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

Matt J. Popham By

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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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