Archie Shepp, Fire Music

Album of the Week, March 23, 2024

Without John Coltrane, Archie Shepp’s career would have been very different. We’ve already encountered the young saxophonist in the liner notes of A Love Supreme, where Trane mentioned recordings made with Shepp that wouldn’t see the light of day for many years. But Shepp would never have recorded his sessions for Impulse! Records as a leader without Coltrane’s recommendation to producer Bob Thiele.

Shepp had been trying to talk to Thiele for months, to convince him to record Shepp, but over a three month period Shepp was repeatedly told that Thiele was not available; he was “gone out to lunch” or “gone home and not coming back.” Finally Shepp asked Trane to intercede, and Thiele said, “You guys are avant-garde… If you do this recording you’ll have to record all of John’s music.” That led to Shepp’s first album for impulse, Four for Trane, which was viewed as a milestone record that illustrated the depth of Coltrane’s compositions.

For Fire Music, Shepp put together a band consisting of Ted Curson (who had played with Cecil Taylor) on trumpet, Joseph Orange on trombone, Marion Brown (who appeared with Shepp on Trane’s Ascension) on alto saxophone, Reggie Johnson (who would later play with Keith Jarrett, Art Blakey, Sun Ra, Lonnie Liston Smith, Bobby Hutcherson, and others) on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums; David Izenson and J.C. Moses replace Johnson and Chambers, respectively, on the third track of the album. The band entered the Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on February 16 and March 9, 1965, just months after the recording of A Love Supreme in that same space (and more than half a year before Trane played the suite live in Seattle).

Hambone” is the longest and most ambitious of the works on the album. One of the three Shepp compositions that make up the first side, the work is structured around two different themes and features both tight group performances and extended solos from Orange, Curson, Brown and Shepp. The soloists perform freely against an extended riff from the band that morphs into the second theme, a blues riff that sees the band lay down alternating strutting melodic solos, before the first theme returns.

Los Olvidados” is another densely written group track, with an extended drum solo from Chambers introducing the improvisational middle section, which features a blazing trumpet solo from Curson and a distinctive tenor solo from Shepp that seems to bleat, cry and prophesy all at once. The moving “Malcolm, Malcolm – Semper Malcolm” follows. Shepp’s original poem, recorded just weeks after Malcolm X’s assassination, is recited by Shepp, accompanied by David Izenson and J.C. Moses on bass and drums. “We are murdered in amphitheaters, on the podium of the Audubon,” says Shepp, and then plays a mournful solo over a cello-like arco bass line from Izenson and the crash of Moses’s drums.

Prelude to a Kiss” returns to the stacked brass chords of the beginning of the album and features a genuinely Ellingtonian solo from Shepp. This leads, via a riff by Orange on the trombone, into “The Girl from Ipanema,” definitely the oddest work on the album. After a freely played intro, the brass section collectively plays the famous “tall and tan and dark and lovely” melody over a samba rhythm from Chambers before Shepp solos on the melody in his distinctive tenor sound. Besides Trane’s sheets of sound, Shepp also brings a rough edged energy to his solos, shaped into bursts of energy that growl like shouts from an angry preacher.

Fire Music is a profound introduction to Archie Shepp, both melodic and hair-raisingly free. It showcases Shepp’s talents at writing for larger groups and his willingness to explicitly lean into more political content. We’ll hear both of those as well as an evolution of Shepp’s sound in the next album he released for Impulse, next week.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle

Album of the Week, March 16, 2024

Following the January 1965 release of A Love Supreme, John Coltrane took it on the road with the musicians of the Quartet, playing a legendary handful of shows that presented the material, still unfamiliar to many audiences, with a newly expanded band. For years it was thought that a performance at the Antibes Jazz Festival on July 26, 1965 was the only surviving recording of these shows. However, in 2021 a new recording, of a performance at the Penthouse Club in Seattle, was unearthed, and it was astonishing — not only did it document Trane performing the entire suite plus additional interludes, it also featured an expanded band that added Donald Rafael Garrett playing a second upright bass alongside Jimmy Garrison; Carlos Ward, playing alto saxophone in what would be his only performance with Trane; and most importantly the tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, in a rare early appearance with the band.

Sanders, born Ferrell Lee Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas on October 13, 1940, was still relatively unknown when he began playing with Trane, but he was far from inexperienced. Having moved to New York City in 1962 and with no fixed residence, the great Sun Ra gave him a place to live and encouraged him to use the name “Pharoah.” He performed with Billy Higgins and Don Cherry, coming to the attention of Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. By June 1965 he was recording with Trane, first on his great free jazz work Ascension alongside the Classic Quartet and other guest players like Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, and Freddie Hubbard; then in October 1965 on this recording. He would go on to record more dates with Trane, including the milestone session Meditations and Om.

Garrett (born 1932 in El Dorado, Arkansas) had met Coltrane in 1955 while Trane was touring with Miles, and played with Ira Sullivan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Eddie Harris. In 1961 he played as second bassist with Coltrane’s group alongside Jimmy Garrison. Then in 1965 he met Trane again and was invited, along with Sanders, to join the band. And Ward was invited to sit in with the band after Trane heard him play. He can be heard on this record and on one track on the separately issued Live in Seattle, and went on to play with Rashied Ali, Abdullah Ibrahim, Don Cherry, and the funk band B.T. Express.

The performance of the suite at the Penthouse was preceded by two other sessions; on September 30 the group recorded the music for Live in Seattle, and the following day they recorded Om in a rented house in Lynwood, Washington. So the group had some time to gel with each other, and you hear that in the playing. The album opens with Trane playing a version of the fanfare that opens the suite, over chords in Tyner’s piano and arco bass. One of the two bass players then plays a free pizzicato solo that eventually evolves into the four-note “Love Supreme” motif, and the band is off to the races.

The whole performance feels like a stretched (or expansive) version of the suite. With the two basses in particular, there is more soloing throughout, with both Garrison and Garrett getting substantial solo time. Tyner gets extended passages where he explores alternate rhythms. Most importantly, you begin to hear all the players improvising at once on their own ideas and motifs, sometimes in different directions, nudging the performance more solidly in the direction of free jazz. It’s not “free” on the level of an Ornette Coleman performance, leaving rhythm and melody behind—in fact, it’s solidly grounded in both. But you can feel the strictures of chord changes and meter slipping away as the band collectively pulls in multiple directions, their performance shaped only by the outline: fanfare, motif, melody, motif played in all twelve keys. Then “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” “Psalm,” each separated from the other by improvised interludes. Each of the main movements explores more of the uncharted spaces beyond the roadmap.

Sanders’ playing in particular is worth calling out. While his early solo records showed a saxophonist with a gift for melody who played in relatively conventional styles, in Trane’s group he was there specifically to play freely and further the search. And search he did. Both saxophonists explore the outer realms of the sounds that can be produced by their instruments, overblowing (blowing so hard that the reeds vibrate in such a way that a sound an octave higher is produced) and producing split tone sounds (generating multiple sounds at once). It can be bracing listening; it is undeniably new.

Listening to the album provides an additional perspective on the musical search Trane was perpetually on. Having foregrounded melody as well as his formidable technique, he was now exploring sounds beyond the normal, and performance modes that included elements of religious ritual, including shaken bells, ecstatic “speaking in tongues,” and trancelike rhythms. Put together, you get the ingredients of the next iteration of Trane’s “spiritual jazz” formation, which had by this point moved beyond composition and even beyond more mundane improvisational practices and was into a freer, more ecstatic place. We’ll continue to explore elements of spiritual and free jazz through recordings from Coltrane and his circle through the rest of this series, starting next week with someone who just missed inclusion on A Love Supreme.

You can listen to this album here:

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme

Album of the Week, March 9, 2024

Inside the gatefold cover of the John Coltrane Quartet’s early 1965 release A Love Supreme are two passages by Coltrane. One is an epistle from the saxophonist to the listener that is equal parts confessional and prayer. The other is a prayer to God. Both provide the missing ingredients that would tip the alchemical brew being created by the Quartet over into something legendary.

A while back, in a review of Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, I wrote: “Miles had struggled with heroin early in his career… Unfortunately, his saxophone player, John Coltrane, was still in the thralls of the drug, and left after these recording sessions for a period. He would get clean in 1957 (which is a story for another day) and rejoin the band in 1958.” In these liner notes, Trane writes: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life… As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase that was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of his OMNIPOTENCE… This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say ‘THANK YOU GOD’ through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues.”

What is sometimes missed in the reading of A Love Supreme as gratitude is that Trane was giving thanks not just for one salvation but for two: the 1957 awakening that saved him from heroin, and an unnamed second event (or events) that helped him along the path. The album, therefore, is not a commemoration; it’s a practice of gratitude, and prayer, and an acknowledgement of the mystery of higher power.

Part of the power of A Love Supreme is that it retains the searching that is the core of Trane’s greatest work, rather than settling for simple praise. Indeed, “Part I: Acknowledgment” seems to be at once solidly in one key and in every key at once. It opens with a pentatonic statement from Trane and what appears to be a cluster of B major chords from McCoy Tyner under a flurry of cymbals from Elvin Jones and a bowed tonic drone from Jimmy Garrison. When Garrison enters a moment later, though, he drops down a fifth and plays the famous opening in F minor:

Trane enters on the fifth, still in F but now playing with mixolydian mode, and Garrison stays in this tonality throughout. Trane’s solo stays grounded here as well, though it does explore modal connections. At the end of his solo, he takes the passage up an octave, overblowing a bit to mark the top, then runs back down and scales up chromatically. He seems to bring his solo to resolution, but then at 4:58 in the track, something funny happens. Biographer Lewis Porter notes that the score for the work says, “Move in 12 keys — move freely in all 12 keys — solo in 12 keys.” And that’s what Trane does — he takes the four note motif and moves through all twelve minor keys as Tyner stays with him and Garrison stays grounded.

He then returns to the theme, and then something that had never happened in his work enters: we hear the sound of Trane’s voice, chanting “A Love Supreme” on the tune of the motif. There are fifteen repetitions of the motif in F minor, followed by four in E♭ minor, as the chanting fades out and Garrison plays a different but related motif, from the fifth up to the seventh and octave. According to Porter, the chant is an overdub, indicating again that Trane had a specific idea of how he wanted the performance to go and that he was looking for a particular conception. Trane seems to invoke a vision of a God who is everywhere at once, or of an angel looking in all directions at the same time yet is grounded in one place.

Garrison opens “Part II: Resolution” in E♭ minor, picking up the key from “Acknowledgement.” He uses a different technique here, sounding a chord on two adjacent strings at once to sound out something like a prophetic utterance. When Trane enters, he is in full apocalyptic mode, playing the melody four times and then yielding to Tyner for the solo. Tyner is in classic form here, soloing in different rhythms and exploring adjacent voicings as he drops bombshell chords with his left hand, all while Elvin Jones pours gas on the fire. Trane returns to state the melody but doesn’t really get a full solo here. While very much a piece of the whole, “Resolution” is the one movement that feels like it could be picked up and dropped onto Crescent or another mid-1960s Trane album. More than anything else this points out the consistent theme of searching that stretched from his early works through to the very end.

Part III: Pursuance” opens with a propulsive Elvin Jones solo that breaks everything open, leading into Trane’s statement of the tune. Tyner again takes first solo, alternating between following Trane’s blues and quoting bits of the “Acknowledgement” motif. As Porter says, this quartet owned these high velocity treatments of the blues, and no moment represents that statement so much as Tyner’s alternate melody that he states just before Trane enters to take his solo. Trane is jet propelled here, keying off Jones’ fierce energy, and tireless; after two and a half minutes of his solo, he starts to overblow the reed, getting a mighty Pentecostal honk, before he and Tyner step back to let Jones’ volcanic energy erupt one more time, then fade back. Jimmy Garrison now takes a solo that recapitulates moments from both “Resolution” and “Acknowledgement,” eventually landing back in C minor.

Part IV: Psalm” is many things: a culmination and coda of the suite; a free, melodic solo by Trane; and, in all likelihood (as documented, again, by Porter), a direct translation, note-for-syllable, of the poem that Trane places on the other side of the gatefold. It is at this point in the suite that the purpose of the ballad albums that the Quartet recorded from 1962 to 1963 becomes clear. Without that immersion in melody, “Psalm” (and its spiritual predecessor, “Alabama”) could never have happened. The quartet provides powerful accompaniment underneath Trane’s recitation, Jones on timpani, Tyner with washes of block chords, Garrison with a long subterranean rumbling. Trane concludes with a reading through the horn of the final words of his poem, “Thank you God. Amen,” and then a brief recapitulation of the opening flourish of the work.

One of the reasons that A Love Supreme still seems to connect with listeners all these years later is surely this combination of mystical reach and absolute accessibility. The “a love supreme” chant at the beginning is a prayer, a mantra, and a hook that catches the listener. Even without the words, the strongly rhythmic playing of Jimmy Garrison, in particular, throughout the album gives the listener something to catch onto amid the blistering improvisation coming from the quarter.

Regarding that second salvation event I mentioned earlier. While unclear whether it’s connected to Trane’s straying “away from the esteemed path,” in the summer of 1963 he left Naima, his first wife, and his adopted daughter Syeeda (born Antonia) and stayed “in a hotel sometimes, other times with his mother in Philadelphia. All he said was, ‘Naima, I’m going to make a change.’” Around this time, he met the pianist Alice McLeod, who shared his interest in spirituality, and their paths would remain connected for the rest of his life, both personally and in his music. We will hear more of her music later.

He was working with other musicians as well. In fact, on December 10, 1964, a day after recording the tracks that became this album with his Classic Quartet, he recorded it again, with the addition of second bassist Art Davis (last heard with the quartet at the Village Gate) and saxophonist Archie Shepp. Both are thanked in the liner notes for their work “on a track that will regrettably not be released at this time.” Shepp in particular would go on to be a part of Trane’s sound in the following years. And Trane would take A Love Supreme not as a finished blueprint, but as a starting point to build even higher and stranger things. We’ll start to hear that next week.

You can hear this week’s album here:

Postscript: Later in 1965, Franzo and Marina King heard Coltrane play “A Love Supreme” in one of a handful of live performances. It moved them so deeply that they established a church in their home city of San Francisco dedicated to the spiritual teachings of Coltrane, known today as the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church, or simply the Coltrane Church. They’re still going today, and Trane’s “A Love Supreme” poem is their central text.

John Coltrane, Blue World

Album of the Week, March 2, 2024

Picture this: you are Michelangelo, on your way from carving David in Florence to respond to the Pope’s invitation to put up a fresco in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But along the way, someone asks you to paint some scenery for a new theatrical production.

That’s not that different from what appears to have happened with Blue World, a “lost” Coltrane album which resurfaced in 2019, which consists of soundtrack recordings for the Gilles Groux-directed film Le chat dans le sac (literally, “The Cat in the Bag”)., and which was recorded on June 24, 1964, squarely between Crescent (April 27/June 1) and A Love Supreme (December 9). It’s tempting to view the album as a throwaway, especially since it consists of new versions of earlier works like “Naima,” “Traneing In,” “Village Blues” and “Like Sonny,” alongside the title track, the only new composition on the album. But it’s a recording of the John Coltrane Quartet, at the height of their powers, and so it still commands our interest.

Under any circumstances, it’s rewarding to hear Coltrane play his own ballads, and “Naima (Take 1), ” which leads off the album, is no exception. The ballad is played more or less straight in the arrangement that it debuted on Giant Steps, but there are some important differences. First, with McCoy Tyner on the keys, the piano accompaniment is much more free, filling in more of the texture under Trane’s melody. Where the original version pivoted cleanly between the keys of the tune, Tyner seems to play a kaleidoscope of chords that align along the path of the changes. He takes the solo as well, varying the rhythm, breaking into running eighth patterns and even briefly echoing “String of Pearls” at one point. Garrison and Jones keep the suspension of the accompaniment going, but at the point where Trane re-enters they collectively lock into a hemiola, a triple rhythm under Trane’s duple. It’s the same tune, they seem to say, but bigger things are afoot.

Trane’s “Village Blues,” of which three takes from the recording session appear on the album beginning with Take 2, first appeared on Coltrane Jazz, the follow-up to Giant Steps. It’s a blues in mixolydian mode, and Tyner explores and broadens the chord progression as Trane takes the solo. No sheets of sound here—the solo is melodic even as it reaches up to explore the outer stratosphere. Tyner takes a straightforward solo reading of the 12 bar melody to close out the short track.

Blue World” is the new track on the album and it more than any other reveals the session’s place in Trane’s chronology. Jimmy Garrison opens with a bass solo that sketches out the barest hint of the mode, playing an octave leap down to a minor seventh. As important as the tonality is, the more significant thing that Garrison’s opening brings is a strong rhythmic drive, a pulse that grounds the explorations that follow. The formula of bass-led groove at the core of the composition would return on Trane’s next recording. Tyner joins after a few bars, completing the modal chord voicing, and then Trane enters playing a brief melody that feels like it was cut from an improvisation on “Lonnie’s Lament.” His solo begins melodically, and starts to climb for the stars, but instead of soloing entirely in the upper octave, he starts to explore the entire space of the music, diving down to the low octave before exploring on the same three-note grouping pattern he used at the end of “Autumn Serenade” (on John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman). When he returns to the melody, it’s as a signpost rather than closure; he continues to explore, digging into a chromatic exploration of time as Tyner provides a locked-in groove with block chords. Here Jones continually re-invigorates the music with a tumbling pattern on the drums that keeps things forward, until he bursts out as Trane reaches the coda. The whole thing is very much of a piece with the Crescent improvisations and gives more than a foretaste of what was to come next from the band.

Village Blues (Take 1)” closes the first side. The quartet’s first approach at the tune features a little more improvisation around the statement of the melody and a much stronger voice from Elvin Jones, whose muscular statement of the rhythm emphasizes the syncopation in the tune and seems to egg Trane on into a more dramatic solo. Garrison has a more prominent part under Tyner’s solo verse on this version, leaning into the suspension. The same group dynamic seems to continue on “Village Blues (Take 3),” which opens side two. Jones here provides an even louder voice on the off beats, egging Trane on even as the saxophonist clings to a more melodic approach to his solo.

Like Sonny” also hails from Coltrane Jazz, and the brief reading here is primarily notable for the full band exploration. Again Tyner provides fuller color, and takes the first solo with a primarily right-hand exploration of the tune. Trane joins in with what is almost a counter-melody played in the upper tenor octave, moving slightly away from the four-square rhythm under the quintuplet flourishes of the melody into something more waltz-like.

Traneing In” is the oldest tune on the album. Originally recorded in 1957 for the album John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio (which was later reissued in 1961 as Traneing In), that version began as a straight-ahead post-bop trio blues, with Trane not even appearing until a quarter of the way through the track. The version on Blue World opens with two Jimmy Garrison solo verses, offering a chance to hear Garrison’s rhythm, melodic imagination, and sense of drama (the chords at the end of each solo verse are especially juicy). After seeming to hover in the relative minor, when Tyner and Jones join the key coalesces back to the starting key of B♭ major. The trio takes a verse and only then does Trane join in. In contrast to his earliest solos on the tune, he stretches out the tonality, reaching down into other modes and pivoting into a different rhythmic structure before stretching into some overblowing and finally bringing the tune to a stop, having completely revolutionized it over the course of about two minutes and 40 seconds.

The final track, “Naima (Take 2),” starts very similarly to “Take 1.” The biggest difference is Elvin Jones, who is much more prominent in this take than the prior one, and who brings forward the triplet feel that characterized the back half of “Take 1.” Trane signs off his statement of the melody with a downward arpeggio down to the third, and Tyner picks it up. In both takes, Tyner’s solo feels almost double time, and this continues when Trane re-enters, with Jones really bashing the triplets throughout. When Trane transitions out of the bridge into the last recap of the melody, the feeling reverts to that more oceanic ballad tempo, but Jones gets the last word with a final crash and roll as if crashing that slow wave onto the shore.

Blue World is a fascinating document—having almost been lost to history, it reveals an important connection point between Trane’s earlier compositions and what was about to come. It also shows a quartet at the height of their telepathic connection, with their improvisations coming together to create something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The group’s telepathy would stand them in good stead on their next album; we’ll hear that next time.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane Quartet, Crescent

Album of the Week, February 24, 2024

After a European tour, the blistering Live at Birdland recording, and a little downtime, Trane and his quartet entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs for a new recording session on April 27, 1964, with a subsequent one following on June 1. Unlike the prior session with Johnny Hartman, and the two studio albums preceding it, these sessions contained nothing but Coltrane originals. But, perhaps unlike the earlier sessions featuring Trane’s writing such as Giant Steps, these new sessions were infused with a deep sense of melody and a searching new tone.

The core inside these recordings arguably stretches back to Trane’s prior album, the misleadingly named Live at Birdland. Three of the tracks came from a live session recorded October 8, 1963 at the Birdland Club, but two were recorded on November 18 in the Van Gelder studio, and one of those tracks was “Alabama.” Trane’s memorial for the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which had happened just 63 days prior, has a darkness and intensity to it that repays repeated listening. Like his arrangements of “My Favorite Things” and “Greensleeves,” there is a modal core to the performance, but unlike those there is a depth of melodic line and searching that calls back to the ballad albums before. Suddenly the elements of the quartet — Elvin Jones’ explosive energy, Jimmy Garrison’s ascetic, precise, suspended bass lines, and McCoy Tyner’s block chords — gel around Trane’s sound to make something deeper and more … well, spiritual.

The phrase “spiritual jazz” was coined to describe the sound coming from Trane’s quartet at this time, and while it may smack uncomfortably of marketing, it’s not wrong. Trane is searching in these recordings for something that seems just out of reach, but when found brings a sense of deep joy.

Crescent”’s opening seems to encapsulate that search, as Trane conjures the melody out of a storm of clouds and a string of chords. While the chords of the tune come slowly, they are placed precisely, as though Trane and the band are carving them from stone. The solo has blistering runs, but also short passages of melodic variation so intense that Tyner drops out for a bit to give him more space. In some of the passages you hear Trane overblowing the horn, reaching beyond the normal tones of the saxophone into squeaks and smears and shouts of sound. Just as the tenor seems to have found a new shore, the band re-enters for a restatement of the opening, and where the first statement felt emergent, the reprise feels deliberate, a statement of affirmation, of discovery.

Wise One” is a ballad in a minor mode, opened by Trane with a reflective solo taken out of time. McCoy Tyner picks up the tempo as the verse begins; his solo vamps in and out of the mode while Garrison plays suspensions on the fifth and octave and Elvin Jones provides a running pattern of regular eighth notes on the cymbals and syncopated hits on the tom. Trane picks up Tyner’s modulation when he picks up the tune from the middle eight, and then returns to the minor mode to close. It’s a stunningly reflective and lovely performance.

It’s ironic that “Bessie’s Blues” is the brightest, most uptempo work on the record, while maintaining the blues form. It’s also by far the shortest and happiest-sounding. Trane explores a set of different modes as he improvises, moving in and out of the chord structure so that Tyner lays out during the solo to give him the harmonic freedom to explore. The whole thing is loose and fun and has the feeling of something that emerged spontaneously in the studio, but in fact it is the second take of the tune, coming from the June sessions; the first take from April 27 wouldn’t appear until the 1998 Complete Impulse Recordings.

Lonnie’s Lament” feels like a continuation of “Crescent,” which is more to say that Trane and his group were in a consistent mood for this album than to say anything about the melodies per se. The actual melody is nothing like “Crescent, “ but both open with a slow moving minor-key melodic line. Interestingly, “Lonnie’s Lament” came first, originating in shows that the Quartet played in late 1963, and its melody most closely shows the influence of the process that led to “Alabama.” The band follows Trane’s mood, staying subdued throughout the tune, pausing on the suspension that leads into the last corner of the melody, then charging ahead with a melodic bass solo from Jimmy Garrison, who seamlessly interchanges ideas with McCoy Tyner, soloing primarily in the right hand, then punctuating with big block chords in the left. Tyner’s solo takes off into a more rhythmic exploration of Trane’s melody, seamlessly passing to Garrison for an extended solo in triplets alternating with syncopated, loping steps, then transitioning into a freer rhythmic exploration of the tune. His solo here establishes him firmly as an equally contributing member of the quartet, with his distinctive contribution being the sense of space that he introduces throughout the solo. Trane takes no solo, returning to restate the melody at the end over rolls of thunder from Elvin Jones.

Jones, appropriately enough, opens the last track on the album, “The Drum Thing,” with a pulsing rhythm on the toms and bass drum, punctuated by a repeated bass pattern from Jimmy Garrison, an eighth-note upbeat on the fifth of the scale followed by a quarter on the upper tonic, repeating with the last upper tonic held as a dotted quarter. It’s hard to write it out, but you might vocalize it as “da-dum-da-dumm.” (You might also think it presages another famous bass melody in Trane’s work, and you’d be right, but that’s a story for another time.) Here it stays in the background as Trane enters, improvising a melody around the inverted fifth as Jones steps forward, playing a truly thunderous, explosive melody against the bass ground and exploring different timbres in the kit. He returns to his original pattern as Trane re-enters on a major key inspired version of the opening melody that modulates back to a recapitulation. The heartbeat carries throughout until the end, and it draws to a sudden close as if the only way to stop it was simply to stop.

There are multiple threads that come together in an ingenious, absorbing way on Crescent: the dark, mournful balladic melodies previously heard in “Alabama,” a new sense of space in Trane’s performance, a greater sense of independent voice from the other quartet members combined with some truly telepathic moments. It’s a brilliant record that deserves to be better known. Only the even greater brilliance of its successor stands in the way of that broader recognition, and we’ll hear why in due time. Next week, though, we’ll hear a little of what Trane and his group got up to in mid-1964.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

Album of the Week, February 17, 2024

When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to have a tenor voice. My dad had a beautiful tenor voice that could ring the room. I listened to a lot of Sting, whose tenor voice seemed to dwell perpetually in a higher octave (and whose songs garnered me some much welcomed attention when I performed them). … And then l went to college and picked up John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman at Plan 9 Records, and decided maybe being a baritone was more desirable after all.

Coltrane and Hartman had both played in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the late 1940s, but their time didn’t overlap; they shared a stage once in Harlem at the Apollo Theatre in 1950; but it’s still not known exactly how the singer came to Coltrane’s attention. But Trane has told us why he recorded with him. The Paris Review recounts a 1966 interview with the saxophonist, who told the interviewer, Frank Kofksky: “Johnny Hartman—a man that I’d had stuck up in my mind somewhere—I just felt something about him, you know, I don’t know what it was. And I liked his sound, I thought there was something there I had to hear, you know, so I looked him up and did that other one, see.”

That sound, incidentally, might be better thought of as crooning than jazz vocals. Colgate University professor Michael Coyle places Hartman in the crooning tradition, as a follower of Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée, and points out his innovation was the ability to stretch the melodic line, introducing space and drama into the melodies. I dispute the point a bit—Hartman’s tone is solid and his control is completely impeccable—but there’s no doubt he’s a much more subtle singer than the performers who came before him.

That point is brought home in “They Say It’s Wonderful,” the first track on the album. After a brief introduction from McCoy Tyner, Hartman sings “They say that falling in love is wonderful.” But that quote is insufficient to convey the subtlety of his phrasing, as he leans on “say,” ever so briefly pauses after “that,” elongates “love,” and diminuendos ever so slightly on “wonderful” while still holding the note, creating a suspension on the seventh of the chord and making you hang on his words to hear what comes next. It’s a masterclass in vocal control, and it’s just the first phrase. Trane stays under Hartman’s line, providing accents at the end of lines but otherwise staying out of the way. When he takes a solo, he picks up some of the vocal inflections and phrasing of the singer, elaborating them a little with some of his characteristic flourishes but mostly staying in the pocket. While there are traces of the technically brilliant sheets of sound, they’re constrained within the boundaries of the melody, serving as accents rather than the main thrust of the sound. Hartman returns for a tag of the bridge and takes a breathtaking break in the rhythm, seeming to soar weightless over the band for a moment.

Hartman opens “Dedicated to You” with a simple declaration of the first quatrain of the melody, and Trane picks it up, playing the rest of the verse as a straight melody. At almost exactly the halfway point, Hartman picks it up seamlessly, singing it straight until the coda when he repeats the words “dedicated to you” as an out-of-time riff. It’s a sincere and simple, but not simple-minded performance. “My One and Only Love” is flipped around, with Trane taking the first verse with the quartet, taking a rubato measure to close the melody out, then inserting two bars in which the band seems to hover over a suspended fifth in the bass. Hartman enters after that moment of suspension and seems to restart all the clocks, taking the verse in time and stretching the meter in the final chorus just ever so slightly. The band returns to the suspended chords for a final two measures before resolving the tune.

Lush Life” was reportedly a late addition to the track list; apparently Trane and Hartman were on their way to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in a car when Nat King Cole’s version of the tune came on the radio, and Hartman decided on the spot to perform it. Trane of course had performed the tune years before, but you can definitely hear traces of Cole’s version in Hartman’s brisk introduction, which moves unsentimentally through the verse, accompanied only by Tyner, until he sings “washed away/by too many through the day” and holds “too” for an extra beat or two, accentuating the melancholy under the surface joys of the lush life. When the chorus begins, the rest of the quartet joins but stays in the background. Garrison’s bass spells out the roots of the chords and accentuates the changes with subtle arpeggios, and follows Hartman’s chromatic ascending scale on “those whose lives are lonely too”; Tyner continues the ascending scale after Hartman stops and Trane picks up the solo seamlessly, playing a breathless double-time through the melody until he gets to the final chorus, when Hartman rejoins to close it out. It’s a briefer version of the tune than Trane’s 1958 magnum opus but seems to hit all the high points.

Famously, Hartman claimed that the whole album was recorded in a single take, except “You Are Too Beautiful,” which had to be restarted when Elvin Jones dropped a brush. It’s a great story, if untrue (alternate takes are available for each track). The Rodgers and Hart tune gallops all over the octave, but Hartman makes it seem easy. Tyner gets the solo, playing through the tune as a syncopated stretto against Jones’ shuffle until the final four bars when he matches velocity with the main tune once again. In the reprise, Hartman’s careful use of legato is apparent in the first phrase, where he enters from above and uses a little melisma around the edges of the tune; his final phrase holds the supertonic just long enough for you to notice before he resolves.

The final track is, as far as I know, the only rumba that the classic Coltrane quartet ever recorded, so of course Trane deconstructs it in his solo. “Autumn Serenade” opens with the bass doubling Tyner, playing a rumba rhythm under Hartman. When Trane joins he turns the melody into a series of cascading sixteenth notes in groups of three, pausing between each and playing with the modal melody. This is the one place on the album where you can hear some of Trane’s searching runs, and the end of his solo feels as though it could keep going on that search forever, but he pulls back just enough. At the end, Hartman sings “serenade” and holds the top note while Trane plays a few more of the trios of sixteenth notes, as though turning away from the resolution to continue the search.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman was the third of Trane’s great ballads albums of the early 1960s, following Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and Ballads. Whatever the great saxophonist felt he had to prove to his critics or to himself, he appears to have done it with this album; the following recordings would return to some of the wilder searching we heard on Evenings at the Village Gate, but with a new sense of melodic core. We’ll hear one of the first outings of this next phase of Trane’s career next time.

You can listen to today’s album here:

McCoy Tyner, Nights of Ballads & Blues

Album of the Week, February 10, 2024

On March 4, 1963, McCoy Tyner was in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio at Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey with Steve Davis on bass and Lex Humphries on drums. Unlike his prior session for Impulse!, this was going to be a session entirely of ballads. Who knows why—perhaps because Bob Thiele liked the results of the sessions, finished the previous year, that led to John Coltrane’s Ballads album; perhaps because Thiele wanted to balance Trane’s avant garde tendencies with more albums for more conservative jazz listeners. For whatever reason, two weeks before Herbie Hancock entered Van Gelder’s domain to record My Point of View, this single session of ballads yielded one of the most approachable records of Tyner’s early career.

The Ellington/Strayhorn/Johnny Mercer classic “Satin Doll” was by this point something of a chestnut, having been recorded by dozens of musicians despite having been written only in 1953. Tyner’s approach to the chords of the tune and his use of unusual rhythms in his solo helps keep the song fresh here. Steve Davis’ walking bass and Lex Humphries’ brush-forward drumming both keep the piano in the foreground, though Humphries has some inventive patterns for the drums throughout.

We’ll Be Together Again,” written by Carl Fischer with lyrics by Frankie Laine, is far less well known, and the band takes advantage of the comparative freshness of the tune to create a sound that is more distinctive. The descending chords of the melody here create an effect not unlike a Bill Evans composition, with more than a hint of melancholy peeking out from behind the sunny melody. It’s a striking tune, and Tyner eschews the use of his customary block chords to let the melody speak more directly; he deploys unusual arpeggios that draw out darker shadows in the chords as accents to the melody on the head, but stays closer to the chords in the solos. It’s a good illustration of Coltrane’s observation, quoted in the liner notes: “He gets a personal sound from his instrument; and because of the clusters he uses and the way he voices them, that sound is brighter than what would normally be expected from most of the chord patterns he plays.”

If anything should belie the perception that Tyner was simply a conservative musician, it might be the presence of two Thelonious Monk compositions on the album. “Round Midnight” was of course a famous part of the jazz canon by now, following covers by Miles and others. His version of the standard opens with a solo verse on the theme that demonstrates some of those “personal clusters” as well as Tyner’s renowned sensitive touch. When the rest of the trio comes in, it’s with a rhythmic approach that pivots between major and modal, bringing a new feeling to the standard rather than echoing Miles’ arrangement.

For Heaven’s Sake” is a little-known ballad by Sherman Edwards, Elise Bretton and Donald Meyer. Tyner gives it a straight reading that, in the last verse, opens some space between the chords, letting the tune breathe. It’s a striking moment, particularly as his final chords veer into a different tonality.

Gene DePaul and Don Raye’s “Star Eyes,” first given a jazz reading by Charlie Parker, here opens with a set of modal chords that seem likely to take us in a different direction, before the main tune comes in. Here Tyner displays a virtuoso flourish by taking the solo in double time, then layering dizzying arpeggios over the chords. It’s far from a laid back ballad reading, and the combination of his flourishes and Humphries’ occasional jab on the drums causes one to sit up a little straighter and listen.

Blue Monk” is the second Monk composition on the album, and Tyner gives it a straight-ahead blues reading that features more of the pianist’s unusual chord voicings. Davis is a little more foregrounded here with a forthright walking bass that ventures into some unusual chords in the last four bars of the tune, as well as his only solo on the album. Tyner explores some unusual modal corners in his solo, and Humphries plays with the meter, joining the pianist on some of the triplets in the tune and dropping the occasional bomb. But it’s still a fundamentally conservative approach to the tune, albeit a pleasant one.

Tyner’s “Groove Waltz” is the only original on the album, and it’s a doozy, a modal waltz that follows twelve-bar blues form. The band sits up a little straighter for this one, with Humphries coming a little more to the fore with some inventive explosions and Davis keeping things pinned to the straight-ahead rhythmic heartbeat. Tyner’s melody wouldn’t be out of place on a Herbie Hancock record, but his densely voiced clusters—and that waltz—create a sound that’s distinctively his. It’s by far the highlight of the album for me, and producer Bob Thiele’s fadeout makes me want to listen to the original session tapes to hear how the band brought this one to a close.

The Mancini/Mercer standard “Days of Wine and Roses” closes out the album in a more familiar place with a gentle arrangement of the ballad. Tyner’s trick of introducing brief passages in a different mode surfaces here toward the end of the first and last verse, briefly lifting the tune into a different sound world. His use of a different rhythmic direction in the final chorus likewise sets this apart from a routine reading, as does the conclusion, in which Davis anchors the key with a bowed tonic note while the band concludes the tune.

Tyner wasn’t done with exploring the traditional ballad repertoire, and neither was Coltrane. Next week’s record is perhaps the most spectacular example of the journey through the discovery of melody that Trane’s quartet took in 1962 and 1963, on which they’re joined by an unlikely collaborator.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, Ballads

Album of the Week, February 3, 2024

John Coltrane appears to have taken the criticism of his avant-garde work in the early 1960s to heart. In fairness, being called “anti-jazz” cannot have been good for the tenor’s ego. But Trane was self-aware enough about his work, and conscious enough about his progression as a performer, to have taken a more deliberate step into a different sonic world on this album. Or, as he told critic Gene Lees (as told in the liner notes to this album) when he asked why the change in sound, “‘Variety.’ Meaning a change of pace. And perhaps he wanted to apprise [sic] those who haven’t discovered it [sic] that he can be lyrical.”

Whatever the reason, Ballads is about as lovely and straightforward a reading from the Great American Song Book as you’re likely to find. Recorded in three sessions beginning December 21, 1961, about six weeks after the final recordings at the Village Vanguard that yielded Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions and still featuring Reggie Workman on bass, and continuing into late 1962 (with the classic quartet featuring Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones), the sessions interleaved with recordings for other projects, including Coltrane, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, and some of the studio recordings for Impressions. Legendarily, the quartet walked into the sessions with a pile of music-store sheet music for the songs, never having played any of them before. Overwhelmingly, the impression is of Coltrane treating his saxophone like a voice and his solos like song.

Say It (Over & Over Again),” a Jimmy McHugh classic, sounds superficially in arrangement like the ballads we’ve just heard on McCoy Tyner’s solo albums, but listen closely and there are cues that Trane is still at the wheel. The suspensions in the pedal bass through the verse, the restraint of the group’s sound overall even as Tyner brings a gentle glissando through the middle of his solo, the opening feels tentative and even a little melancholy. But then comes the key change in the bridge and suddenly there are echoes of some of the soloistic choices on Coltrane’s Sound. The saxophonist’s solo trails off, as if in a reverie, and Tyner follows.

You Don’t Know What Love Is,” by contrast, brings some of the energy in the reading of the head that Trane used in My Favorite Things. But while the vocal sound of the track is full and warm, he keeps the pyrotechnics hidden away in favor of a straightforward reading of the tune. Not to say it’s boring. The syncopation he brings in the major-key middle eight of the tune, the explosions from Elvin Jones’ kit, and most of all the modal rocking in the piano as the group transitions out of the head and into the first solo all place this in the lineage of “My Favorite Things” and “Greensleeves.” Trane’s solo gets more impassioned, bringing bursts of sound from Jones, but then he reels it back in on the final statement of the head, with only (only!) one final octave jump and descending arpeggio to hint at the pathos of the tune. By comparison, “Too Young to Go Steady” is a cheery, straightforward reading of the Jimmy McHugh tune made famous by Nat “King” Cole. Only Jones’ slightly wide-eyed double-time snare work hints at anything more than the tune itself. You’d never know the tune was written (by Gene DePaul, lyrics by Don Raye) for an Abbott and Costello film.

Jones kicks off “All or Nothing At All” with a full kit workout that leads into a modal bass line and comping piano chords. Lees’ liner notes indicate that Trane was trying for an Arabic feeling in this cover of the Arthur Altman tune, and there’s certainly more development in the solo, with hints of the “sheets of sound” glissandos at phrase ends and in the minute-long outro. But where earlier recordings might have had those glissandos climbing for the stars, here they seem to turn inward as the track gradually fades out. It’s another one where you get a sense of the Coltrane of “My Favorite Things” waiting in the wings, but he never quite steps into the spotlight.

Harry Warren’s “I Wish I Knew” gets a quiet and contemplative treatment. Both Jones and Jimmy Garrison are relatively restrained in their accompaniment, while Tyner shows his well-earned reputation for elegance in his brief solo. Trane plays a little with the time in the return of the head, but otherwise plays it absolutely straight. The finest moment of the arrangement might be the two arrivals of a new key in the coda, hinting that the band might just explore the tune forever if you let them.

Bob Haggart’s “What’s New” is given a full verse intro by Tyner playing solo, before Coltrane joins on the melody. While the overall tempo is subdued, Jones keeps just enough pots boiling on the kit that things continue moving into the solo, where Coltrane picks up the energy as well. The band ramps things down almost as quickly as they start. “It’s Easy to Remember (But So Hard to Forget),” a Rodgers and Hart classic, follows closely behind. The only track from that 1961 session on the record, and the only one featuring Reggie Workman, the sound is remarkably of a piece with the rest of the album. Trane perhaps incorporates a little more flourish into some of his playing in the middle chorus, but it’s otherwise a concise statement of the tune, given presence by an Elvin Jones roll of thunder at the end.

Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” was originally recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1944 and is named after his daughter, but there are no boots, made for walking or otherwise, in Trane’s treatment of the tune. Trane’s saxophone seems to breathe like a singer, achieving an almost vocal tone. Garrison’s bass is a subtle accompaniment throughout. The band picks up the energy a little in the second bridge, but ultimately closes the tune, and the album, as gently as it started.

Ballads accomplishes its goal of showing a different side of Coltrane. He trades flashy technique for constrained intensity and achieves a different kind of mastery of his instrument in moments like “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “All or Nothing at All.” Compare the performance to some of Trane’s earlier ballad work, for instance on Lush Life—there’s many fewer notes here, saying just as much if not more. By subtracting some of the complexity of the earlier performances, Trane seems to gain depth and intensity in each of the notes he does play. We’ll continue in this vein with another album from his band next week.

You can listen to today’s album here:

P.D.Q. Bach, An Hysteric Return: P.D.Q. Bach at Carnegie Hall

Bonus Album of the Week, week of February 3, 2024

When I last wrote about Peter Schickele and P.D.Q. Bach, I didn’t write very much about the music. It’s hard to write about funny stuff, it turns out! And P.D.Q. Bach was solidly in that camp; as Schickele once said, where other composers wrote in the musica seria tradition, P.D.Q. Bach wrote in the musica funnia. This album proves that, maybe even more dramatically than the debut record.

Schickele (born in 1935) had been writing parodic music in the Baroque vein since he was a teenager; his earliest work, the “Sanka” Cantata, was recorded with his brother David in 1954, when he was just 19. The first P.D.Q. Bach concert recording, reviewed last week, happened when Schickele was 30, at which point a good part of the musical identity of the composer had been established: familiar or familiar-sounding themes, upended by comic settings that never quite seemed to do the expected thing, or by the equivalent of orchestral slapstick (deliberately wrong notes, jarring chords, the orchestra losing its place), or by some of the many unique instruments that Schickele invented: the tromboon, the double-reed slide music stand, the windbreaker. There was even the omnipresent “bargain counter tenor,” John Ferrante.

But for my money, P.D.Q. Bach didn’t become legendary until the publication of his first works for chorus. That may be because the P.D.Q. album my family owned, A Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach, begins and ends with choral works (the “Missa Hilarious” and “A Consort of Choral Christmas Carols”). Or it may be because the additional dimension of demented libretti causes ganglions in the left brain to giggle. Whatever the reason, the arrival of the Okay Chorale on the first track of An Hysteric Return is cause for rejoicing.

The chorus is here to perform P.D.Q.’s oratorio The Seasonings (S. 1/2 tsp.). Like the cantata “Iphigenia in Brooklyn” from the debut album, the oratorio features John Ferrante, whose recitatives set up the plot, such as it is, of the oratorio, and drive the encounters with soloists Lorna Haywood, Marlena Kleinman and William Woolf. The oratorio is full of groaning puns that are the equivalent of baroque “dad jokes” — “Open sesame seeds,” “Bide thy thyme,” “Tarragon of virtue it is full.” But the chorus steals the show on the slow movement “By the leeks of Babylon” and in the finale, “To curry favor, favor curry.”

As on the first album, Schickele takes the opportunity to “slip a little something of my own on… which I also wrote,” and as with his Quodlibet, the “Unbegun” Symphony is a collection of famous themes, expertly woven together in indescribably funny ways. To this day, I can’t hear the theme of Brahms’ second symphony without overlaying “Beautiful Dreamer” on it… or expecting it to segue into “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.”

The concert concludes with the “Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons” (S. 66), a work which substantially expands the concert repertoire for bagpipes while attempting to establish the bicycle (here used to power a siren—the faster the performer pedals, the higher the pitch) or the balloons as viable solo instruments, an effort that is a complete and utter failure. As comedy instruments, though, they’re pure gold, and the ending, featuring three balloons exhausting their air through pitch pipes in a major chord, is worth the price of admission over and over again.

With An Hysteric Return, Schickele established that P.D.Q.’s hilarity wasn’t just an interesting accident, but a formula that could reliably deliver laugh after laugh. He went on to prove this in a series of nine additional albums for Vanguard records, some of which were absolutely hysterical (see: Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach) and some of which were less so (for my money, Music You Can’t Get Out of Your Head risks riding the joke too long). But he still had enough gas in the tank for at least one more masterpiece, and we’ll hear it the next time this bonus feature returns.

You can listen to this album here:

McCoy Tyner, Reaching Fourth

Album of the Week, January 27, 2024

The repercussions of John Coltrane’s reach into avant-garde jazz, and subsequent backlash from some critics, can be traced in his early career in the 1960s, as albums after Africa/Brass took a different approach and recordings from the 1961 residencies went unpublished for several years. It’s tempting to read McCoy Tyner’s Impulse! recordings through the same lens, imagining that his substantial talents in forcefully modal jazz were suppressed by the label. Some critics have read the early Tyner recordings as evidence that he was insufficiently innovative for Coltrane’s group, foresaging his eventual departure.

The truth of the matter appears to have been mundanely commercial. Creed Taylor had left Impulse! in the summer of 1961, and his successor, Bob Thiele, asked Tyner to record more straightforward jazz albums. —I should note something about the classic Impulse! recordings before I go any further. Like Blue Note before it and CTI after, Impulse! under Taylor and his successors created a distinctive graphic identity through the use of photography, typography, design, and the overall excellence of the physical package, and Reaching Fourth is no exception. Released in a gatefold cover with striking photography and text against a black background, and the orange, black and white “house style” design on the back, it’s a gorgeous package, and the design holds up even in my 1974 reissued copy.

Whatever the impetus of the album, Reaching Fourth is a mix of standards and intriguing Tyner originals, recorded as a trio with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Roy Haynes. Grimes, who would go on to build an important career in free jazz as a member of groups led by Pharaoh Sanders, Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, and others had come to fame at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and its accompanying documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Word spread about his amazing playing and he ended up playing with six different groups throughout the festival. Haynes, who had been playing since his debut in his native Boston in 1942, had recorded with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bud Powell, and Sarah Vaughan. (He is still going strong; his 95th birthday party in 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19. I saw him play in that same 1993 jazz festival at UVA, where he clearly could outplay all the young musicians in his band.)

The title track is a Tyner composition that seems designed to showcase the more imaginative side of his writing and performance. It bears some of his early hallmarks—unusual modal voicings, a brisk tempo, high velocity runs. But it also benefits from the excellence of his collaborators. Haynes’ drumming stays on the off beat and punctuates Tyner’s solo with brisk snare rolls, while Grimes’ fiercely percussive plucked accompaniment turns into a fiery bowed solo. Haynes trades eights with both Grimes and Tyner, exploring the full tonal color of his kit in the process.

Goodbye”, written by Gordon Jenkins after the death of his first wife, changes the pace to a meditative rumination. The tune and chords swing from minor in the verse to major in the chorus and back, as though discovering different facets of grief in each new bar. Tyner’s playing has a sensitive touch even as he traces the contours and changes of the tune, and Haynes and Grimes are quietly supportive. It’s a deep sigh of a tune.

Theme for Ernie,” written by guitarist Fred Lacey for saxophonist Ernie Henry, is a bubbly tune that’s given a bouncy reading. Tyner’s playing pulls at the corners of the melody with brisk runs, accompanied by Grimes at his most buoyant. Grimes’ solo is melodically indebted to Scott LaFaro; indeed, this track brings to mind some of the telepathic interchange between LaFaro and Bill Evans on their trio recordings.

Tyner’s other original, “Blues Back,” is a straight blues, and Grimes especially plays it straight, sounding each note as though tolling a bell. Tyner, by contrast, shows how this blues swings into different modes almost with every measure, even creating a Mixolydian counter-melody in the fourth chorus of his solo. Grimes takes a two-chorus solo that explores some of Tyner’s melodic ideas before the trio returns to the theme once more.

Old Devil Moon” (which the track listing tells us is from the 1947 Broadway show Finian’s Rainbow) is more commonly remembered as a tune in Frank Sinatra’s catalog; before Sinatra, Miles recorded it in 1953 on his Prestige Records release The Miles Davis Quartet. Tyner takes the tune in a completely different direction, opening with a modal progression between bass and piano, before returning to the main melody. Grimes’ bass line remains constant between the more traditional sections and the modal interludes, providing a pedal point against which Tyner stretches the melody. Haynes helps the forward motion, keeping a steady rhythm with a little trip against the snare in the fourth beat of each measure. Together, the group seems to lean from the straight and narrow into more exciting territory, then to settle back into the straight paths as though with a grin.

Have You Met Miss Jones” closes out the album; Tyner takes the Rodgers and Hart classic from 1937’s I’d Rather Be Right and dispatches it at breakneck speed. In the coda, Grimes plays octaves around which Tyner improvises a modal melody, wrapping up the whole thing in less than four minutes. It’s a remarkable exercise in economy and a lot of fun too.

After listening to Tyner’s early work with Coltrane, listening to his early trio recordings for Impulse! can initially feel like a step back to an earlier, simpler conception of jazz. Reaching Fourth repays careful listening, showing off his innovative ear and unique compositional gifts; we’ll hear more of both as we listen to more of the recordings in the catalog. Next week we’ll pick up Coltrane’s story where we left off, finding him in a very different territory than the New York clubs that hosted his last explorations.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Peter Schickele Presenting P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742?)

Bonus Album of the Week, January 21, 2024

When I read this week that Peter Schickele had died at the age of 88, it felt like a part of my childhood had been ended. My parents had the Portrait of P.D.Q. Bach album which we listened to incessantly, and it became part of my formative education in comedy, alongside records from the Smothers Brothers and Bill Cosby (I know, I know). We went to see Schickele perform with the Norfolk Symphony in Chrysler Hall sometime in the late 1980s. I had taken the PSAT earlier that day, and felt a little woozy watching the concert from the balcony; came home and realized I was running a 103º fever — so I don’t have clear memories of the performance. What I do remember is that it was slapstick funny, clever funny, and sometimes both at once.

That holds true for most of Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach recordings, and maybe especially for the first two. Peter Schickele Presenting P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742?) was recorded live in concert at Town Hall in New York, with a chamber orchestra under the direction of Jorge Mester. The program consists of three works from the high flowering of P.D.Q.’s dubious genius; in addition, Schickele notes in the hilarious introduction to the second side, “I convinced them to let me put something of my own on.”

The “Concerto for Horn and Hardart (S.27)” could be the quintessential P.D.Q. orchestral work: suspiciously familiar themes, obnoxious instruments, odd harmonizations, “mistakes” from the orchestra (I have always laughed uproariously that the broken cadenza from the strings in the first movement that is set right by the conductor yelling “One, two, three, four!”). By contrast, the “Cantata: Iphigenia in Brooklyn (S. 53,162)” provides the added dimension of comic vocal performance, courtesy of the late lamented “bargain counter tenor” John Ferrante and some truly inspired mangled writing (“Oh, ye gods! Who knows what it is to be running? Only he who is running, running, running, knows…”)

Schickele’s “Quodlibet for Small Orchestra” exploits the brilliant professor’s talent for comic juxtaposition of familiar themes in unfamiliar ways. Finally, the “Sinfonia Concertante (S.98.6)” derives much of its humor from the weird array of instruments on stage; as Schickele observes, the bagpipes present a serious “problem of balance which P.D.Q. made no attempt whatsoever to resolve,” while the lute was so quiet that “you can’t hear it if there’s another instrument in the room with it, regardless of whether it’s playing or not.” The work is notable for the first appearance of the double-reed slide music stand, pictured below:

All in all, the record is a great intro to the lunacy that is P.D.Q. Bach and a subtle testament to the genius of his “discoverer,” Peter Schickele. I have a few more of the original records in my collection that we’ll spin in the coming days.

You can listen to this album here:

John Coltrane with Eric Dolphy, Evenings at the Village Gate

Album of the Week, January 20, 2024

In the early 1960s, John Coltrane’s studio recordings were expressive and harmonically innovative, but still followed a recognizable jazz form: statement of the melody, or head; solos that were structured around the chords of the melody; a recapitulation of the head. But other musicians were starting to innovate on that form, moving away from the structure of playing over the chord changes. Miles moved to improvisation over modal scales, as we’ve seen. And other musicians went even further, rejecting consistent chords in favor of more unlimited explorations. Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album Free Jazz gave the movement a name, and others explored its ideas. One of the most promising of them was saxophonist and flautist Eric Dolphy. And when Dolphy met Trane, it changed the older composer’s trajectory.

Trane and Dolphy had met years previously in Los Angeles, and when Trane began performing in New York in the summer of 1961, he invited Dolphy to join his group. Additionally, his group included two bassists; Trane liked the freedom the second bass offered to have both a constant “ground” or repeated fundamental note in the chord, while the other bassist was free to be a more melodic voice. So the group included Dolphy, Reggie Workman (who had replaced Steve Davis), Art Davis, and Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner from Trane’s quartet, last heard on Coltrane’s Sound.

Until recently, the main documentation for Trane’s New York sessions with Dolphy consisted of recordings from his residencies at the Village Vanguard in the fall of 1961, including 1962’s Live! At the Village Vanguard and half the tracks on 1963’s Impressions; both recordings have Jimmy Garrison replacing Art Davis. But last year a recording was found at the New York Public Library of an earlier residency, from July 1961, at the Village Gate. The recording shows off Trane’s emerging free concept at a transitional moment. Much of the repertoire is familiar from his 1961 releases, but the performances are very different.

Where the studio version of “My Favorite Things” begins with a modal progression and a clear statement of the theme, this live version jumps right in with an extended Eric Dolphy flute solo. It’s actually not clear from the recording whether the song begins here or if the recording started after the statement of the theme, but he improvises for an extended period over the minor chords of theme, eventually coming into a statement of the second eight bars of the melody (ending in “these are a few of my favorite things”) before entering another extended improvisation. He finally brings this solo to a close some six minutes in, and Trane steps up on soprano sax, stating the theme before signalling the beginning of his improvisation with a sustained blast on the tonic. His solo hugs the high end of the range, stretching out the ideas in his solos on the studio version. A phrase that might have occupied a measure or two on My Favorite Things here gets extended to 16 or 32 bars, with Trane continually extending and searching forward. Beneath the solos, Elvin Jones continually propels the beat forward. On this archival recording live recording, the bass is less audible than if Rudy Van Gelder were taping, but you can hear both the constant ground and the melodic improvisation of the two players.

When Lights are Low” has both a straight version of the melody and a keening dervish-like improvisation from Trane’s soprano sax. Dolphy anchors the low end of the line with his bass clarinet, underpinning the dizzying improvisation of Trane’s soprano sax with an earthier tone. Tyner gets a solo that sounds more conventionally structural than anything else in the 80 minute long set, but which is almost as equally searching within the limits of chromatic tonality as some of Trane’s Pentecostal honks. Throughout, Jones continues to drop explosions. I once saw the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, in 1993; at the age of 66, he was easily the most muscular and dramatic player I saw that weekend, and you can hear his work throughout this set.

Impressions” is a track that Trane never released on a studio album; the only two studio recordings extant weren’t released until 2018—but the many live performances he did often featured the track, including its appearance on the 1963 half-live album that is its namesake. Here the track has all its hallmark features—the use of the “So What” chords, especially the uptempo live version that Miles preferred and that features on the Live in Copenhagen recording. Trane takes a shorter solo here and lets Dolphy and Tyner explore the sounds before stepping back up to close out the tune. It feels more formal and less wild than the version from Impressions, recorded just four months later, but the seeds of the approach were clearly already planted.

Trane finished the set with “Greensleeves” and “Africa,” both of which featured on his Africa/Brass album, which was still about six weeks from release at the time of these sessions. “Greensleeves” feels a lot like the “My Favorite Things” arrangement, anchored in a modal two-chord pivot that Tyner keeps going throughout the arrangement, but made wild and new by Trane’s explorations. Dolphy is mostly in the background on bass clarinet for these cuts as Trane explores the sound being created by the group. When the horns drop away, leaving a Tyner-anchored piano trio, it’s almost a shock, even as Tyner’s powerful clustered chords keep the momentum of the full band track going. “Africa” is a wilder, looser tune, less anchored in chords and more a free modal exploration. It also features the one part of the set where you can clearly hear what Reggie Workman and Art Davis were up to, in an eight minute long duet. Workman’s melodic playing explored the upper end of the instrument’s register before finding a rhythmic dance against percussive string slaps and a grounding thrum from Davis. Jones takes center stage as well, dislodging the pulse in space and time, before Dolphy and Trane return for a final hurrah—and applause from what sounds like a small audience in the club.

Trane’s group with Dolphy would last almost through the end of the year. Ultimately Dolphy moved on to play with Charles Mingus, where he could play a more central role in the sound of the group; Reggie Workman would move on as well following a European tour. Ultimately Trane found a mixed reception for his experiments with Dolphy, with some critics calling the sound “anti-jazz.” He would regroup in the following year and take his sound in another very different direction. Before we check in on the outcomes of those explorations, though, we’ll listen a little more closely to what some of his sidemen were bringing to the table.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, Coltrane’s Sound

Album of the Week, January 13, 2024

John Coltrane’s stay on Atlantic Records, which started with a bang with Giant Steps, was ultimately brief. Signed in 1959, he recorded Steps, an excellent follow-up (Coltrane Jazz), and then a blockbuster (My Favorite Things) in the span of about 15 months… while also touring with Miles’s quintet (the tour which yielded the Copenhagen performance we’ve looked at recently). My Favorite Things was a hit, yielding the enduringly popular modal version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein title track, which recasts Julie Andrews’ “whiskers on kittens” into a modal exercise in musical ecstasy that calls to mind nothing so much as qawwali chants (about which, more later).

Several things happened as a result of Trane’s rising popularity. First, even before the release of Things in March 1961, Trane’s previous label Prestige Records realized they had hours of recordings by Trane in the can. They began packaging those sessions for re-release, and issued a series of records under Trane’s name but without his approval. (The series began with Lush Life, released shortly before Things in February or early March 1961.) The second thing was that Trane came to the attention of a young Creed Taylor, who had established the Impulse! Records label the year before. Impulse bought out Trane’s contract in May 1961 and he began a historic association with that label after recording one more session for Atlantic, which yielded Olé Coltrane.

Not to be outdone by Prestige, Atlantic followed their playbook and issued their own set of unauthorized Trane albums, assembling them from unused recordings from the sessions for the earlier albums. Coltrane Plays the Blues was the first to be released, in 1962. The second was Coltrane’s Sound, released in the summer of 1964. The album, recorded during the My Favorite Things sessions in October 1960, featured the earliest stable incarnation of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Steve Davis on bass. Jones had come to Trane’s band earlier in 1960, following time in Sonny Rollins’ quartet. Tyner had been friends with Coltrane for years, both hailing from Philadelphia, and also joined in 1960. Davis was Tyner’s brother-in-law and had joined the band for the My Favorite Things session. The checkered history of this album aside, it plays like a coherent concept from start to finish, wrapped in an unusual painted cover by Marvin Israel, Atlantic’s art director at the time (who must have liked the technique he used for the cover; he used it again for albums by Sonny Stitt, Charles Mingus, and Milt Jackson).

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” composed by Jerry Brainin, opens the album with a bold, major key statement. Trane blows the head melody over a percolating accompaniment from Tyner and Jones; Davis keeps the tune rooted, alternating between a walking bassline on the B section and a suspended D (a fourth down from the tonic) on the A section. Trane’s solo is classic “sheets of sound,” but with a greater emphasis on melodic development. Tyner’s, by contrast, leans into the chords percussively, sounding a distinctly different approach to the melody. Where Tommy Flanagan sometimes kept himself elegantly in the background on Giant Steps, Tyner’s melodic development and forthright chords announce him as an equal partner in Trane’s overall sound. Throughout it all, Jones matches Tyner’s percussive power, delivering bursts of sound on off beats and generally throwing gasoline on the collective fire. And yet, despite all the collective propulsion, the track also reads as a happy melody. It’s a neat trick that Wayne Shorter would nick years later for “Yes and No” on his album Juju.

In the liner notes to the album, jazz critic Ralph Gleason notes that Cannonball Adderley recounted a conversation between Trane and Miles in which Miles asked him “Why you play so long, man?” and Trane responded, “It took that long to get it all in.” As if to refute that earlier conception of jazz, as well as Gleason’s note that there are “those who claim that he will not play ballads,” “Central Park West” is a laconic ballad of Trane’s own composition, featuring an unhurried melody over a meditative set of chord changes. In addition to featuring Tyner’s most outstanding moment on the record in the introduction to his solo, the work also features some truly gorgeous, delicate playing from Trane on soprano sax, as well as the rest of the quartet.

The mood shifts as the quartet plays the opening notes of “Liberia” over a thunderous roll of Jones’ drums. The tune, another Trane composition, is in the same mode as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” and bears other similarities — right up until the point where Trane enters the B part of the head, transforms the tonality into a different mode, and starts stretching up. The rest of his solo is played as a series of attempts to take flight and scale beyond the limits of the tune. It’s a scorcher, and it points the way forward to where Trane would be going in just a few short years.

The second side opens with the other cover on the album. Tyner opens Johnny Green and Edward Heyman’s “Body and Soul” with a modal chord progression that seems to hang Trane’s melody in the storm tossed air, a ray of light through the clouds. Here Coltrane’s ballad playing is a little more loquacious than on “Central Park West,” but still has that note of yearning. McCoy Tyner’s solo is sketched out in block chords in both hands for the first chorus, then shifts to a more melodic approach in the right hand. In the bridge he shifts to playing triplets for a few bars, responding to some of the rhythms introduced by Elvin Jones underneath. Jones’ playing deserves its own paragraph. No mere dusting with brushes here! He provides a counter-rhythm to Tyner’s strong rhythm in the block chords, complete with small explosions of sound as the tune shifts from chorus to bridge. At the end the entire rhythm section is in rhythmic unison under Trane’s unexpectedly tender closing.

The opening of “Equinox” features more of the rhythmic interplay between Tyner and Jones. The pianist’s four-square chords, doubled by Davis, are filled in by Jones’ counterpoint in an eight-bar intro. The band then shifts into eight bars of a syncopated blues rhythm on the tonic chord before Trane enters, blowing the blues. As with “Central Park West,” the opening statement is almost terse, but Trane’s first solo opens up the top end of the scale and begins to hang sheets of sound across the chords. In the fourth chorus we begin to get more of Jones’ rolling thunder, but it’s drawn back as Tyner hits gentle notes under Trane’s final bars. Tyner’s solo opens again with block chords, here less pounding and more tender. He plays with the rhythm of the blues as well as with the melodic center, introducing countermelodies centered on the sixth and seventh degrees of the scale, then launches runs of triplets that seem to take flight like birds. His final chorus is almost entirely on the tonic chord, a neat trick that refocuses the tune into the ominous storm clouds.

Trane returns to the pianoless trio form for only the second time (after “Lush Life”) on “Satellite.” The sax and bass sketch out the melody in a square quarter note rhythm, but Trane is quickly in flight over the walking — running, really — bass line and the rollicking cannon fire laid down by Jones on the drums. While the changes bring “Giant Steps” to life, the overall impression is more playful as the trio springs from melody into shimmering exploration and back. Even without Tyner, there’s no mistaking Trane’s approach here, a sort of joyous exploration of the possibilities of the sound of his new small group.

The group with Davis was short lived, and there will be a different bassist in the chair (or two!) when we listen to the next Trane album. But the sessions recorded by this formation stand as high points in Trane’s early output, even as he was already restlessly moving beyond this sound. We’ll be in a very different place next week.

You can listen to today’s album here:

John Coltrane, Giant Steps

Album of the Week, January 6, 2024

When we last saw John Coltrane, the tenor saxophonist was taking extended solos and testing his freedom from the bandstand while ostensibly on a tour of Europe with Miles Davis. That session was recorded on March 24, 1960, and it came just weeks after the release of today’s album, Trane’s first for Atlantic Records. But the sessions for Giant Steps started years earlier — just a month after the last session for Kind of Blue. The recordings here demonstrate a jazz composer and performer just beginning to stretch out and realize that his span was far greater than previously demonstrated.

In 1959, Trane signed a contract as a leader with Atlantic Records. The label, founded by Turkish-American businessman and music fan Ahmet Ertegun with record executive Herb Abrahamson, had its roots in the R&B music that Ertegun loved; among its first hits was a re-recording of a hit song from his prior label Harlem Records, the McGhee Brothers “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” But jazz was always one of Ertegun’s favored genres, and when he brought his older brother Nesuhi into the label as head of A&R in January 1955, the label expanded its focus on jazz artists, bringing in Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Herbie Mann, Les McCann, Charles Mingus, and, in 1959, Coltrane.

The first sessions for Giant Steps actually took place in between sessions for Kind of Blue, on April 1, 1959, in Atlantic Studios in New York City. The band included Cedar Walton on piano, Lex Humphries on drums, and Trane’s bandmate from Miles’ group Paul Chambers on bass. The session yielded recordings of three tracks, but Trane didn’t like the results and they weren’t heard until they began surfacing as alternate takes on CD reissues of the albums years later.

Trane returned to the studio two weeks after the last Kind of Blue sessions, on May 4 and 5, 1959, with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Art Taylor on drums alongside Chambers. This configuration was more successful, recording “Spiral,” “Cousin Mary,” “Countdown,” “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” “Mr. P.C.”, and “Giant Steps.” To complete the album, Trane re-entered the studio on December 2, 1959 to record “Naima,” this time with Miles’ entire rhythm section—Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb and Chambers.

You can read a lot about the music theory behind “Giant Steps.” Trane’s innovative series of chord changes, moving through changes of thirds and fifths, and the bass line which descended in larger intervals than normal, would be the foundation for much of his early sound. Listening to the track without one’s music theory ears on, two things stand out: the tune is remarkably catchy, with the rising cadence that brings it back to the tonic suggesting a sprightly, upbeat dance; and the tempo is fearsome, particularly as Coltrane’s solo takes flight. Alternate recordings for the session reveal that Trane worked out the melodic patterns that he would play over the chords in advance; by contrast, Tommy Flanagan’s solo in the master take sounds unrehearsed, with hesitant right hand runs over each of the chords separated by gaps at each chord change. At least Flanagan attempted a solo: it is speculated that one of the reasons Trane didn’t use the sessions with Walton and Humphries was that Walton refused to solo on “Giant Steps,” despite having been given the chords in advance.

Cousin Mary,” by contrast, plays like a more straight ahead modal blues, largely staying in the same tonality throughout, and accompanied by a killer walking bass line by Chambers and brisk snare and bass drum work by Taylor. Flanagan provides elegant stabs at the chords under the horn section and takes a solo that digs into the minor second transition in the last measures of the tune. Chambers’ solo starts as a straightforward “walk” of the blues but soon broadens as he leans into the blue note. Listen for the way the rhythm section leaves space at the end of each phrase in the final chorus, as though they are breathing with Trane.

Taylor’s drums open “Countdown” with a fierce solo; he steps back to cymbals and snare as Trane enters, seemingly playing a headlong free stream of notes outside of a melodic structure. When Flanagan and Chambers enter, it becomes apparent that the whole thing is an improvisation off a set of chords that are strongly influenced by the “Giant Steps” chords. Finally Trane blows the melody, and the song is out in less than two minutes and 30 seconds. It’s a mind blower.

By contrast, “Spiral” is more measured, but no less innovative. Trane’s melody is built around a descending chromatic scale, with ornamentation at each step that implies the spiral of the title. The chords descend as well, but the bass stays on a suspended fourth below the tonic. Trane’s “sheets of sound” solo stays pretty close to the chords in the first go round, but by the third chorus he’s regularly ascending up to a minor third above the tonic, then back down. Flanagan’s solo is surer here, leaning into the minor mode. The pianist steps back to just sketching out the chords as Chambers plays a counter-melody around the changes.

Syeeda’s Song Flute,” opening Side 2, is the longest composition on the album and the most unusual. The tune (named after Coltrane’s adopted daughter) is deceptively simple, beginning with the rhythm section playing only on the second (later second and fourth) beat of each measure, and Trane playing a melody primarily consisting of even 8th notes. As the tune comes into the last four measures it changes key, moving from G down to E, before returning to the tonic. Tommy Flanagan’s solo moves nimbly around the changes, sounding at home in this setting; it’s the best work he does on the record. Paul Chambers gets a lengthy solo here as well, elaborating the gnomic wisdom in those chord changes, and bringing not only a more elaborate meter but also strategically timed moments of breath throughout the solo. When Trane returns, he plays the changes as a single note, on the downbeat of each measure, before leaning into the chorus.

Naima” is named after and dedicated to Coltrane’s first wife. It’s a ballad, played slowly and sensitively (no sheets of sound here) above an E♭pedal tone that moves to a B♭ in the middle bars. The performance here, the only one from that December 2 session with Miles’ band, is one of those moments in Trane’s discography where you can hear him subtracting elements from the song to get to the core of what he had to say. It feels centered and quiet from beginning to end, including in Wynton Kelly’s piano solo after the first chorus.

Mr. P.C.” wraps the album as a fast blues. Named after Chambers, it’s a straight ahead tune that hides tricky changes and fast exchanges in its solos. It also bears a strong familial resemblance in its first four bars to Robert MacGimsey’s 1931 song “Shadrack,” especially as performed by Sonny Rollins on his 1951 Sonny Rollins Quartet album. But Trane’s tune takes those four bars, transposes them and lands the tune someplace entirely different; his solo ends up exploring more of the outer reaches of the cosmos than the inside of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Flanagan’s piano takes over the exploration, elegantly exploring the edges of the chords and slipping in a passing Bach reference at one point. Trane returns and trades fours with Taylor for an entire chorus. Throughout, Chambers provides a consistently elevated, but even, pulse; he does not take a solo on the tune named for him.

Trane’s first Atlantic album, and the first solo recording of his post-Miles career, hints at some of the wide open vistas ahead of him. With one foot in the modal statements of Miles’ band at the time and the other foot embarking on a long search for unique expression, Giant Steps promises many moments of exploration ahead. We’ll dig into another moment in those early explorations next time.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Dylan Thomas, Reading (Vol. 1)

Album of the Week, December 30, 2023

It’s the shoulder season of the year, when the Christmas trees are still up but everyone has been Whamageddoned, most of the leftovers from the holiday meal have been eaten, and one could be forgiven for yearning for something to listen to that’s not holiday music. Time for something different, and this record, while still seasonally appropriate, certainly fits the bill.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas might be best remembered (rightly so) for “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” but it is his story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” that links today’s record with our holiday theme. And what a story it is, especially read in Thomas’s Welsh baritone. The record at hand, Reading Vol. 1, was originally released in 1952, a year before the poet’s death at age 39 from an undiagnosed bronchial infection, complicated by his heavy drinking.

Reading (Vol. 1) is significant in a few other ways. First, it was recorded during the poet’s second American tour, which established his reputation as a poet and as an unpredictably drunken performer. Second, it was the first recording on a new record label. Named after the oldest known English poet, Caedmon Records was founded on a shoestring budget by Barbara Holdridge and Marianne (Roney) Mantell, when both were two years out of Hunter College. They approached Thomas while he was on tour, and convinced him to record his poems.

Thomas recorded five of his best known poems for the record. Different versions have different running orders, but in my copy (released in 1958), the first poem to appear is “Fern Hill.” Written in 1945 as a memory of a farm Thomas visited when a boy, the poem features an unusual nine-line stanza with internal slanted rhyme, and mourns the poet’s inability to escape the passing of time: “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,/Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

The second poem on the record is “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Probably the most famous villanelle in the English language, Thomas’s fierce address to a dying man, named in the last stanza as his father, has been interpreted both literally and metaphorically over the years as an ode and exhortation to everything from dying relatives to endangered democratic ideals. Thomas’s reading here is both mellifluous and brief, but no less devastating for the brevity.

Less familiar is “In the white giant’s thigh,” which is differently devastating, as the poet’s memory of the carnal, physical joys of better times (summer? Youth?) contrasts with the stark reality of the (cold, aged) present: “And the mole snout blunt under his pilgrimage of domes,/Or, butter fat goosegirls, bounced in a gambo bed,/Their breasts full of honey, under their gander king/Trounced by his wings in the hissing shippen, long dead/And gone that barley dark where their clogs danced in the spring…” The pure pleasure of the language itself holds the dusty fate of the goosegirls at bay; these are no dead thoughts.

The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait” is the longest poem on the record, and the second longest work after “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” An epic ode to a fisherman who now seems stranded on dry land, the poem both celebrates the wild hunt of the fisherman at the sea and mourns his stranding on land, which not only domesticates him but somehow plants the sea itself with crops: “Good-bye, good luck, struck the sun and the moon,/To the fisherman lost on the land./He stands alone in the door of his home,/With his long-legged heart in his hand.”

The final poem on the record, “Ceremony After a Fire Raid,” continues in the bleak mood of the other tracks, but here at last there is an apocalypse, as the land is scoured clean after the wreckage of the bombing incendiary damage of the air raid: “The masses of the infant-bearing sea/Erupt, fountain, and enter to utter for ever/Glory glory glory.”

Thomas could be apocalyptic when the mood took him, which is why the irony stands that the first part of the album, with his wryly observed portrait of childhood, recorded only to fill the album, is the best-known recording on the album. I deliberately saved the first track for last, as “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was not only recorded last, it was added as an afterthought. After recording the five poems above, Thomas was told that they needed more material to fill the album, and he suggested this story, originally published in Harper’s Bazaar and redacted together from a radio broadcast he wrote for the BBC and a 1947 essay written for Picture Post Magazine. The resulting work is delightfully episodic, with the unforgettable episode of the burned Christmas dinner at the Protheros leading off—the dialog between the narrator and young Jim Prothero stands as an economical masterpiece of wry comedy. (Sent to call the fire brigade, they say, “Let’s call the police as well…” “And the ambulance.” “And Ernie Jenkins, he likes fires.”) There follows the exhausted and stuffed uncles, the tipsy aunts, the caroling to the haunted house. The whole thing is a closely observed piece of brilliance, a celebration of the delights of festival excess and idle childhood free-range play.

Little wonder that “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” led to the establishment of Caedmon Records as a successful enterprise. The new label went on to record many great midcentury poets and to pave the way for later audio innovations—audiobooks, anyone? We’ll hear more from Caedmon another time. Next week, though, we’ll dive into a different journey.

You can listen to the album here: