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John Coltrane: Coltrane And Crescent—Shadows And Light

Mark Werlin By

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Some jazz musicians—too many—cast their own shadows of addiction and self-destructiveness. But often—too often—new directions and developments in jazz are shadowed not by the musicians themselves, but by their detractors.
Visual art is a play of shadow and light, and contrast makes the forms visible. In the best jazz music, there is a kind of inner light that emanates from the musicians, the light of creative impulse, the light of spontaneous artistic expression. Some jazz musicians—too many—cast their own shadows of addiction and self-destructiveness. But often—too often—new directions and developments in jazz are shadowed not by the musicians themselves, but by their detractors.

A series of Impulse albums of the John Coltrane Quartet are being released as 192kHz/24bit downloads, coinciding with the 90th anniversary of Coltrane's birth. Two of those albums, Coltrane, recorded in 1962, and Crescent, recorded in 1964, can be viewed as bookends in the career of the Quartet: Coltrane was the first studio date by the classic lineup and Crescent was one of the last Quartet sessions prior to Coltrane's departure on his late-phase musical journey. Both albums capture the ensemble at significant moments in its development, and warrant acknowledgment as major works.

Why then, have these two recordings been accorded so little attention by writers and musical authorities? In the standard biographies, even in Lewis Porter's excellent John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the subject albums receive scant description and analysis, as if they were afterthoughts or sketches rather than fully-conceived projects.

It is likely that these albums are overlooked because so much light is trained on the sessions that preceded and succeeded them: Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions from November 1961, and A Love Supreme from December 1964. The recordings of the John Coltrane-Eric Dolphy band were considered so important that producer Michael Cuscuna gathered all the tapes made during November 1961 and issued a much-expanded 4-CD set. In 2002, the Impulse team, working with original session engineer Rudy Van Gelder, successfully located an uncompressed safety copy of A Love Supreme (the original master tape having been lost) in the EMI tape vault; a French radio broadcast master tape of a 1965 live performance; and Coltrane's own work tapes preserved by his family, in preparation for A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition).

If those spotlights unintentionally cast deep historical shadows over Coltrane and Crescent, the earlier album was intentionally shadowed—at the time of its recording—by a campaign of uninformed music criticism and personal attacks on Coltrane and Dolphy published in prestigious American newspapers and the preeminent jazz magazine Down Beat. The hostility and incomprehension that followed Coltrane and Dolphy's appearances at the Village Vanguard and their U.S. and European tour dates bears reexamination, as it had a significant impact on the label's working relationship with Coltrane, and Trane's own artistic development.

JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET: COLTRANE

John Coltrane's earliest recordings for Impulse were shaped by his friendship and collaboration with Eric Dolphy. The live performances on Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions reveal the tenor player transitioning away from the dense compositional structures that reached an apogee on Giant Steps towards song forms inspired by Eric's enthusiasm for African and Indian music. The months working with Dolphy, and the accumulated conversations about jazz the two friends had enjoyed since first meeting in the mid-1950s, had the greatest impact on Coltrane's development after his 1957 tenure with Thelonious Monk. Dolphy, though he always played on the changes, was a pioneering 'outside' jazz musician; restless, innovative, obsessive. His dazzling, wide-interval alto sax solos and virtuoso bass clarinet playing opened Trane's already 'big ears' even wider.

A glance at Dolphy's studio dates prior to his recordings with Coltrane reveals that the Southern Californian was operating on the fringes of the New York jazz scene, and that his inclination was towards his fellow outsiders: Coltrane couldn't have chosen a more divisive musical partner; the East Coast critics didn't understand Eric Dolphy any better than they did Ornette Coleman. Dolphy's close association with the combative Mingus, whom he had known while growing up in Los Angeles, placed him firmly in the enemy camp. Dolphy was West Coast, but he swam far outside the cool jazz currents and the Blue Note Records hard-bop mainstream.

John and Eric took a further step beyond the boundaries of acceptable conduct for signed musicians when they befriended the Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, who was bringing African music and pan-African cultural consciousness to New York's black community. Olatunji, an outspoken civil rights activist, traveled the American South with Dr. Martin Luther King and would participate in the 1963 March on Washington. Coltrane had spent endless hours practicing music from a European theoretical ground; now he was being exposed to music from the African continent. Dolphy's fascination with African rhythms and Indian classical music, and the possibilities opened up by playing over drone melodic patterns, led to the collaborative piece "India," which he and Coltrane performed and recorded during the November 1961 Village Vanguard run.

Catching Trane by surprise, several jazz critics attacked the direction of his new music. Over the following months, Coltrane's recording plans were shadowed by a rancorous debate in the pages of Down Beat Magazine. After hearing Coltrane and Dolphy perform, Down Beat's West Coast editor John Tynan wrote:

"I listened to a horrifying demonstration of what appears to be a growing anti-jazz trend... Melodically and harmonically their improvisation struck my ear as gobbledygook... to these ears the sum of the sounds remains musical nonsense." (John Tynan, Down Beat, November 23, 1961)

The chorus of incomprehension extended across the Atlantic to the respected English publication Melody Maker:

"Despite the most intense concentration, I had no more idea at the end of the group's hour-long programme what it was all about, than I had at the beginning. There just seems to be no logical basis to any of it." (Bob Dawbarn, Melody Maker)

Even allowing for the unfamiliarity of the new music, such misguided reviews were not a response to Coltrane and Dolphy's demonstration of "anti-jazz" but evidence of those critics' stopped-up ears and reactionary preconceptions about what was musically acceptable in the genre.

Down Beat managing editor Don DeMicheal took the unprecedented step of interviewing Coltrane and Dolphy in a lengthy column. In keeping with his generous nature, Trane made a sincere request that writers who did not understand what he and Eric were playing should meet with him in person and discuss the music face to face. To John's disappointment, none of those so quick to condemn what they clearly did not understand ever responded to his offer. Trane's knowledge of theory and harmony was not a closely-held secret: but the preeminent jazz publications in the English language published article after uninformed article by critics who failed to recognize the complex harmonic logic underlying Coltrane's music.

Dolphy stopped performing regularly with Coltrane in the Spring of 1962, but Trane wasn't finished with the music they had created together. Over the course of four sessions, the John Coltrane Quartet, now with a permanent membership of McCoy Tyner, piano, Jimmy Garrison, bass and Elvin Jones, drums, succeeded in recapturing the character, if not the overwhelming energy, of the November 1961 Village Vanguard performances.

John was not immune to the stings of critical arrows. The only track recorded on April 11, 1962—at the nadir of the Down Beat controversy—deemed good enough for the album was Frank Loesser's "The Inch Worm." Trane uses the song's simple melodic line as a springboard for an extended, probing solo on soprano sax that recalls his work on My Favorite Things. Recording didn't resume until June, when the Quartet reentered the studio for a series of sessions that completed the album.

"Out of this World"—almost unrecognizable as a Harold Arlen standard—and the Coltrane original "Tunji" most closely recapture the mood and energy of the Village Vanguard live recordings. Elvin is playing at the limits of how hard drumsticks can strike drum heads and cymbals without splintering. It must have required considerable force of will—and a certain recklessness—to achieve this level of intensity in the studio. Coltrane is straining at the limits of his own technique, honking in the low register and rising through complex ascending arpeggios to the upper register 'cry.' There is a greater emphasis on the vocal qualities of the horn, something Trane would have heard in Dolphy's playing (listen to the vocalized duet with Charles Mingus on "What Love?" from the 1960 Candid sessions). The music of Coltrane is modal jazz, but far from the cerebral music advanced by George Russell or the comparatively restrained work by the Miles Davis Sextet on Kind of Blue. In the middle section of "Tunji," after Trane has soloed at length over a single chord sustained by the piano and bass, McCoy introduces a blues chord progression with a variant turnaround for his own solo choruses. The sudden switch from drone to blues is unsettling and effective; it draws attention to the contrasting forms and catches the listener by surprise.

Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes" provides a respite; Elvin on brushes, McCoy displaying a delicate touch, Coltrane indulging his passion for ballads. The final piece, "Miles' Mode," follows the Village Vanguard arrangement closely, but differs in ways that illustrate how changes in personnel and setting can alter a performance. The absence of a live audience and crucially, the subtraction of Eric Dolphy and the substitution of Jimmy Garrison for Reggie Workman allows Trane to refocus his ideas and refine and edit his solo, and brings Elvin down a notch or two from the flights of intensity of the live date. Garrison plays less aggressively than Workman (and is also less audible in the mix); his subtle touch on the bass strings has a moderating effect on the ensemble as a whole.

It is fortunate that Coltrane managed to produce this album in the teeth of his detractors, because the sessions recorded later in 1962 and 1963, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, Ballads, and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, were far less adventurous and represent a capitulation to the demands of the music business and the realities of supporting a working band and a family. The Impulse contract and live performance guarantees negotiated by his lawyer Harold Lovette had made John Coltrane the second highest-paid jazz musician in America, after his former boss Miles Davis. Memories of living in a cold-water flat in Philadelphia were not so distant. Abandoning the direction of Coltrane may have been a necessary compromise, but bowing to the attacks of his critics frustrated Trane's development for the better part of two years.

Track Listing: Out of this World; Soul Eyes; The Inch Worm; Tunji; Miles' Mode.

Personnel: John Coltrane, tenor sax; Elvin Jones, drums; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass.

Format: 192kHz/24-bit. Mastering details and tape provenance not provided by the label.

JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET: CRESCENT

During the time that separated Coltrane and Crescent, John Coltrane fulfilled his responsibilities to his sidemen and to his producer Bob Thiele, building a catalog of saleable LPs and fulfilling a busy nightclub and concert performance schedule. But he grew tired of playing the same songs on the bandstand (and in Europe, the concert stage) night after night. Coltrane was composing new work that was not yet being recorded or performed, based on modal forms, blues, shifting tonality, African traditional and 20th-century classical music. Decades of harmonic study and practice were seeking expression.
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