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: