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John Coltrane: My Favorite Things (Not Including “My Favorite Things”)

Matt J. Popham By

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John Coltrane died on July 17, 1967 at the age of forty. Had he lived, he would have turned 90 on September 23rd of this year. When one considers the profound effect he had—not just on jazz, but on music as a whole—in the brief two decades of his career, it's not only daunting, but depressing, to try and imagine what he might have done with four or five more. Initially a gifted Hard Bop player, his own musical and philosophical quest would lead him to channel the energy and ingenuity of that spirited style through the prism of the avant-garde, making him, all at once, a virtuoso and a visionary. Despite hemorrhaging the support of many bewildered critics and fans during his last and most musically daring years, his untimely death sent shockwaves through the musical community at a time when many believed the future of jazz was already in doubt. In the years since, he has only become increasingly respected and revered—actually sainted in some circles—even eclipsing the great Charlie Parker as the iconic jazz saxophonist.

I was 13 years old when I discovered John Coltrane. Flipping idly through my father's CD's one afternoon, I came across the four disc Live in Japan recording. At this point, I knew nothing about Coltrane—or even jazz, really. I was a punk rock kid. But I had heard his name before and, always musically curious, I popped one of the CD's into the stereo. The initially mellow and meditative opening to "Peace on Earth" hooked me with its hypnotic power, but as I listened, the music began to stretch out, zig-zagging in unpredictable directions, pushing at its own boundaries with accelerating iterations, reaching for something unnamable, and eventually transcending every notion of music I had ever encountered. Coming from punk rock, nothing about the seeming chaos and cacophony of it was off-putting to me. In fact, it swept me away. It was, simultaneously, like nothing I had ever heard before and like being confronted by the musical manifestation of something I had been carrying inside me for as long as I could remember. By the time the track's 25 minutes were up, I was converted. I dove headlong into an exploration of Coltrane, who, in turn, opened the door to the entire jazz genre, leading me on a path of musical discovery I am still walking. But, to this day, even though I now count Monk and Powell, Prez and Sonny Rollins, among my all-time favorites, even though I am eagerly awaiting the next releases from Ambrose Akinmusire and Kris Bowers, no one—in any genre—hits home for me like Coltrane does.

Incredibly prolific, Coltrane appeared on something in the vicinity of 120 recordings during his life, either as sideman or leader. I think, at this point, I've heard them all. But there are a handful I find myself returning to again and again. These are the albums of his that, for whatever reason, have gotten inside me in their own very particular way. I find them, like all the greatest music, inexhaustible. Endlessly captivating. Unfailingly moving. I wouldn't necessarily call them Coltrane's best albums, per se. There are some pretty startling omissions (My Favorite Things, ironically, among them), but after all these years, what is there left to say about Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme...? Does anyone need to be encouraged to give them a fresh listen...? At the same time, I can't honestly leave off Giant Steps, because I probably listen to it at least once a week. No, true to the Coltrane spirit—some would say the spirit of jazz—this list is not intended to be definitive for anyone other than me. This is my Coltrane: A personal appreciation of an artist and musician who has had an unparalleled impact, not just on my life, but on the past 90 years.

Tenor Madness (Prestige, 1956)—Though Coltrane appears only on the title track of this Sonny Rollins classic, it marks the only time the two sax icons recorded together. Alternating call-and-response phrases in addition to lengthier solo stretches, the two budding geniuses cheerfully play off each other, forgoing the "top this" tone that would typically turn such pairings into a classic cutting contest, opting instead for a generous give-and-take. Rollins' thick, bluesy tone and Monk-inspired phrasing contrast perfectly with Coltrane's brighter, rapid-fire runs as each player digs into the tune in his own inimitable way. These two seminal jazzmen were only ever in competition with themselves, after all, and their lone collaboration stands as a dynamic document of their distinctive early styles and mutual respect.

Thelonious Monk And John Coltrane Live At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note, 1957)—After his out of control substance abuse resulted in him being unceremoniously booted from Miles Davis' ensemble, Coltrane spent the early months of 1957 kicking his bad habits cold turkey. Once clean, he spent the rest of the year learning all he could from Thelonious Monk, rehearsing constantly and recording regularly. The resulting albums (Monk's Music and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane) have long been objects of fascination and adulation, but this live recording, long believed lost, eclipses both. Recorded in November of '57, but not discovered until 2005, Live at Carnegie Hall captures Monk's and Coltrane's unique chemistry at its peak. A beautiful and breathtaking highwire act, these radically different jazz radicals weave in and out of each other with seemingly psychic fluidity and grace. Ably augmented by Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Shadow Wilson (giving one of his finest showings in one of his final recordings), the two create a soulful, layered interplay that defies both convention and expectation.

Art Blakey Big Band (Bethlehem, 1957)—Most of Blakey's and Coltrane's collaborations occurred under the rigorous, disciplined musical leadership of Thelonious Monk (Blakey drums on the aforementioned Monk's Music), and the two were more than up to the singular challenges of actualizing Monk's eccentric vision. But in December of 1957, Blakey recruited Coltrane for his one-off Big Band project, and the result was something altogether different in its high-spirited, swaggering style. Sure, you could make the case that neither the musical concept nor approach are especially innovative (Dizzy Gillespie had already pioneered the melding of a Basie-esque orchestra with a Bop sensibility), but the format nonetheless allows Blakey and Coltrane to stretch out in their own preferred styles, bringing all the panache their playing had become known for to the proceedings. It's a blast listening to two of the genre's greatest instrumentalists blow the roof off with full orchestral backing, and while it may not be a landmark, it's certainly an overlooked gem. Pure listening bliss.

Cannonball Adderley Quintet In Chicago (Mercury, 1959)—By 1959, Miles had welcomed the clean and sober Coltrane back into the fold, and within the year they would record and release the seminal Kind of Blue. But shortly before entering the studio, Coltrane and the rest of the Miles Davis Sextet ditched Miles to lay down this exuberant hard-bop barnburner. Rightfully credited to Adderley, as its overall sound is more in keeping with his light and lively style (though it would be rereleased five years later as Cannonball and Coltrane), these upbeat sessions gave both players a chance to cut loose from the quiet, cool reserve that had become Davis' signature sound. The quintet voraciously digs into Coltrane's compositions, "Grand Central" and "The Sleeper," as well as Adderley's "Wabash," and even the inclusion of two wistful ballads can't dampen the album's infectious enthusiasm and sense of fun.

Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1960)—One giant step for a man, one giant leap for the jazz genre. On Giant Steps, Coltrane launched the modal excursions he and Miles Davis had advanced on Kind of Blue into the stratosphere. A dense and dizzying delight, Giant Steps is poetry in motion (often very fast motion), each track seemingly more inspired than the last, balancing jaw-dropping virtuosity with cascading lyricism and soul. Coltrane had released a handful of solo albums prior to this one—including the ever-popular Blue Train—but Giant Steps is (to me, anyway) where his great journey really begins.

Ole' Coltrane (Atlantic, 1961)—Coltrane's revered 1961 album, My Favorite Things, marked another turning point in his career, featuring his whirling, modal reinvention of the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein tune, his first forays on soprano sax, and the debuts of both McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones as steady members of his lineup and, as such, it is justifiably regarded as a classic. But for all its charms, My Favorite Things is not one of my favorites. I far prefer his follow-up—and final recording for Atlantic—Ole' Coltrane (which, as far as I'm concerned, lacks its predecessor's historical significance only because it didn't come first). Lush and evocative where My Favorite Things was bright and breezy, the album offers one of Coltrane's most satisfying explorations of folk and world melodies, most notably the transcendent 18-minute title track, which gives haunting, expansive modal treatment to an old Spanish folk song, and features some breathtaking bass work from Reggie Workman and Art Davis (one bowing, while the other plucks and strums). Jones and Tyner have already made themselves at home, each providing solid backing and stunning solos (Tyner's "Aisha" remains one of his most enchantingly beautiful compositions). And finally, Ole' Coltrane marks the commencement of Coltrane's brief but fruitful collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, who delivers star turns on flute and alto-sax.

Africa/Brass (Impulse!, 1961)—After his aforementioned outing with Art Blakey, Coltrane would only record twice more with a big band ensemble. The most celebrated of these recordings, 1965's Ascension, is an ecstatic free jazz milestone, but Africa/Brass, while perhaps less pioneering, is no less passionate or powerful. Notoriously panned by Downbeat magazine upon its release in 1961 ("What is Coltrane doing...?" was already becoming a common refrain among critics...), it has been reappraised in the decades since. Recorded as his debut for the burgeoning Impulse label at the same time he was recording Ole' Coltrane for Atlantic, Africa/Brass shares a consanguinity with that album in its folk/world music influence, and in the presence of Eric Dolphy (who, along with Tyner, handled the orchestration and arrangements, and also appears on alto-sax, flute, and bass clarinet). The blast furnace brass ensemble, boasting such luminaries as Booker Little and Freddie Hubbard, not only adds extra heat and muscle to the already dramatic compositions, but also augments Coltrane's increasingly innovative soloing surprisingly well. The 1995 Complete Africa Brass CD reissue is the one to own, as, in addition to some intriguing alternate takes, it also includes both "Song of the Underground Railroad" and "The Damned Don't Cry" which were left off the original pressing.

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse!, 1962)—Duke Ellington was enjoying a resurgence in popularity in the early 1960's, and—never one to rest on his laurels—took advantage of the opportunity to break away from his tried and true Big Band formula and record in smaller groups with some of the genre's more modern vanguard (Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus, among them). The results were uniformly excellent, but his sessions with Coltrane were some of the most surprising. While many expected an incongruous clash between Ellington's classic and Coltrane's more avant-garde styles, what resulted was an almost seamless melding of musical minds and one of the most captivatingly beautiful jazz albums ever recorded. Charming, playful—almost delicate, at times—their musical interactions sound as if they've been playing together for decades as they conjure new magic from several Ellington standards, as well as two newer compositions—Coltrane's sunny, sauntering "Big Nick" and Ellington's more angular tribute to his new collaborator, "Take the Coltrane." But it's their exquisite take on Billy Strayhorn's "Little Brown Book" that's the real stand-out, featuring some of the most poignant playing either has ever recorded.

Live At Birdland (Impulse!, 1963)—Possibly the last among his more approachable Impulse albums, Live at Birdland is also one of Coltrane's most affecting. As live albums go, choosing between this and the wild explorations of The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings or the sprawling, searing Live in Japan (a sentimental favorite that served as my introduction to Coltrane) is no easy task, but ultimately the sheer length, breadth, and unevenness of those albums makes this the one I'm more likely to play. Lyrical and lissome, its appealing melodiousness belies the burning emotional intensity and challenging musical inventiveness that the "classic quartet" would quickly become known for. (One can see it almost as a midpoint in the evolution of Coltrane's post-Giant Steps sound...) On each track, Coltrane, Tyner, Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison build an appealing, intimate ambience, then restlessly, expertly stretch it to its limits. Coltrane's unaccompanied coda on "I Want to Talk About You," is a tour-de-force of musical agility and tonal control, his romantic pleas skirting the edge of desperation without ever crossing over into hysterics. And while only about half the album was actually recorded live at the Birdland lounge, the additional studio tracks are equally breathtaking, especially Coltrane's "Alabama." A powerful elegy for the four little girls killed in that year's infamous Birmingham Baptist church bombing, it simmers with swallowed rage and weathered grief before blossoming into a haunting, bluesy hymn. If you're new to Coltrane, this is one of the best places to start.

Crescent (Impulse!, 1964)—The immediate predecessor to the monolithic A Love Supreme, Crescent is a melancholy masterpiece, often unfairly overshadowed by its successor's monumental affirmations. Less a bridge over troubled waters than the troubled waters themselves, Crescent's tides swell from contemplative currents to crashing waves and then roll back again, its five tracks also serving as a showcase for the individual talents of each member of the quartet. Coltrane commands the exotic title track, his solos shifting fluidly from strolling, to searching, to surging. Tyner's piano quietly carries the weight of "Wise One's" whispered prayers, giving harmonic heft to Coltrane's soulful invocations, but he's also given a chance to shine on the heart-cracking "Lonnie's Lament," in which he and Garrison are each spotlighted for extended meditations. And Jones brings an ominous tribal thunder to "The Drum Thing," rolling and roiling beneath Coltrane's hushed lullabies. The quartet comes together for the album's centerpiece, the comparatively brief and buoyant "Bessie's Blues," which serves as a keen ray of sunshine and synergy in an album otherwise given to gloom and solitary introspection. A moody record, to be sure, but also a majestic one.

Sun Ship (Impulse!, 1965)—Though released posthumously, Sun Ship was recorded towards the end of 1965, taken from one of the last sessions Coltrane's classic quartet would record together. (Tyner and Jones would both depart in frustration just a couple of months later.) And while the scorching, superlative quality of this album hammers home what a loss that was, it also serves as a hell of a note for that stellar unit to go out on. All four players are at the top of their game here, each track a testament to their individual courage and combined chemistry. To call the album challenging would be an understatement. This is music that still sounds ahead of its time fifty years later. A fiery, free-form burst of sonic spirituality, it's tempting to compare its blistering sound to the sort of heavy metal guitar shredding it predates by over a decade, but it's important to remember that, for Coltrane, virtuosity was never an end in itself, and ecstatic transcendence was more the goal than chaotic frenzy (though, certainly, the two are not always mutually exclusive). Together, the quartet creates a magic that is nothing short of electrifying—almost cinematic in its expressive power—as they unconditionally commit themselves to these five blazing tracks. No, you'll never find yourself shaking your hips to "Amen," or swaying gently to the strains of "Dearly Beloved," but if you give yourself over, Sun Ship will transport you to places you didn't know music could take you.

Interstellar Space (Impulse!, 1967)—Another posthumous release, recorded just a few months before his death, Coltrane's suite of duets with drummer Rashied Ali, continues to divide critics and listeners even today. Replete with multiphonic skronks and shrieking altissimos, this aptly titled album is definitely, "out there," but that's not a bad thing. In fact, it's exactly where Coltrane was trying to get to in his last years, seeking a music that might open up the mysteries of creation. Echoing some of the themes and riffs he had explored in his previous week's sessions with his final quartet of Ali, Garrison, and Alice Coltrane (released in 1994 as Stellar Regions), Interstellar Space can be seen (or heard) as a stripped-down companion vessel designed to push those musical ideas even further into uncharted territory. The minimal, horn-and-percussion pairing makes for a risky approach—one rarely taken, especially for the duration of an entire album—but Coltrane and Ali remain remarkably and reassuringly tethered as they boldly and exhaustively venture forth. Though diverse in tone and character, each track, from the assaultive "Mars," to the comparatively gentle "Venus," to the heavy, bluesy sighs of "Saturn," is driven by a fervent, searching awe, the sacramental bells that open and close each reminding the listener that, for all their fury, these are deeply reverential offerings. Yet for all its inherent spirituality, in the age of quantum physics, string theory, and the Higgs boson, Interstellar Space also seems to pulsate with prescient insights into the unseen nature of our universe. Music of the spheres.
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