John Coltrane in action was a sight to behold--a living, breathing, unwavering definition of the word “concentration.”
Brow furrowed, his long, mobile fingers moving with seemingly impossible independence from one another, his entire body focused on the projection of energy and spirit through his tenor saxophone, Coltrane would play, and play, and play some more. Choruses stretched out 10, 15, 20 minutes and well beyond as he pursued a muse that was, from his perspective, ever elusive.
“I don’t think I’ll know what’s missing from my playing until I find it,” he told the English jazz magazine Melody Maker in 1965.
For the listener and the observer, the process was endlessly enticing. The performances that Coltrane saw as never quite good enough to satisfy his own creative goals became, for the jazz audience, a cornucopia of astonishingly fertile jazz improvisation.
And he never did it better than in the years between 1959 and ’61, a period chronicled in a lavish new boxed collection, “The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings of John Coltrane” (Rhino), released today.
The production, described as the “crown jewel” in Rhino’s continuing re-release of the Atlantic jazz catalogue, has been assembled with great concern for quality. All material has been re-mastered and each CD is encased in a replica of a miniature LP sleeve and placed in a cubed box.
Coltrane’s entire Atlantic output is encompassed in the six CDs while a seventh, bonus recording is devoted to out-takes from the classic “Giant Steps” session of March 26, 1959. Suggested list price is $89.98.
The importance of the collection is obvious. The late ‘50s and early ‘60s represented a particularly fertile period for jazz. Ornette Coleman arrived at New York City’s Five Spot in the fall of 1959, raising impassioned controversies over the legitimacy of his “free jazz” approach. Cecil Taylor and Charles Mingus were producing similarly against-the-grain music, Miles Davis (with Coltrane) had been exploring forms of modal improvisation and a general feeling of revolutionary change--fully matching the political passing of the torch from the Eisenhower generation to the youthful Kennedy clan--was in the air.
Coltrane, concluding his association with the classic Miles Davis sextet that also included saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and pianist Bill Evans, was in a transitional period professionally, on the verge of starting his own groups near the end of 1959. Occasional gigs with a quartet preceded his final departure from Davis in April, 1960.
He was also about to establish the parameters of both the compositions and the improvisational techniques that would serve him until his death from a liver ailment on July 17, 1967. Many of those parameters saw their first fruition during his Atlantic period.
The first session with his own group, for example, which took place on March 26, 1959, produced “Naima,” a frequently played Coltrane ballad, the Rollins tribute “Like Sonny” and the initial work on “Giant Steps,” a composition that has become a virtual testing ground, as well as a training sequence, for young saxophonists. The work’s 16-bar chord progression moves through a demanding sequence of chord relationships that have the capacity to both stretch and liberate the determined improviser.
It is especially fascinating to hear the various permutations--through seven takes--of “Giant Steps” that took place before the final version. Interestingly, the originally issued “Giant Steps” was not recorded until 2 1/2 months later, on May 5. Even here, Rhino provides all three of the takes that were done at that session. For musicians and educators in particular, but for jazz fans in general, the sessions provide an invaluable view of the working journal of one of the 20th Century’s most important creative artists.
Coltrane’s first recordings using soprano saxophone took place in late June and early July, 1960. It’s worth noting that, at the time, the soprano was almost unheard in modern jazz, generally considered to be an old-style instrument, difficult to keep in tune.
Coltrane changed all that with one piece: “My Favorite Things.” Virtually unknown in the jazz world, viewed as a lightweight bit of froth by the audiences who heard Mary Martin sing it in “The Sound of Music,” the piece became a vital conduit for the increasingly liberated improvising of Coltrane’s later years.
“My Favorite Things” also illustrated the linkage--very conscious linkage in Coltrane’s case--between jazz, Indian classical music and African rhythms. By using Steve Davis’ bass and McCoy Tyner’s piano to establish a kind of drone-like texture, and building solos that juxtaposed extended melodic improvising against freely expository drumming from Elvin Jones, Coltrane moved jazz beyond the vertical, harmonic exposition of popular tunes into an extended, melody-rhythm association similar to the Indian blend of raga (modal melody) and tala (rhythmic framework). Not only did it dramatically expand the potential universe of improvisation, it also connected jazz music to the music of the world.
“It’s very simple,” explained the album’s reissue producer, Joel Dorn. “The music on John Coltrane’s Atlantic records changed jazz, and the way it is played, forever.”