John Coltrane, Interstellar Space

Album of the Week, May 25, 2024

When I think about the final years of John Coltrane’s life, of the flurry of recording sessions from the end of 1965 to his death in 1967, many of which would not see the light of day until years afterward, I am reminded of Anne Sexton’s poem: “The story ends with me still rowing.”

In February 1967, a week after he played on the recordings that resulted in the posthumous albums Expression and Stellar Regions, Trane’s new regular drummer Rashied Ali drove with his friend Jimmy Vass to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, expecting to record a session with the band. (Ali, another Philadelphia player, had joined Trane on Meditations, after studying with Philly Joe Jones and playing with Sonny Rollins, Bill Dixon and Paul Bley). But when they arrived at the studio, no one was there. Biographer Ben Ratliff relates:

“Ain’t nobody coming?” [Ali] said to Coltrane.

“No, it’s just you and me.”

“What are we playing? Is it fast? Is it slow?”

“Whatever you want it to be. Come on. I’m going to ring some bells. You can do an 8-bar intro.”

Though everything was recorded with no rehearsal and in only a single take, the opening track, “Mars,” sounds as though it burst fully formed from Ali and Trane. With an opening invocation on shaken sleigh bells, Trane seems to be summoning all the gods at once. Ali answers with a mighty crash of drums, and then Trane enters with a four note theme (I – IV – IIIm – I) that he immediately begins improvising on. Ali does not stick to a single rhythm, offering Trane the flexibility to sing (and scream, and chant) through his saxophone in whatever rhythm he wants. Which is not to say that Trane performs in an unstructured way. Free from conventional meter, he responds by constructing his own patterns from the basic repeated rhythmic motif, which, as in the beginning of A Love Supreme, he explores in multiple different tonalities, seeming to circle the harmonic wheel until he exhausts it, then taking a break and turning once more to the bells. Ali burns out his drums with relentless polyrhythms, accompanied by Trane on bells, to the end of the track.

The opening of “Venus” picks up where “Mars” left off, only instead of burning out on the drums, Ali seems to speak to the bells with cymbals and short bursts of the snare, as Trane plays… a melody? Here we get Trane the inspired balladeer, only instead of a standard or even the tender originals on Crescent, here he seems to be playing a hymn of love and praise. This isn’t a soppy love ballad; indeed, after the initial statement it seems to rise in ecstatic chanting, slowly escalating through different keys until it reaches a fever pitch. But Trane somehow lands the plane, bringing it back down from that plane of intensity into a finish that would have been at home on Lush Life.

Another invocation of the deity opens “Jupiter,” and this time Ali seems to call for the skies to open with crackling snare work. Trane’s melody here sounds a bit like something from Sun Ship, and as before, he creates a structure around him, this time with descending sheets of sound and a riff around a descending minor second. Following this he seems to take off, ascending into the highest reaches of his horn, then creating new noises as he pushes beyond. As if pulled down by Jupiter’s massive gravity, he descends again, then slingshots backup to the opening orbit and beyond in a soft chorus of bells.

Ali’s drums seem to search across the emptiness of space at the opening of “Saturn,” bursting with small pockets of life separated by irregular stretches of silence. He settles into a loping beat in which Trane’s saxophone finds, improbably, a bluesy waltz. The tune serves as a jumping off point for Trane to circle the center of chaos once more, alternating between flights of tonality and bursts of ecstatic wailing. At one point, his searing bursts of notes seemingly leaving vapor trails, he wanders away from the microphone for just a minute, as though his relentless searching is finally causing him to pull away from this plane of existence. But he circles back, snaps into the tune once more, and seemingly reveals the boundless exploration to have been bounded within this earth after all.

And so, with the utmost regret, we come to the end of our exploration of the music and influence of John Coltrane. And as we have heard today, no matter how far out his disciples got, Trane had already gone there, and farther. Were it not for the liver cancer that claimed his life at the age of 40 just five months after this recording was made, one wonder just how far out he would have gone. But in recordings like Interstellar Space, we get to hear how he brought together all the strands of his musical curiosity, from sheets of sound to intense lyricism to improvisation without a net to, above all, the endless search, and practiced them up until the very end.

We can continue the journey no further, so next week we’ll move onto something completely different. In the meantime, you can listen to this week’s album here:

Note: CD versions of Interstellar Space contain two additional tracks: a rendition of “Leo,” which would feature in many live recordings in the last 18 months of his life, and a longer version of “Jupiter,” called “Jupiter Variations.” The original release, constrained to the duration of an LP, contained only the tracks we’ve reviewed today.

Pharoah Sanders, Black Unity

Album of the Week, May 11, 2024

When I was listening to free jazz in college and the years after, I had a fairly narrow conception of Pharoah Sanders’ contribution to the art. On the basis of performances like Meditations and Karma, I assumed that all his work was out there, shamanistic, wild. And while that is indeed a good description of some of his playing, it’s far from the whole story. Some of his performances preceding and following Karma are good jumping off points to make the story delightfully complex, starting with this one, recorded in November 1971.

We’ve seen before how issues of black power and civil rights influenced some of this music, particularly in John Coltrane’s “Alabama” (discussed in the context of Trane’s follow-up album Crescent) and in Archie Shepp’s poem for Malcolm X and elegiac salute to W.E.B. Dubois. Black Unity seems at once to be a nod to the Black Unity and Freedom Party, a Black Power political party in the UK, and a statement of musical purpose that underpins the group improvisation recorded here.

The group is top-notch, with Marvin “Hannibal” Peterson on trumpet, Carlos Garnett on flute and tenor sax, Joe Bonner on piano, Stanley Clarke and Cecil McBee on bass, Norman Connors and Billy Hart on drums, and Lawrence Killian on percussion. Bonner was an underappreciated hard bop pianist from Rocky Mount, North Carolina who had a series of collaborations with Hart and saxophonist Billy Harper in the 1970s as well as solo outings. Garnett played with Freddie Hubbard and with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Stanley Clarke might be the best known name on the album, having come to prominence as a founding member of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and winning five Grammy awards for his jazz fusion work over the years. And Norman Connors had a varied career, sitting in for Elvin Jones with the John Coltrane Quartet when the group performed at his middle school (!), playing with Sanders, recording as a leader on Cobblestone Records, and switching to R&B in the mid-1970s.

The variety of talent that Sanders’ group brought to the collective improvisation accounts for some of its sheer exuberance. The entire album is one long 37-minute collective exploration of sound, most but not all centered around a deep-grooving three-note theme that emerges within the first minute out of a cluster of sound from the Stanley Clarke, Joe Bonner and the collective percussion section. From the groove, though, emerge other sounds – a sustained wash of what sounds like a hurdy-gurdy, the balafon, and finally a version of the groove theme from the three horns, played in unison. From there the music seems to overflow outward, with all the players going in different directions over the continued groove.

The first moment of “breakage” into free jazz in the collective comes from Sanders, whose horn begins to climb a rocky hill about eight minutes in. “Hannibal” Peterson plays with fierce intensity, alternating between chromatically ascending the scale and then playing an extended improvisation around the supertonic. And Garnett grounds his playing in the original key, bringing it back to the tonic. The horns pause for a second and a relatively brief moment of respite in which the forward pulse of the bass is the main motion gives us the breath we need to flip the record.

Side two opens with a Joe Bonney solo that leans into the upper reaches of the melody. Bonney’s work with other artists ran the gamut from wild to celebratory, but his playing here is solidly in the post-McCoy Tyner world; while a good chunk of his solo firmly subscribes to the Tyner block chords model, there’s also a moment of complete and utter freedom that seems to stop time before he shifts back into a more melodic mode that calls to mind some of Herbie Hancock’s mid-1960s Blue Note output. Sanders follows Bonney, this time on the balafon. The percussive nature of the instrument, which Wikipedia helpfully describes as a “gourd-resonated xylophone”, means that its sound is approximately equal parts tone and wooden thud, and the bassists and percussion step up to support and enhance the sound.

The last part of the work is driven by the basses and percussion. McBee gets a solo that quietly underscores the similarity of the main theme to the “A Love Supreme” theme and time stops for a minute as the two bassists trade ideas against each other. When the beat comes back, emerging from a cloud of clicking percussion, dueling pizzicato, and drone, it’s less frantic, more assured. There’s a higher pitched string instrument in the mix as well, perhaps a harp or koto, that together with the basses transports the entire soundscape for a few minutes to a different world. This entire section is the most eye opening, as the collective groove that has underpinned all the free exploration and melodic expansion seems to stand revealed. If Sanders was making a philosophical—or political—statement on this album, it might be in this revelation of common cause underneath many different expressions of black musical identity In the last three and a half minutes, the rest of the band re-enters to quietly bring the theme back home. When they stop, we hear a crowd burst into applause and calls of “Right on!,” providing the final mind-blowing moment of the album—that it was recorded as a single live performance.

Sanders would explore the axis between group improvisation, deep melodies, and ecstatic free jazz throughout the rest of his career. You can find more examples of any of the sides of his work throughout his discography; for more like Karma, check out “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah” on his Jewels of Thought. By the mid-1970s he was playing more melodically (as you can hear in this great 1975 live set from Transversales Disques), and it’s that Pharoah that appears in his last recording, the 2021 Floating Points collaboration Promises. But regardless of whether he was playing fierce and free or achingly sweetly, the common core of all the work is searching (and finding) transcendence, putting him firmly in line with the work of his mentor Coltrane. We’ll get one last check-in with another Trane associate next week as we see how McCoy Tyner continued to evolve following his departure from Blue Note.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Alice Coltrane, Ptah the El Daoud

Album of the Week, May 4, 2024

We heard Alice Coltrane on McCoy Tyner’s Extensions last week—and she had played in her husband John Coltrane’s quartet until the end of his life—but her solo career didn’t really take off until this 1970 album. Yet it wasn’t her first album, nor even her first for Impulse. Following John’s death, in early January and again in June 1968, she and members of his quartet and quintet recorded a tribute to him in the couple’s home studio in Dix Hills, New York, which was released as A Monastic Trio later that year. Huntington Ashram Monastery followed in 1969, which was a simpler trio with just Ron Carter and Rashied Ali, again recorded in the home studio.

While Ptah, the El Daoud was recorded in the same home studio (a choice perhaps necessitated by her family; she was taking care of four children, all under the age of ten), it’s a very different record. While Pharoah Sanders appeared on her first album, he only played on one track; here he and Joe Henderson both perform, with Sanders in the right channel and Henderson in the left. Ron Carter returns and they are joined by drummer Ben Riley. Perhaps most importantly, here Alice turns to the harp as a primary instrument; as we’ve heard on Extensions, this was an instrument that would be a key part of her sound and which allowed her to claim a distinctive voice all her own.

Literally meaning “Ptah [the supreme Egyptian deity] the beloved,” “Ptah, the El Daoud” begins with Ron Carter playing a march figure that’s joined by Ben Riley’s drums and the piano, then by the saxophones playing in unison. Joe Henderson takes the first solo, with a fleet approach to the instrument that circles around the key pitches, rather than generating ascending or descending “sheets of sound” arpeggios; Alice Coltrane accompanies with sharp stabs at the chords. Pharoah Sanders’ solo ascends relentlessly, embracing the groan of his instrument as he generates harmonics with overblowing, but also playing through a series of modulations with precision and clarity, somewhat belying Alice’s description of him as the more intuitive player compared to Henderson’s more cerebral approach. When Alice Coltrane takes the solo, she shifts from the sharp chords to glissandi in the upper octaves, an approach to soloing that seems to echo her style on the harp. And Ben Riley’s solo on the drums, accompanied by Pharoah Sanders on the bells, is sharply rhythmic and precise in a way that hearkens back to the opening march of the tune, leading into a recapitulation.

Turiya and Ramakrishna” is a title that provides clues to the deep mysticism that pervaded Coltrane’s work, with Turiya defined as “a state of consciousness—the high state of Nirvana, the goal of human life,” and Ramakrishna referring to the Hindu mystic and spiritual leader. The tune itself is a blues, but a blues informed by Coltrane’s cascading scales and accompanied by Sanders’ bells. The horns stay out for this one, and we hear Carter and Coltrane circling around the central “three notes” of the tune, gradually turning the blues into a repetitive mantra. Carter’s solo is delicate, gently moving down the octave and circling back up to the top of the tune, playing only a few notes, but the right notes.

Blue Nile” is the standout track from this set. Featuring Coltrane on harp and Sanders and Henderson on flute, the spiritual influences hinted at by the first side of the record are here laid bare. Henderson’s playing finds a few outer regions, while Sanders’ is unexpectedly tender and romantic; Carter plays a repeated rhythm on octaves, occasionally slipping in a supertonic or subtonic, while Coltrane’s harp warps the fabric of the cosmos. Riley’s drums seem to scuffle like the wings of a bird across the top of all the other moving pieces. It’s an amazing performance and one unlike anything else Alice Coltrane had played to this point.

Mantra” puts the horns front and center, opening with an abstract wash of noise before Alice Coltrane enters with a brief theme. There is less in the way of a central melody here, and the musicians improvise in a more purely “free jazz” context. That’s not to say the playing is atonal; Sanders, in particular, moves in and out of several tunes before reaching an ecstatic and powerful peak, then stepping back into tonality over rolling chords from Coltrane. Her solo begins with those rolling chords over a bowed ground from the bass, and gradually the right hand evolves into a sort of ecstatic hovering flight as the left continues to hold firmly to the ground. The horns re-enter, seemingly taking to the same ecstatic flight, albeit in the lower register, before resolving to the irresolution of the dominant.

Alice Coltrane’s work was for years ranked, when discussed at all, as a lesser shadow of her husband’s, a dismissal that unfairly minimizes her own compositional and performing strengths. While Ptah was not reissued on CD until 1996, and didn’t see a proper remastering until 2022 (the source of my copy of the album), her music was nevertheless profoundly influential, and new discoveries from her extensive discography continue to appear. The release of her Carnegie Hall Concert this year is cause for definite celebration, and there appears to be more to come. Next week, though, we’ll check in once more with Pharoah Sanders for a different sort of performance.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Pharoah Sanders, Karma

Album of the Week, April 20, 2024

Pharoah Sanders continued to work with John Coltrane following his appearance on the Seattle club performance that became A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle. The first released fruit of their collaboration was Ascension, then Meditations, Om, Kulu Se Mama, Expression and a host of live recordings. While working with Coltrane, though, he started his series of recordings for Impulse Records, beginning with the November 15, 1966 session that produced Tauhid. What followed, though, was nothing short of a hit, an almost album length performance that cemented the advances of A Love Supreme, adding additional types of percussion and making the vocals a feature, and essentially codifying the “spiritual jazz” genre.

It’s not clear that Sanders knew this was going to be the outcome when he entered the RCA Studio with Bob Thiele in New York on Valentine’s Day, 1969 to record the first session, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” What is clear is that he had something in mind much broader than a traditional jazz quartet album. The players included Trane’s onetime bassist Reggie Workman, alongside second bassist Richard Davis; James Spaulding (previously heard on The All Seeing Eye and Schizophrenia) on flute; Julius Watkins, who had previously recorded with Trane on Africa/Brass, on French horn; the great Lonnie Liston Smith on piano; Billy Hart on drums; Nathaniel Bettis on percussion; and Leon Thomas on percussion and vocals. A second session five days later yielded the second track, “Colors,” and featured the same players minus Davis, Spaulding, Hart and Bettis, and adding Freddie Waits on drums.

Leon Thomas was a big part of the distinctiveness of the new sound. He had sung in more traditional ensembles in the early 1960s but was drafted in the early 1960s. When he returned from the service in the late 1960s, substantially weirder, he began working with Sanders on this record. His contributions included writing the poems for both tracks, singing them, adding miscellaneous percussion, and especially employing a distinctive yodel. The yodel had roots in ritual practice and in African Pygmy music; you can hear examples of the latter in the field recordings of Colin Turnbull.

The Creator Has a Master Plan,” recorded during that first Valentine’s Day session, takes up the entirety of Side One plus half of Side Two. There have been only a few records I’ve reviewed where I feel you get a better sense of the composition by listening to the CD version, and this is one. Sanders’ vision ranges for more than 30 minutes across the two sides and signals its intent from the opening notes of the saxophone, which quote some of the progressions that Coltrane used in A Love Supreme. In this case, though, they’re played over a host of percussion, flute, and piano chords, and the modal darkness quickly gives way to a more hopeful chord as Spaulding’s flute twirls overhead.

The ensemble pauses, then the bass picks up the main theme. Again seemingly inspired by A Love Supreme, the theme is an eight-note pattern formed by two closely related motifs that stretch out over an octave before resolving back to the tonic (V-I-V-IX, V-I-V-VIII). The bass theme is accompanied by tuned percussion and by Lonnie Liston Smith strumming the strings of his piano like a harp. Spaulding picks up the theme in the flute, and Sanders finally enters, first playing pedal notes on the supertonic and tonic and then freely improvising in a major key over the open tuning of the theme. His tone is mostly ballad-smooth, but there’s a little brimstone around the edges. Smith’s piano primarily sticks to reinforcing the core chords, and Watkins’ French horn primarily provides supporting color. This beginning section of the work—call it Prologue and Part 1—proceeds for almost seven minutes and 30 seconds before Leon Thomas enters.

Thomas’s vocal and percussive part, like Trane’s chant on “A Love Supreme: Acknowledgement,” serves to kick the whole performance into a higher plane. He both provides the explicit message of the song and adds vocal color from multiple religious vocal traditions, including the aforementioned Zaire Pygmy people, gospel, and traditions even further afield. Thomas also plays hand percussion, further adding to the ceremonial overtones. This first section comes to an end with a restatement of the opening theme, now with greater passion and energy, as though the band was preparing to wrap up the performance.

But that doesn’t happen; instead, at 13 minutes, the bass theme and opening recapitulates as though beginning the work again. But this time, after about two and a half minutes of Sanders’ soloing, the tempo accelerates to double speed and the real Pentecostal hollering begins, starting with Sanders and spreading to Watkins, the basses, and finally Thomas, who takes a wordless solo that first emphasizes the melody and then moves beyond it, employing multi-octave effects, falsetto, and more. (There are stretches that echo some of the Moroccan and Egyptian street performances that Peter Gabriel sampled in his Passion soundtrack, for instance the vocal color that underpins from 0:05 – 0:23 of “It Is Accomplished.”) It’s so intense that the solo actually seems to be overdubbed in a few parts. It’s in this section, by the way, that the LP version inserts a side break, returning on side 2 to absolute chaos with every player blowing or striking their instrument at maximum volume, saturating the entire sound field and providing something akin to a vision of a multi-eyed, multi-faced, multi-winged fleet of seraphim. It’s not for the faint of heart or sensitive of hearing.

At the end of this section, Sanders reintroduces the faster theme and signals a return to tonality, but not to the more subdued meditation of the beginning. We are still transcendent beings by this point, a point he quickly reintroduces by overblowing to produce additional harmonics. Thomas’ solo returns to a more melodic yodel, this time accompanied by a sustained pedal note in the bass and French horn. Finally, 28+ minutes in, Sanders returns to the original theme and tempo and provides a final recapitulation of the opening theme along with the final statement of the poem by Thomas, going into a fadeout. A fadeout! After more than 32 minutes of straight performance! This band was going to keep playing all day.

After the onslaught of “Creator,” “Colors” comes as a meditative, though not exactly peaceful, coda. The opening statement from Sanders could almost have come from the opening theme of “Creator,” but instead of the insistent bass groove we get a field of bells, arco bass, flute and piano chords that provides a meditative bed for Thomas’ sung poem. Here he dispenses with the vocal pyrotechnics, providing a straight reading of the Creator as the source of the “rainbow of love.” Sanders blows one last run of the theme from the prelude of “Creator” under the final statements of the colors, then lets Spaulding have a final crack at the gentle melody before finishing with a last two note statement of the octave.

There is no such thing as a jaundiced listen to this music; it remains mind-blowing and repays close, repeated listening. Bob Thiele knew he had something big on his hands with this session, but had to convince the brass at ABC. He’s quoted as saying, “Until the record came out, it was the same tired tune: ‘What kind of crap is this? This isn’t going to sell; it doesn’t mean anything; it’s a lot of junk; you can’t dance to it; you can’t listen to it;’ ad infinitum.” But sell it did, and topped the Billboard Jazz chart for 12 straight weeks.

Like all good gospels, Karma recapitulated and honored what had come before while simultaneously marking the birth of something new. We’ll hear some of what followed in its wake next week.

You can listen to the album here:

PS: Another really good review of Karma by Josh Mound can be found on “The Best Version of…” in Audiophile Style.

John Coltrane, Sun Ship

Album of the Week, April 6, 2024

Like all great things, the classic John Coltrane Quartet was not to last. Trane’s restless searching, which we’ve seen in Evenings at the Village Gate and A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, was constantly seeking new sounds and new instrumentation. This started with more drums and bass, and extended to bringing in additional horns, either individual saxophonists like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders (heard on Meditations, recorded November 23, 1965), or whole horn sections as heard in Ascension (recorded June 28, 1965).

But the classic quartet continued to be a performing and recording unit throughout this pivotal year; indeed, Trane hardly stopped recording, not even letting obstacles like the unavailability of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio slow him down. As a result, many of the sessions recorded during this period were not released until years after his death, including Transition and Living Space (recorded in June 1965) and today’s record Sun Ship, recorded at the RCA Victor Studios on August 26, 1965.

Sun Ship” begins with a blast, Trane blowing rapid four-note patterns while the rhythm section follows his staccato lead, then four bars of apocalyptic drums from Elvin Jones, a repetition of all of the above, and then an extended solo from McCoy Tyner. Tyner here is far from the mannered player of Reaching Fourth or Nights of Ballads and Blues; while rooted in chords, he nimbly shifts the focus of his solo from racing arpeggios to bomb-dropping block chords to blistering rhythmic patterns that recall Trane’s opening salvo, all egged on by Jones’ massive drum presence. Jimmy Garrison holds on throughout it all, providing running commentary and suspended fifths. When Trane reenters, he is in full prophetic mode, the tone of his saxophone fraying and smearing as he plays extended runs that blow right past the metrical bounds of the composition. He finds honking, bleating tones at both the high and low end of his range and keeps pushing the limits of his instrument’s sound right up until the track stops abruptly just past the six-minute mark.

Dearly Beloved” starts with a rare snippet of studio chatter from Trane to his band: “then you can go into it later… well, I think it would better to keep pressing, so we will keep a thing happenin’ all through it, but you can go through it when you feel like it. Ready?” At which point Trane introduces a broad, dramatic minor-key melody that would have been at home between the “Resolution” and “Psalm” movements of A Love Supreme. Jones and Garrison provide a heartbeat beneath Trane’s melody. Tyner, meanwhile, sketches the chord progressions with alternating block chords and ornaments, at points barely audible beneath Trane’s onslaught. When Trane subsides, we hear what Tyner has been doing: he has his own melody against a brook-like obbligato that captures a serene pause before racing back through Trane’s chords, to return once more to the C♯ tonality from the beginning. The track is full of movement but returns again and again to this serene center. “Amen” follows a similar structure, though the melody and chords bear a family resemblance to “Resolution.” At one point Tyner’s crashing chords roll forward into a triple meter, a sort of frenzied waltz, before falling back to Trane. Coltrane’s closing solo seems to take the form of a wailing prayer before tapering off to a quieter conclusion; the crashing wave of Elvin Jones’ drums brings the track to a conclusion.

Side two opens with the quiet melodic statement of “Attaining,” played freely over the quartet’s oceanic explorations with a statement reminiscent of “Lonnie’s Lament” from Crescent. After the introduction, though, the quartet drops into a lower key, with Trane speaking the words of an unknown poem through his horn over a relentless triplet rhythm in Elvin Jones’ drums. (A listen to the complete Sun Ship recordings, released a few years ago, shows that the key change is actually the result of a splice of two different takes!) When the group coalesces into a forward beat, it’s driven forward by a prominent pizzicato part from Garrison over bursts on the cymbals and snare from Jones, while Tyner takes an extended solo. The brilliant bit of the track, though, is the way that Tyner and Jones collectively slow the heartbeat through their use of polyrhythms without appreciably slowing the actual tempo of the underlying pulse. There’s one more statement of the psalm followed by another roaring wave from Jones before the quartet changes key down once more, with psalm in saxophone over a bowed line in the bass. The whole thing is breathtaking.

And then Jimmy Garrison begins “Ascent” with a simple six-note ascending chromatic figure, alternating with patterns of descending thirds, then the chromatic figure played in parallel on adjoining strings a fourth apart. Garrison continues with his solo exploring different melodic patterns around the chords implied by the chromatic scale. After about five minutes—halfway through the track—Jones joins with a bouncing figure on the cymbals and snare, and he and Garrison slow to a halt. Then Trane joins with a version of the chromatic theme played in the original lower key, and Tyner splashes blocks of chords underneath everything. Together, they take the quietly spoken prayer and make it a group cry, before Garrison repeats the theme one last time.

“Ascent” serves as a fitting send-off for the quartet in its original form. Tyner, Jones and Garrison were clearly the only group on the planet that could keep up with his energy, but the writing was already on the wall that their time together was limited. In early 1966, Elvin Jones left, feeling that his polyrhythmic style was clashing with the more omnidirectional approach of Rashied Ali, who had joined as a second drummer. McCoy Tyner had already left in December 1965, saying something similar about Ali and the other percussionists who joined: “I didn’t see myself making any contribution to that music… All I could hear was a lot of noise. I didn’t have any feeling for the music, and when I don’t have feelings, I don’t play.”

Trane continued to add more avant-garde players to his sound in the last years of his life. We’re going to hear from some of them, but next week we’ll listen to one of the members of the Classic Quartet in his rejuvenated career as a leader.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Archie Shepp, On This Night

Album of the Week, March 30, 2024

Though their playing time together was limited, Archie Shepp would forever be linked to his mentor John Coltrane, in no small part because of the record that the two of them shared, New Thing at Newport. Recorded July 2, 1965, the record featured the two quartets performing independently, rather than together, but demonstrated the affinity between the two saxophonists’ styles. But for me, Shepp’s group is interesting because it features his performing partnership with another undersung musician, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, a partnership documented more fully on today’s record, On This Night.

Hutcherson (born in 1941 in Los Angeles) was just 24 the year that both New Thing at Newport and On This Night were recorded, but he had already been playing professionally for years, recording his first session at the age of 19 with the Les McCann Trio. Sessions with Herbie Lewis followed and led to Hutcherson joining Jackie McLean’s group on the Blue Note recording One Step Beyond. More Blue Note sessions followed, including collaborations with Grachan Moncure, Eric Dolphy, Tony Williams, and Grant Green. The rest of the players on this session, Hutcherson’s first with Shepp, included J.C. Moses and David Izenson on the closing track, which was recorded at the same session that yielded “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” on last week’s Fire Music, as well as Henry Grimes on bass, Ed Blackwell on rhythm logs, and both Joe Chambers and Rashied Ali on drums. (We’ll hear more about Ali another time.)

As with Fire Music, Shepp recorded the album in two sessions, the March 9 session shared with Fire Music and an August 12 session that yielded the rest of the tracks, save one. “The Mac Man,” from the second session, starts the album with a post-bop flavor, Hutcherson and Shepp playing the short theme and immediately dropping into mutual improvisation, Shepp blowing sheets of sound while Hutcherson surfs chromatic waves through the cosmos and Grimes explores different modal scales on the bass. The group comes together into something like a blues that just as quickly morphs into a ballad, if only for a moment, before returning to the blues shuffle that reveals itself as the main tune. The blues morphs back into the opening cosmic exploration over what can only be described as a percussion freak-out led by Ed Blackwell’s rhythm logs, before settling into a final loping exploration in a minor key.

Hutcherson modulates into the opening chords of “In a Sentimental Mood,” conjuring a more familiar tonality out of the chaos, as Shepp’s free explorations similarly lead into a statement of the melody of the Ellington/Kurtz/Mills standard that manages to be both delicate and woozy at the same time, evoking the robust articulation of Johnny Hodges. It’s a stunning tonal shift after “The Mac Man.”

Gingerbread, Gingerbread Boy,” recorded live at Newport, is much freer. Beginning with a bass line from Barre Phillips, the ensemble improvises around major and diminished minor chords from Hutcherson before abruptly shifting into a fast melody that alternates with a slower section. The band then enters hyperspace, collectively exploring the chordal space of the fast section as Shepp overblows his horn over sustained notes in the vibes. The exploration continues as Hutcherson surrounds the group with clouds of vibes, and Shepp ends his solo with a repeated melodic line (VIII – V – VI – III – IV – VI – II – VII). After Hutcherson takes a turn, the melodic line returns, now played over a slow blues. A burst of the fast melody closes the performance, and the side.

On This Night (If That Day Would Come)” is another thing entirely. A tribute to W.E.B. Dubois, the opening could easily be a 20th century classical art song, in this case performed by Christine Spencer and accompanied by Shepp on piano. The soprano performs Shepp’s poem that calls for the end of racial injustice: “Now is the time for all men to stand/Rise up you starved and toiling masses/My brothers sister all/We cannot fail, justice is our avenging angel/All hail the birth of truth … And the worker’s voice resounds: Give back the valleys, steppes and the plains./They are mine, they are mine./On this night (if that great day would come)/The dawn of freedom/For the people shall take arms as one/No power can prevail/We cannot fail now…” After the soprano leads out of the melody, the band, now joined by Hutcherson, plays a howl before Grimes leads them into a blues, over which Shepp blows a cool solo that rapidly heats up before relaxing back into the blues. Spencer returns with a reprise of the poem, asking, “Behold the blood from my brother’s veins/How will we remember?” and accompanied by Shepp, this time on the saxophone. It’s moving and completely unlike anything else that we will hear from Shepp.

The Original Mr. Sonny Boy Williamson,” named after the famed blues harmonica player and singer (of “Bring It On Home” fame), is not a blues, but the melody is easily the most quotable on the record before Shepp begins his improvisation. He burns out over chords that seem slightly familiar—is that a touch of “So What” in Hutcherson’s lines?—before the band comes back to the theme once more. It’s an almost peaceful tune, a peace that’s promptly shattered by the last track, “The Pickaninny (picked clean — no more — or can you back back doodlebug).” Starting with a clownish theme, the band shifts into new melodies and improvisations that take us into new places. As Nat Hentoff says in the liner notes, “Having been picked clean, the Pickaninny now knows where he’s at — and he’s moving.”

Assembled though it may be from a grab bag of recording sessions, On This Night still stands for me as a monument, though admittedly sometimes an inscrutable one. Held together by the interplay between Shepp and Hutcherson, and the mighty rhythm sections on each track, it’s well worth seeking out in the original LP form.* As for Shepp, he’s still recording, putting out new records every few years, many on his Paris-based Archieball label. The 2017 joint recording with Jason Moran, Let My People Go, was a highlight of that year in jazz for me. But his influence on Trane acted like an orbital boost, slingshotting Trane’s exploratory tendencies into a higher gear. We’ll hear an outcome from all that exploration next time.

You can listen to the album here:

* When On This Night was reissued on CD alongside New Thing at Newport, the reissue producers moved “Gingerbread, Gingerbread Boy” onto the latter recording along with the rest of Shepp’s Newport set. They then filled the void in the set with several alternate takes and outtakes from the session, as well as bringing “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” from Fire Music. While the resulting compilation makes some sense, it hardly resembles the original intention of the compilation. The original LP is worth seeking out—as the price tag on my 1974 reissue copy (top) indicates, it’s even affordable.

P.S. – If Bobby Hutcherson’s playing intrigues you, you can check him out as both a sideman and a leader on the “Positive Vibrations” edition of Exfiltration Radio.

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:

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: