after which the door is opened to turbulent freedom, pausing occasionally for peaceful briefs (“Dear Lord”, “Welcome”). The length and intensity of pieces like “Transition” or “One Down, One Up” indicates the band had crossed to the other side, inventing its own sense of improvisation. Time and changes are replaced by pulse and exploration, and the themes become ever more fragmented as Coltrane’s compositions are reduced to brief melodic jumpstarts. However, traditional grounding sturdies these open-ended jaunts, even when Coltrane strains at the upper limit and the rhythm section barrels down unpaved roads. The swing is always there, and the solo statements, however unhinged, often betray orthodox roots (and routes). When the group settles into one of their hallmark mood grooves (“Living Space”, or “Dusk Dawn”), it carries a huge weight and authority, and the tide of Garrison and Jones feels unstoppable. This group was less interactive than other free assemblies of the time, perhaps because their sheer drive didn’t allow for microcosmic niceties. And because Trane, hot on the scent of his personal grail, was not one to be distracted. Which is a way of saying that all of these tracks have a specific emotional center that is never abandoned.

The depth and vision of the band naturally led to more long-form pieces. The “Prayer and Meditation Suite” (issued on Transition) is a 21-minute sequence of terse uptempo bits and softer portraits, such as a folksy Garrison bass solo. There is nothing very prayerful or meditative about it, yet it focuses the playing in a good way. Even better is First Meditations, the last album in this collection and thus the last statement of the quartet. The five individual pieces encompass consonant beauty (“Love”), a swaying 6/8 jam (“Compassion”), and a sacred-sounding denouement (“Serenity”). “Joy” contrasts its title emotion with violent outbursts and undercurrents, while in “Consequences” the rhythm section hammers and tilts every which way underneath Trane’s stormy tenor and Tyner’s piano solo. “Consequences” opens the door to new ways of interaction within the band, more dangerous and abstract than usual. It also represented the end of their studio career. (Meditations would be reshuffled and re-recorded by an augmented band. I prefer this version.)

From first session to last, this is Coltrane’s quest. There’s no question who the leader is, or whether or not this quartet was a democracy. (It is more a benevolent autocracy.) That these sidemen could empathize so fully with Coltrane is amazing, and it made for one of the most identifiable group sounds in all of jazz history. Tyner’s contribution is crucial, not just in the ambiguous chord support but in his solos, which are not downtime (hear his adrenaline concerto in “Untitled Original 90320”). Elvin’s unique, powerful drum work made him the most celebrated disciple. He plays with much variety but also a head-down determination, easily contrasted with substitute Roy Haynes’ more interactive drumming (Disc 2). Garrison’s deep, dark bass tones are wrapped up thick in every bar. It’s worth noting that all three of the sidemen found their lasting voices here, and despite their lengthy resumes of non-Trane activity, each is known primarily for their participation in this classic music.

Interstellar Space
Feb 1967

On Trane’s final trip into the recording studio, mere months before his untimely passing, he brought along only drummer Rashied Ali, leaving behind the unnecessary baggage of bass and piano. If “baggage” sounds slightly cynical, consider the report of Trane sometimes leaving the bandstand during his bandmates’ solos to continue practicing on his own backstage. Not exactly a demonstration of interest or respect for his group. When it gets down to it, Trane’s quest was a solitary one. For all its import and influence and transcendence, of course, and for all the revered work of his sidemen.

The celestial names for these few pieces are appropriate, as Coltrane attempts to launch himself “out there” in no uncertain terms. There are brief themes at the start of each - placid trills in “Venus”, Slonimsky-styled permutations in “Jupiter”, rapid octaves in “Leo”. Coltrane’s solos are among the freest of his career, tackling all manners of phrases and ideas with a tenor sax technique that had reached its outer limit. There is a sense of form, if not outright logic, in his improvisations, and the marvel of the album is that it doesn’t descend into blind chaos. Trane relies on a number of tactics throughout: blistering downward runs in quick sequence / staccato, low-register overtone figures / rhythmic displacement / thematic deconstruction, usually in the form of five to nine note phrases that get inverted, sidestepped, compressed, expanded, and decimated in a matter of seconds / query and answer exchanges between high and low registers. His vocabulary and tones are extreme, but note the deliberate pace of “Venus” and how it preserves its serenity even when Trane is at boiling point.

The mid-tempo mantra of “Saturn” is an honest-to-goodness melody that would have worked with a full band. Trane stays with the phrase for a while at the outset, and Ali actually swings beneath him. The progression of the sax solo is worth listening to in detail, as it covers all of the above tactics and more, and the final return to theme feels right on target. “Saturn”, like “Venus”, is an instructive work of improvisation.

These are duets only in the practical sense that two people are playing at the same time. Trane takes no direct cues and makes few conversational responses to Ali’s agile kitwork, which alone can make one appreciate the drummer’s thankless task of “supporting” a soloist whose private destination is Jupiter and beyond. He opts for loose waves of sound, rolling toms, snare flares, ebbs and flows of percussive texture. He fills out certain frequency ranges in the music, without contributing notes, without dictating meter, and one can see why Coltrane saw him as a suitable foil. (In 1965 Elvin played foil on the nine-minute duet “Vigil”; compare that with any of these tracks to hear the fundamental differences in the two drummers.) But don’t take my observations as misgivings. In the end, the interstellar mission is a treasure for bold ears.

The Impulse Albums, Volume One
released 2007

How many times are Coltrane’s Impulse recordings going to be reissued? To date, there have been the gatefold remasters that began in the mid-90s, some deluxe two-disc editions, the complete Quartet box, a handful of overlapping compilations, and now the Impulse Originals series (which includes titles by other artists as well). It’s great that the music is still so available, but is it financially feasible to keep all of these editions in print?

This slipcase box contains five Impulse Originals titles - Africa/Brass, Live at the Village Vanguard, Coltrane, Ballads, and Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. That’s actually a great selection for someone beginning his or her Trane collection. But does the person who already owns these albums need to buy them again? If you’re finicky about sound, you might notice that these discs are slightly more detailed than their predecessors; the drums and bass are a bit clearer in Coltrane and Africa/Brass, for example. In headphones, I could appreciate the difference, but it’s not such a drastic upgrade that the previous masters are suddenly unlistenable. Meanwhile, the packaging (a somewhat flimsy gatefold, no booklet) doesn’t improve on the annotated editions. Regardless, I did purchase this set because it was inexpensive, and since I was temporarily devoid of the Vanguard and Ellington records, here was a “new” way to reacquire them. I don’t plan on disposing of the Classic Quartet box (reviewed above), and I still think that’s the best one-shot method of acquiring the bulk of Coltrane’s Impulse work, but these albums all sound great in their new editions - and one can more easily appreciate them as self-contained works.

The Impulse Albums, Volume Two
released 2008

The second batch of Coltrane’s Impulse Originals includes some pretty important music: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Impressions, Live at Birdland, Crescent, and A Love Supreme. Two of these albums I did not review above. The collaboration with singer Johnny Hartman is akin to the Ballads album, with the obvious addition of vocals. I don’t care for vocal jazz in general, but Hartman has a rich, appealing voice, and he fits right in with Coltrane’s quartet, who treat tunes like “Lush Life” (my favorite version) and “Autumn Serenade” with mucho elegance. After not owning this album for about a decade, I really enjoyed rehearing it. “They Say It’s Wonderful,” indeed. Impressions was originally released in 1963 and contains two Village Vanguard performances (“India” and “Impressions”) backed by two shorter studio cuts (“Up ‘Gainst the Wall”, “After the Rain”).

Now the sound quality. The titles in Volume 2 were remastered by a different engineer than those in Volume 1, and the results are mixed. On the positive side, this is the best edition of A Love Supreme I’ve ever heard. It uses the cleaner master tape that was discovered a few years ago, and the clarity and body is just perfect. If your copy of ALS dates from the 1990s or earlier, check out the Impulse Originals version. The Coltrane/Hartman record and the live recordings sound very good as well. But on the other hand, I think that Crescent and the studio cuts from Impressions and Birdland have too much bass. Jimmy Garrison’s bass was already quite prominent in previous editions; in these updates of “Lonnie’s Lament”, “The Drum Thing”, “Alabama”, “Your Lady”, et al, it booms a bit too loudly and out of proportion to the other instruments. (At least that’s my response to hearing these tracks in headphones.) To be fair, Crescent sounds a little cleaner than before, but I still prefer the mastering heard in the Classic Quartet box.

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