By the time Coltrane began cutting sessions for Impulse! he was already recognized as the brilliant introvert of the new jazz. He had spent his time learning from the greats, and now he was in conversation with them. Cats like Lester Young, and his seamless cello like approach, can be heard intertwining with the restless technical blaze of mothers like Coleman Hawkins in almost every moment of Coltrane’s studied and yet restlessly questioning tonal mind traps. This first volume of the massive Impulse! retrospective covers brief and exciting developments in Coltrane’s music (late ’61 and early ’62) marked on one hand by the presence of Eric Dolphy and Coltrane’s budding use of two basses and on the other by a string of slower, more romantic sessions that seem to be the eye of a storm.
Africa/Brass is a late evening record, his considerate debut for the label he’d become so closely identified with. It makes for a fantastic start, with the wonderful mix putting the quartet as the centerpiece while orchestrations float in and out of focus. Credit is often given to the group arrangement, but give some credit to Rudy Van Gelder who engineered the albums on this beast and whose talents are as entrenched in the legacy of Jazz as any. The whole style that emerges is used to stellar effect on the 16 minute A- Side ‘Africa’.The latter half is made up of a very clever deconstruction of ‘Greensleeves’ and the frantic ‘Blues Minor’ both as thrilling if not as inventive. The album Ole!, released on Atlantic, was recorded as a kind of extension of these sessions just a few days later.
It’s funny, for how ‘free’ or unlistenable it was made out to be at the time, how truly enjoyable this album is. Live at the Village Vanguard 1961 is just badass. The romantic, yet endlessly explorative ‘Spiritual‘ that kicks this mother off is straight-up baby makin’ music. Ya’ know, if you’re Sting. The B-Side “Chasin’ The ‘Trane” is one Coltrane’s best sermons and deserving of repeated listenings. Now a well regarded album that has come to be seen as the signs of an incredible transformation, it also gives a great glimpse at Coltrane’s live performance. There are box set versions of this album at exhaustive length, and well as recordings from shows that further developed the sound here like Live at the Half-Note. To hear one of my most played live Coltrane highlights, however, check out Live at Birdland.
What I find most stunning about this record isn’t it’s gentle sophistication or it’s prussian blue vibes. It isn’t the first appearance of Coltrane’s classic quartet. It isn’t Coltrane’s slow development through implicit chord structures and malleable time signatures. Hell, it isn’t even really Coltrane. Let the needle drop, zone in on your right speaker, and listen to Elvin Jones’ cymbal work. Shit, listen to his sticks even. Now in a studio setting for the first time without orchestration, the expressiveness of not only their interplay but the production is enrapturing. One of the best records out there to help you slip inside that Coltrance.
Around this time Duke was dropping in on everybody. From the intimate nature of most of these records I doubt he was even calling first. Duke Ellington & John Coltrane is a real romantic joint. Classy. The opening version of “In a Sentimental Mood” puts me… in a sentimental mood. Though the Duke more mills about with the Trane than chases him this record is honestly one of the most accessible and rewarding listens of the group. Its always neat to hear what Duke Ellington sounds like with a small band, which is extraordinary by the way, and its also fun to hear Coltrane be reigned in a bit. This record serves as a great example of how Coltrane didn’t ignore structure – he surpassed it. The Great Summit, one such session with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, I highly recommend.
The final installment in this volume was well chosen. Ballads picks up where Coltrane left off and yet brings an incredible sense of closure to the whole set. There’s an over all more impressionistic feel on this record. Its somehow sunnier, where Coltrane wraps you in its solitude Ballads greets you with its major lifts and rhythmic bells. Ballads, like his record with the Duke, also stays much closer to the structures of the material (which are ballads, in the classic sense). I’ve read the tone of the final three albums in this collection are to make up for the critical and commercial failures of the other two, whatever the reason – I bet this is what it sounds like in your heart when you stroll down some quaint French country road to paint or some shit.