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:

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:

John Coltrane with Eric Dolphy, Evenings at the Village Gate

Album of the Week, January 20, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, Coltrane’s Sound

Album of the Week, January 13, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can listen to today’s album here:

John Coltrane, Giant Steps

Album of the Week, January 6, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can listen to today’s album here:

Old mix: the blue groove of twilight

One of the things that happened when I got to the University of Virginia was that I began to branch out in my musical tastes—or, maybe more precisely, I began to explore each of the branches I had already grown to like. In this case, it was jazz, and while I had made mix tapes containing jazz music before, this was the first to be (almost) entirely devoted to jazz.

I found my way into jazz from Sting, whose band in the mid to late 1980s was made up of jazz musicians; from summer concerts at Fort Monroe; and from my mom’s record collection. She had some Ahmad Jamal and Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis—nothing too outré but enough to convince me that I wanted to listen to more. I also knew, from U2, that I ought to listen to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I didn’t really know anyone else who listened to jazz, so I had to find my own way in.

Because I liked to read liner notes, I found myself drawn to the Original Jazz Classics reissue series of classic jazz albums on CD when I was at UVA. There was so much context on the back of those albums! You could see who the players were, read reviews, and more without even opening the album. That’s how I started to dig back into some of the great ’50s and ’60s recordings. I also picked up the threads of Sting’s band, listening to Branford, then Wynton, then Wynton’s band and Kenny Kirkland.

Because I have never been able to focus exclusively, a couple of jazz-adjacent tracks snuck onto this mix. Most notably, “Escalay” from the Kronos Quartet Pieces of Africa appears. While this is nominally a classical or world music track, it has enough in common with the works around it—a strong rhythmic foundation, a modal scale, an improvised solo—to fit in nicely. The other, Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” was added to provide an anchor point for some of the other explorations of blues through the jazz idiom on Side 2. And I couldn’t figure out how to end the mix, so I dropped some Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in; it fits better than you’d think because of the vocal improvisation and the general mood.

For the actual jazz tracks, there’s a pretty good range of stuff. Of course we touch on Kind of Blue, but there’s also Coltrane’s Sound and Ellington Indigos. I really like the tracks from Marcus Roberts, the pianist and composer who was the nucleus of Wynton Marsalis’s late-1980s/early-1990s band. And there are a couple of nice sets on the second side, with the early jazz workouts of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins contrasting with the more abstract work of Branford Marsalis, Ornette Coleman and Kenny Kirkland.

  1. Brother VealWynton Marsalis Septet (Blue Interlude)
  2. NebuchadnezzarMarcus Roberts (Deep In The Shed)
  3. Central Park WestJohn Coltrane (Coltrane’s Sound)
  4. EscalayKronos Quartet (Pieces of Africa)
  5. All BluesMiles Davis (Kind of Blue)
  6. All the Things You AreDuke Ellington (Ellington Indigos)
  7. As Serenity ApproachesMarcus Roberts (As Serenity Approaches)
  8. The Jitterbug WaltzMarcus Roberts (As Serenity Approaches)
  9. Love In Vain Blues (Alternate Take)Robert Johnson (The Complete Recordings)
  10. Perdido Street BluesLouis Armstrong (Louis Armstrong Of New Orleans)
  11. My Melancholy Baby [Alternate Take]Dizzy Gillespie & Charlie Parker (Bird And Diz (+3))
  12. ParadoxSonny Rollins (Worktime)
  13. Willow Weep For MeDuke Ellington (Ellington Indigos)
  14. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet BornBranford Marsalis Trio (The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born)
  15. Simpatico – MisteriosoHoward Shore/Ornette Coleman (Naked Lunch)
  16. ChanceKenny Kirkland (Kenny Kirkland)
  17. Big Trouble In the Easy (Pedro Pops Up)Wynton Marsalis (Tune In Tomorrow… The Original Soundtrack)
  18. Crepuscule With Nellie (Take 6)Thelonious Monk (Monk’s Music)
  19. Amazing GraceLadysmith Black Mambazo with Paul Simon (Journey Of Dreams)

If you are an Apple Music subscriber, you can listen to (most of) the mix here:

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Album of the Week, November 19, 2022

Duke Ellington’s run of albums for Columbia Records in the mid to late 1950s was spectacular. In addition to Masterpieces by EllingtonEllington at NewportBlack, Brown and Beige, and Ellington Indigos, the run also included such classics as Ellington UptownA Drum is a WomanSuch Sweet ThunderJazz Party (featuring the debut of the Billy Strayhorn tune “U.M.M.G.”), and the soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder

However, by 1962 his contract with Columbia had come to an end, and in a way this ushered in an even more significant period in Ellington’s development, as he began to record sessions for other labels with an array of artists. From this period came his great collaboration with Max Roach and Charles Mingus, Money Jungle, and two collaboration albums on Impulse! Records, Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

It’s worth pausing for a second to acknowledge that we have stepped into the timeline of Impulse! Records. One of the undisputedly great jazz labels alongside Blue Note and Verve (and later, CTI), Impulse! was established in 1960 by producer Creed Taylor, who may be the most significant contribution to jazz music to have come from Pearlsburg, Virginia. At Bethlehem Records, his first recording, a session backing vocalist Chris Connors with Ellis Larkins’ piano trio, earned him the position of head of A&R for the label. He parlayed this brief but successful stint into a role at ABC-Paramount, where he created Impulse! as a subsidiary label with the tagline “The New Wave in Jazz.” Creating immediate success with records by Gil Evans, Kai Winding, Ray Charles, Oliver Nelson and others, Taylor’s lasting accomplishment was to sign John Coltrane to the label in 1960. Due to Coltrane’s long association with the label, it became known as “The House That Trane Built.” Taylor left Impulse! for Verve in 1961, leaving the session Coltrane recorded with Ellington to Trane’s long-time producer Bob Thiele and engineer Rudy Van Gelder. (We’ll see Creed Taylor again.)

Ellington did not bring along his orchestra, or even his usual horn players, to the session. Without a regular record contract, he could not keep the band together indefinitely. Instead, bringing drummer Sam Woodyard and bassist Aaron Bell, he met Coltrane on more or less equal footing.

This recording found Coltrane at an interesting point in his development. While still performing with the Miles Davis Sextet, he had recorded music with an increasingly avant-garde flavor, perhaps culminating in the residency at the Village Vanguard with Eric Dolphy, Reggie Workman, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner that saw a release as Impressions. Critics were bitterly divided over the work, misunderstanding Trane’s searching approach, and 1962 apparently brought some retrenchment, with a greater focus on ballads, but no lack of innovation in the playing. Trane had just stabilized the membership in his own Great Quartet, with Jimmy Garrison replacing Workman on bass; Garrison and Jones join Coltrane on this session, and indeed support Ellington on all but two of the numbers.

As with Money Jungle, Ellington paired with the new players brings a sense of fresh spontaneity and depth to the album, many of the selections on which are familiar Ellington standards. The opener, “In a Sentimental Mood,” could not be performed more delicately by the band, with Jones’ muscular but nuanced hand at the drums joining Aaron Bell on bass. Trane’s melodic playing seems to search through the key changes of the tune, but never goes “out” in the way some of his earlier work stretches beyond space and time. Instead, he seems anchored to our world through the combination of Ellington’s gentle arpeggiated introduction and Jones and Bell’s steady, subtle pulse.

Take the Coltrane” is one in a series of Ellington compositions devoted to musicians with whom he collaborated, and it’s a remarkable achievement, highlighting both Trane’s arpeggiated “sheets of sound” and a slyly modal melody. Elvin Jones does unnaturally wonderful things on the hi-hat throughout, and Trane’s solo is of a piece with the work he was recording on his own Impulse! recordings. This recording features both Bell and Garrison on bass, and both plus Jones support Trane under his solo while Ellington steps aside. When Duke returns, he slyly drops in a little “Ooh Pa Pa Da” as though in reference to the bop origins of the tune. It’s genuinely fun.

Big Nick,” the sole Coltrane original on the record, is a fun, loping melody that takes the harmonic ideas of “Giant Steps” and swings them, creating a slow blues that rides on Jimmy Garrison’s loping bass line. Coltrane’s solo takes off for something like the outer stratosphere but never loses the blues progression, so that when he yields the floor to Duke his more straightforward take on the blues feels like a continuation of the conversation, rather than a rebuke. But it really all comes back to the melody, one of the quirkiest and most fun that Coltrane authored.

Stevie” carries on the swing but in a more Ellingtonian harmonic language, swerving from a minor blues into a major key. His introductory choruses veer through at least three different modes before returning to the original minor. Trane mostly stays within the first minor mode for his solo, which carries flavors of “Impressions” in its blistering runs but never goes too far outside. Ellington’s initial take on the melody stays cool in contrast to Coltrane’s heat, finishing with a low tolling note to close out the first side.

My Little Brown Book” is one of the most gorgeous ballads on the record. The Ellington introduction, with Woodyard and Bell backing, revisits the feeling of “In a Sentimental Mood,” but when Coltrane enters on the melody of this Strayhorn composition, we’re suddenly swaying to a half heard melody on an empty dance floor somewhere near midnight. This is Trane at his most romantic, with echoes of his performance of “I’ll Wait and Pray” from Coltrane Jazz, and the rest of the band is there for him, with only small ripples from Ellington disturbing the serenity of the track.

Angelica” is, for me, the standout track here. Just listen to that opening beat from Elvin Jones, and the bounce that carries over to Ellington’s opening choruses, backed up by a jubilant Garrison. Coltrane’s entry keeps the swing going, and he plays it pretty safe for the first few choruses. Then on that fourth, after Ellington drops out and it’s just him and the rhythm, he cuts loose, with sheets of sound swirling around the beat, never losing the swing but somehow taking a step left through a door into, well, a John Coltrane record. After that chorus, he brings it back to the melody, and you can hear Ellington recalibrating his approach before he re-enters. It sums up so much about the connection between Coltrane’s approach and the harmonic and rhythmic innovations that had come before him, and is a complete blast to listen to. And maybe even dance: I want Elvin Jones playing that beat for my entry music as I stroll, sashay and jitterbug into heaven.

The Feeling of Jazz” brings us back to a slow blues to close out the album. True to its title, it bridges both Trane’s searching quality and Ellington’s formalism to give us something that feels like a little of both worlds. Trane’s solo continues throughout most of the song; we are reminded of the time he told Miles, the latter having asked why he played such a long solo, that “it took that long to get it all in.” At the end, Trane finally steps back from the microphone and Ellington and his rhythm section play through the fade-out, the elder titan getting the last word.

In the liner notes to the album, Trane famously remarked, “I would have liked to have worked over all those numbers again, but then I guess the performances wouldn’t have had the same spontaneity.” The whole session was recorded in a single day on September 26, 1962 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, just eight days after the recording of “Up ’Gainst the Wall” that rounds out Impressions. But the album speaks for itself, the meeting of two giants and of two sympathetic musicians who bring their separate conceptions of the music into a unified whole. It remains as spontaneous and fresh for me today as when I first heard it almost thirty years ago.

You can listen to the album here:

Miles Davis, Someday My Prince Will Come

Album of the Week, April 30, 2022.

To interpret this album, we need to start with Dave Brubeck.

That’s not a sentence that begins many discussions of Miles Davis’s music. But in this case it fits, because the small group album released after Kind of Blue found Miles in a very different place than he was on that masterpiece. For once, he was not exactly blazing a trail.

He picked a good time to regroup, coming off two masterpieces—not just Kind of Blue but the followup album with Gil Evans and his orchestra, the miraculous Sketches of Spain (about which I may write one day, but which is not presently in my vinyl collection). But regrouping was needed. After the European tour, Trane had decided to strike out on his own, taking the tunes that he had explored onstage to the chords of “Kind of Blue” (“Impressions”) and “On Green Dolphin Street” (“Like Sonny”) along with his searching, experimental aesthetic, and forming his own quartet. (We’ll talk about their albums at some point, after I finish telling the rest of Miles’ story.)

Miles had auditioned a few saxophonists, doing live performances with both Jimmy Heath and Sonny Stitt, before landing on the young Hank Mobley. Mobley had been recording a string of ingenious albums for Blue Note, including the classics Soul Station and Roll Call in 1960, and brought with him some of the same athleticism that Trane displayed, tempered with a touch of soul. It was a good match in many ways for the rest of the quintet, which still included soul-flavored pianist Wynton Kelly as well as the redoubtable Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers.

But what Mobley didn’t bring was repertoire, at least, not in the same way that Bill Evans helped Miles tap the vein of modal jazz that underpinned the great 1958-1960 recordings. Miles had to bring that himself, which may explain why this recording featured several standards, including the title track. But why did a Disney song count as a standard? For that we have to thank Dave Brubeck (I told you I’d get there, eventually).

Brubeck in 1957 was a few years away from recording his own masterpiece, 1959’s Time Out, but he had built a strong working group of his own, with Paul Desmond’s distinctive alto providing a lyrical counterpart to Brubeck’s muscular approach to the piano. And Brubeck, while a substantial composer in his own right, was looking for new material that could showcase the quartet’s versatility. He found it, reportedly, at Disneyland, and then had to work hard to convince producer George Avakian to bet on a whole album of Disney covers. The lead-off tune on the second side of Dave Digs Disney? “Someday My Prince Will Come.” (We’ll talk more about Dave Digs Disney at some point, too.)

Miles had been listening to Brubeck for a while — remember, he covered “In Your Own Sweet Way” on Workin’ and “The Duke” on Miles Ahead. And he must have heard, in Brubeck’s version of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” something of the direction he wanted to take his quintet. The only problem was that Mobley, while a great tenor player, didn’t have the right sound for the arrangement.

And so it was that Miles called on Coltrane, one last time. Trane was reportedly reluctant to return to the studio with Miles’s group, being consumed with a much bigger project, the orchestra recordings that would be released as Africa/Brass. But return he did, and in two days in March 1961, he recorded “Prince” and Miles’ composition “Teo,” named for his long-suffering producer. (We’ll hear more about Teo Macero later.)

Something else strikes you about this album, maybe even before you open it: the portrait of the woman on the cover is more direct and beautiful than anything on Miles’ album covers to date. That’s appropriate; so is the music inside. Miles was in love, as it turns out, and his now-wife, Frances Taylor, was featured on the cover because Miles demanded that Columbia feature black women in the album art. The music is accordingly beautiful and melodic, with the Miles originals (“Drad-Dog,” “Teo,” and “Pfrancing” aka “No Blues”) alternating between wistful melodies and soulful blues. 

The recording was not just beautiful, though. Trane arrives late on the title track, after two solo turns by Miles and one by Mobley, but the power he brings to his turn injects it with new energy, simultaneously forthright and yearning.  His solo on “Teo” brings some of the energy and chordal approach that would appear on his own quartet recordings, and spurs Miles to feats of energy of his own, before the trumpeter deconstructs Trane’s approach to the melody. Miles’s second solo on the tune is additive, as he brings elements of his solos from Sketches of Spain, and subtractive, as he takes Trane’s statements and abstracts them, turning the arc of the solo into a stretched-out call that sounds over the rhythm section. 

By this recording, that rhythm section of Kelly, Chambers and Cobb was easily as tight a unit as Red Garland had formed with Philly Joe Jones and Chambers in the early days of the quintet. Kelly was more deeply steeped in the blues than Garland ever was, and his performance on this recording has a soul jazz sound that would rarely appear in Miles’ recordings. This unit would soon strike out on their own as a trio led by Kelly, and they would even record their own Someday My Prince Will Come

As for the originals on the album, “Pfrancing” and “Teo” would both be performed by other players, especially Joe Henderson, who brought both back in his tribute album, So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles). But if the tunes would stay, this band would not. This unit made no more studio recordings after this date, but they appeared in two legendary live sessions. The San Francisco sessions at the Blackhawk were issued as a pair of albums under the title Miles Davis in Person. We will discuss the other live album next time. 

You can listen to the album here.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane, The Final Tour: Copenhagen, March 24, 1960

Album of the Week, April 23, 2022.

As Robert Frost wrote (and S.E. Hinton quoted), nothing gold can stay. This was certainly true of John Coltrane’s sojourn in Miles Davis’ band.

As we’ve seen, Trane had already left Davis’ employ once, to get clean of his heroin habit, after which he rebuilt his career performing in Thelonious Monk’s band before rejoining Miles. The second and final departure happened for a different reason: Trane developed into a star. He had signed with Atlantic Records in 1958, and in April 1959, a month after the first recording session for Kind of Blue, he entered Atlantic Studio in New York City to begin laying down the tracks that would eventually emerge on his debut for the label, Giant Steps. The sessions for the album would continue throughout the year, during which he also recorded material for Coltrane Jazz. These albums, featuring only his compositions, helped him build his fan base further. But he continued to record and perform with Miles during this period, even going on a European tour with him.

This helps to explain the first track of this record, which captures one of the concerts released as The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6. Jazz impresario Norman Granz introduces the players, getting applause for each name, until he introduces Coltrane… and the crowd goes nuts, applauding at least as loudly as they do for Miles.

The performances heard on this record are a hybrid between the style of Miles’ first great quintet (Cannonball Adderley had left the group by now) and Coltrane’s solo materials. Not quite a year after the recording of Kind of Blue, that album’s opening track, “So What,” had picked up the tempo considerably, going from the gentle stroll heard on the album to something considerably faster and darker. The track would keep the faster arrangement from this point forward. And Trane seems to have been let off the leash.

Indeed, as Ted Mills has pointed out, sometimes it doesn’t even seem like the two greats are playing in the same band. With Miles soloing, the band sounds like a fired-up version of the group that made Kind of Blue almost a year previously, but they’re still recognizable as the same group. When Trane steps up, however, the band catches fire.

Trane was just beginning to move beyond the chord-focused explorations that drove his Prestige recordings into explorations of spiritual verities, and you hear some of these directions in his playing in the Copenhagen concert. While there is no overblowing or squalling in the horn, sounds that would come to define the outer reaches of his Pentecostal exploration of the world around him, some of the other trademarks of the classic Coltrane sound are there: the abandonment of cool, the breaking beyond the boundaries of the eight bar chorus, the use of modal scales as a vehicle for spiritual exploration, and of course, the cascading “sheets of sound” in which it becomes difficult to hear the individual notes of his runs as they search out beyond the boundaries of the improvisation for something new.

On its surface, “On Green Dolphin Street” would seem like a strange vehicle for Trane’s search. The song, by Bronisław Kaper with lyrics by Ned Washington, was an MGM movie theme in 1947 and then mostly forgotten until Miles’ sextet resurrected it in a recording in 1958, in their first recording sessions. Their recordings, which were followed by versions by Bill Evans’ trio, Wynton Kelly, and Eric Dolphy, established the song as a jazz standard. But you don’t hear the standard improvisation when Coltrane solos. You hear him taking flight.

After this tour, Trane would return to the studio with Miles’ group once more, for two songs. But he was otherwise off on his own flights of exploration. We’ll hear more from both Miles and Trane soon.

The vinyl version of The Last Tour is an odd artifact; it presents material from one of the European performances of the tour and splits “On Green Dolphin Street” across two sides of the record. A fuller record of the tour can be found on The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour, which in addition to the Copenhagen show also presents performances from L’Olympia in Paris and the Konserthuset in Stockholm. I’ve provided links to the performances on the LP below; enjoy!

  1. Introduction by Norman Granz
  2. So What
  3. On Green Dolphin Street
  4. All Blues
  5. The Theme (incomplete)

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Album of the Week, April 16, 2022.

The opening of “So What,” the first track on Miles’ magnum opus, might be Paul Chambers’ most famous performance. Forget everything he had done with Miles’ group to this time; forget his solo records; forget all the great work he did with Trane and Cannonball Adderley and Kenny Clarke and Wynton Kelly and pretty much every hard bop artist in the 1950s and early 1960s. That walking bass line that follows Bill Evans’ introspective opening will forever define jazz bass: simple, functional (it underpins the modal progression of the that serves as the first line of the song’s theme), and utterly unforgettable. Chambers would live not quite ten more years after recording that bass line, and his work would never again have the sort of prominence he had on this record.

Kind of Blue was that kind of record for many of the players who performed on it. It’s that kind of record, period. It’s probably the one jazz record you have if you don’t own any jazz, because everyone has told you to buy it. And they’re right: Kind of Blue is the pinnacle of a certain type of playing, recorded by a group of men who had developed a certain telepathic sense of line and melody and how to step up and when to lay back.

For this reason, Kind of Blue repays countless listenings. It’s not as out there as some of the work that was to come with the Second Great Quintet, but it’s as intricate as a precision timepiece and as effortless as exhaling. So these thoughts are what I observe as I listen today. I might find different things tomorrow.

This was one of the few Miles albums that put the names of each player on the cover, even pianist Wynton Kelly, who only sat in on “Freddie Freeloader.” As we’ve learned in this series, the players matter in all these recordings, but they especially matter here. This is because, as Bill Evans notes in the liner notes to the album (below), almost everything you hear on the album was a first take.

That “almost” is interesting, because it raises the spectre of a self-conscious mythologizing—especially when one learns that there were, in fact, two takes of “Flamenco Sketches,” and that the one on the record is Take 2. There is also, in the liner notes, references to Japanese painting and a description of the different forms of each song, in an attempt to hint at the formal underpinnings beneath the improvisations. Evans notes of “All Blues,” for instance, that it is “a series of five scales, each to be played as long as the soloist wishes until he has completed the series,” which is a bit like saying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a set of rhythmic vibrations of air.

Jibes aside, it is impossible to overstate Evans’ contributions to the album, and indeed to this phase of Davis’ band generally. As we learned while listening to Miles Ahead, Miles had been leaning toward a less cluttered conception of his music that offered more freedom for improvisation without the density of the chord changes that had been the formal underpinning of small group jazz since the days of Charlie Parker. Evans brought to his work on the piano a sense of formalism inspired by the works of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, as well as a formal grounding in the modal theories of George Russell courtesy of a working relationship with the noted “third stream” composer over the course of several years. The combination of Evans with Miles’ new modal direction, heard in their initial joint recordings as well as live performances in Davis’s sextet, was electric. But Evans was already looking beyond his sideman work and beginning to record with his first great trio with Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian. Miles had to ask Evans to come back and record this album with him.

It is clear that Kind of Blue would not have happened without Evans. First, on purely practical grounds, he by all accounts composed “Blue in Green,” based on a request by Miles to Evans for a piece that centered around two chords, G minor and A augmented. When he was not credited on the record, he confronted Miles, who is said to have offered him $25 in compensation. Based on its similarity to Evans’ earlier composition “Peace Piece,” it’s likely that the pianist wrote “Flamenco Sketches” as well.

But the pianist contributed other elements to the record, most notably an abiding sense of melancholy, particularly in the two compositions mentioned above. But the genius of the album is that the melancholy is not a destination. The form of “Blue in Green” sees the pianist come full circle, repeating the opening figure as though returning again and again to a painful memory. But “Flamenco Sketches,” as it moves through the different scales, opens up that melancholy like a flower, moving beyond and through to a new horizon.

Adderley and Coltrane brought their own strengths to the record. Cannonball brings his own sense of harmonic conception, but his rhythmic approach is more linear than Trane’s, who bent the meter when it suited him. Indeed, his entrance on “Freddie Freeloader” literally stops the time, as the entire band drops out behind his first entrance. Throughout, though, both saxophonists bring an almost psychic connection with each other and the rest of the band, contributing to the frequent description of these tracks as perfect improvisation.

Evans would not record with Miles again. Nor would Adderley, who moved on to form his own group. Trane returned for a few tracks of Miles’ next small-group album, but his swan song with the group was effectively the tour of Europe that they mounted in 1960. We’ll hear that soon.

Listen (again).

Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Music

Monk’s Music

Album of the Week, March 19, 2022.

Today’s #albumoftheweek may seem like a detour from our exploration of Miles Davis’s recording career (via my record collection), and it is, a bit. But in other ways it picks up where we left off last week, with Miles’ band mostly leaving as they fell prey to their addictions. Today we explore what happened next to the most famous of those sidemen.

What happened to John Coltrane was that he found God.

This is not an inference or an exaggeration. In 1964, Trane wrote in the liner notes to A Love Supreme that “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.” The newfound spirituality enabled Trane to quit heroin, though not before it irrevocably marked him; there is good reason to suppose that the drug, along with the alcoholism that accompanied his addiction, contributed to the liver cancer that was to kill him just ten years later.

Trane also found Monk, or vice versa, in 1957, and their collaboration made a substantial difference to their respective careers. Thelonious Sphere Monk himself had been struggling for years, after the discovery of narcotics (likely belonging to his friend Bud Powell) in his car led to the revocation of his cabaret card. His ability to perform in public limited and his eccentric composition style granting his music an unfair reputation for difficulty, his record sales for Prestige were relatively meager. In fact, when he sought to go to Riverside, the latter label was able to buy out Monk’s contract with Prestige for only $108.24.

But somehow Trane and Monk found each other in mid-1957 and began performing together at the Five Spot Cafe. Because Trane was still under contract to Prestige Records, he was not able to record widely in the studio with Monk’s group, but somehow the label managed to secure the rights to include him in this recording, which featured exclusively Monk’s compositions—plus, in a note of irony, a horns-only performance of the hymn “Abide with Me,” written by William Henry Monk (no relation).

The inclusion of the hymn takes us back to the evolution of Trane during this period, and spotlights the substantial and lasting difference that his spiritual conversion made in Trane’s music, almost from the very beginning. The single verse of the hymn is played solemnly and straight, with harmonies straight from the hymnbook. Structurally it serves as a prelude to the next track, “Well, You Needn’t,” which features an astonishing solo from Coltrane in full on pentecostal mode.

In fact, “Well, You Needn’t” is an astonishing track from start to finish. Monk’s piano opens by itself, swinging the rhythm and stretching it into something like 6/4, before being joined by the full band. Monk remains gnomic in his solo, approaching the chords of the melody obliquely rather than playing into it, before calling for his tenor saxophonist: “Coltrane! Coltrane!” And Trane enters, blowing leaps of fifths and sevenths across two choruses in something like a holy shout. He then yields the floor to Ray Copeland for a turn at the melody on trumpet, before Wilbur Ware and Art Blakey pick it up. Ware’s exploration of the melody evolves it into a pattern of descending fifths that is then picked up by the redoutable Blakey, who then takes the pattern across all the elements of his drum kit. Coleman Hawkins and Gigi Gryce take the last solos, with more conventional but no less fierce approaches to the melody, before the full band comes back in to close the track. It is nothing short of a master class in jazz improvisation.

The third track, “Ruby, My Dear,” is the one track on which Coltrane doesn’t play, but that is not a reason to skip it. It’s a remarkably tender ballad and on any other record would be the romantic highlight. But not here. On Monk’s Music the second side goes through some gnarly territory with the one-two punch of “Off Minor” and “Epistrophy” before it lands on a new composition, “Crepuscule with Nellie.”

The tune, dedicated to Monk’s wife, was originally to be titled “Twilight with Nellie,” before the countess Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a staunch advocate of American bebop musicians, suggested the use of the French word. The performance is through-composed, meaning that Monk wrote out the entire track rather than sketching the melody and chords as a basis of improvisation. It also means that what we hear in the recording is an unusually true representation of Monk’s original intentions—notable since this version, unlike most covers of the work, keep the rhythm straight rather than ”swinging” the eighth notes in the original melody. Indeed, throughout the album Monk plays with expectations of rhythm, often turning them on their heads, such as the off-center chordal interjections that run through “Well, You Needn’t.” However it happens, “Crepuscule” stands as a romantic highlight, not just of the recording but perhaps of all of 1950s jazz.

Trane’s time in Monk’s group would be brief, yielding this one studio recording and a handful of live appearances that have since popped up on record. He would soon reenter the studio as a leader, recording Blue Trane later in 1957 for Blue Note Records, and an immense amount of material—some 37 sides, released over many albums—for Prestige Records in 1958. In fact, 1958 was a pivotal year for Trane, who rejoined Miles in the January of that year. By that time the quintet had become a sextet, with the addition of another saxophonist who we’ll meet next week.

I first found Monk’s Music at Plan 9 Records in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a happy accident brought on by my habit of rifling through all the Original Jazz Classics CD reissues and buying the ones that had the most interesting liner notes (a habit I wrote about some years ago). The copy shown in the photograph above was a reissue on translucent red vinyl courtesy of Newbury Comics some years ago. Listen and enjoy.

Miles Davis, Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, reissue on Jazz Wax Records

Album of the week, March 12, 2022

With this #albumoftheweek, we have come to the final of Miles’ four “contractual obligation” albums for Prestige Records. Recorded as he was beginning his stellar career for Columbia (about which, more later), the four albums – Cookin, Relaxin, Workin, and Steamin’ – showcase the versatility and talent of the First Great Quintet. It would also be one of the last recordings of this particular lineup.

Miles had struggled with heroin early in his career, going so far as to move out of New York to the Midwest for a few years to give him the space he needed to kick the habit. 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.

Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones also suffered from an addiction to heroin; their performances didn’t suffer but their professionalism did, and their unfortunate habit of showing up late for gigs meant that both would ultimately be fired by Miles after the quintet’s first two Columbia recordings, ’Round About Midnight and Milestones. They made his last recordings with Miles’ group in March of 1958 and their last performance in November of that year, on a radio broadcast. Garland would be replaced in Miles’ band by a young pianist named Bill Evans, who had made an impression at Newport; Jones would be replaced by Jimmy Cobb. Both would continue playing and recording until their deaths in 1984 and 1985, respectively.

Paul Chambers would stay in Miles’ groups until 1962, appearing on many of the early Columbia recordings including the band recordings with Gil Evans and the landmark Kind of Blue. He left Chambers in 1962, along with Jimmy Cobb and pianist Wynton Kelly, and the trio would form one of the most memorable rhythm sections in jazz until Chambers’ untimely death from organ failure in 1969, brought on by tuberculosis and hastened by his own heroin and alcohol addictions.

It is sobering to listen to Steamin’ in light of the band’s history, but it’s also a pure pleasure. Trane is great on this album, particularly the opener. And the arrangements are something else. “Salt Peanuts” in particular cooks along at light speed, and the band’s version of Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t” is a remarkable illustration of how it could stretch and drive even the most difficult material into something that was wholly its own. It’s a fitting finale for this set of great Miles recordings.

We’ll take a short break from our Miles survey next week, but in the meantime please enjoy listening to this remarkable album.

Miles Davis, Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Miles Davis, Workin’ – OJC 2019 repress, translucent blue vinyl

Album of the week, March 5, 2022.

We are just at the halfway point in our #albumoftheweek run through Miles’ quartet of First Great Quintet recordings for Prestige, and it would be tempting to conclude there is nothing left to say about these four records. That would be a mistake. First and foremost, these records are great because of the music on them — the performances and arrangements — and each one has its own identity. In the case of Workin’, released in 1960 but recorded at the same sessions as Cookin’, Relaxin’, and Steamin’ in May and October 1956, the rhythm section is the thing. In fact, this record might really be said to belong to Red Garland.

That seems a weird (or “vierd,” as Blue Note founder Francis Wolff would reportedly say) thing to say about a Miles Davis album featuring John Coltrane. But the performance leads off with a hypnotic performance of “It Never Entered My Mind,” led by a fluid arpeggiated entrance from Garland before Miles comes in on the melody, backed by a heartbeat-like bass line from Paul Chambers. The third track on the first side, Dave Brubeck’s sublime “In Your Own Sweet Way,” features spectacularly subtle playing from both Garland and Miles on the sweet standard. The second side even features a trio number by the rhythm section without any horns, on “Ahmad’s Blues.” Reportedly the latter number was enough to convince Bob Weinstock of Prestige to sign Red and his trio to their own recording contract.

It’s not just Red Garland’s playing that shines here, though. Philly Joe Jones’ muscular drumming on the beginning of “Four” is easily the most exciting thing about the arrangement, with bombs dropping in and out of the beat throughout the track. And—returning to “It Never Entered My Mind”—Paul Chambers’ subtle bass ground as the melodic line and chords suspend above him, followed by a freer line after the second chorus and even an arco line at the end is practically a master class in the bass.

I haven’t written as much about the horns here. Throughout the album, Coltrane and Miles play together principally on the head and coda of each arrangement and then alternate verses. Again, where Miles typically plays with the cool restraint that was already his trademark in 1956, Coltrane’s playing is still evolving. He has not yet found the “sheets of sound” — the compressed, rapid arpeggios and runs that would become the trademark of his classic sound after his sojourn in Thelonious Monk’s group in 1957. But his lines here still are more exuberant and searching than Miles’. His work on “In Your Own Sweet Way” is an example, as he explores different scales and modes around the changes of Brubeck’s standard.

A note on the cover: the first two records in the series are undeniable classics of graphic design, with Relaxin’ in particular approaching something like mid-century modern high art. Then we get this album, which seems almost pedestrian by comparison, with the blue-tinted photo of Miles. But look closer: the strong lines of the industrial building and the road in the background form their own geometry around Miles, who, even in a tweed sportcoat, looks impossibly cool. Other covers featuring Miles in the 1950s feature him playing his horn; here, instead holding a cigarette, he looks impatiently at the photographer. He’s ready to get back to work.

Miles Davis, Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet

Album of the Week, February 26, 2022

As I mentioned in last week’s #albumoftheweek post, we’re going through Miles’ early albums for Prestige Records. This week is the second of Miles’ last four albums for the label, released as contractual obligations after he was signed to Columbia Records and all recorded on two dates in 1956. Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet thus features the same personnel, the same ambience, and the same concept as Cookin’: Miles with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and John Coltrane in the studio, playing “live-in-studio” takes of their considerable repertoire of standards.

Except that Relaxin’ shows a different side of the Quintet. If Cookin’ showed them at their most serious (“My Funny Valentine”) and hottest (“Airegin”), Relaxin’ finds the band in a much more laid back mode, beginning with Miles’ voice in the opening groove: “I’ll start playin’ and then I’ll tell you what it is.” “If I Were a Bell” is not a well-known jazz standard—Frank Loesser wrote it for Guys and Dolls—but the band swings into it as though it were “Dancing Cheek to Cheek.” The ballad playing throughout the record is outstanding too, with Coltrane’s solo on “You’re My Everything” hinting at the great work he would do two years later on Lush Life and on his early Impulse! recordings.

Other material is less reflective but still swinging, with “I Could Write a Book” and Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” finding the horn players burning over the great rhythm section. On that note, I’ve often thought that Garland, Jones and Chambers could make anyone sound good, but it’s interesting to hear them shift their styles in “I Could Write a Book” to reflect the differences between Miles’ cool, muted playing and Trane’s more aggressive approach. This is particularly evident in Philly Joe Jones’ drumming, which shifts from a quieter tone to a more propulsive, explosive style under Trane’s solo.

Of note, too, is that this record features two heavily bebop-influenced tunes, with both “Oleo” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody’n You” showing the influence that Miles took from his time working with Charlie Parker. All in all, another solid Prestige session for the quintet. Most of the material for the record comes from the October 1956 sessions, coming just a month after the last sessions for Round About Midnight but sounding remarkably consistent with the sound the quintet shows on the May 1956 sessions, here represented by “It Could Happen to You” and “Woody’n You.”

All in all, Relaxin’ is a great document of this great quintet, and fun to listen to. (And to look at, too: Miles may have reserved his original compositions for his Columbia recordings, but the covers for this album and last week’s are absolute works of art.)