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John Coltrane: Top Ten Live Albums

Chris May By

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Someone in the audience would stand up, their arms upreaching, and they would be like that for an hour or more. Their clothing would be soaked with perspiration, and when they finally sat down they practically fell down. The music took people out of the material world.
—Alice Coltrane
This article is a companion piece to John Coltrane: An Alternative Top Ten Albums, which listed ten albums widely regarded as essential items in John Coltrane's discography and discussed another ten of comparable importance. John Coltrane: Top Ten Live Albums narrows the focus to club and concert recordings.

Coltrane's live performances had a trajectory which was largely independent of his studio albums; he did not build set lists around his latest release. For instance, Coltrane never "toured" Ballads (Impulse, 1963) or Crescent (Impulse, 1964) and only once performed the four-part suite which comprises A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1965) in concert, and never in a club, despite it being his biggest selling album during his lifetime. Well into 1966, the year before he passed, Coltrane drew most of his repertoire from a small body of material which had been in his band book for years and often pre-dated the formation in 1961 of his classic quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. Live At The Village Vanguard Again! (Impulse, 1966), for example, consists of just two tracks, "Naima" and "My Favorite Things," which Coltrane had first recorded for Atlantic in 1959 and 1960 respectively.

So the same tunes crop up again and again on the albums in this top ten. But the manner in which Coltrane approaches them is constantly evolving. Each performance is fresh minted and totally in the moment, and that applies to the ensemble passages as much as it does to the solos. McCoy Tyner, who was with Coltrane from May 1960 to December 1965, said that Coltrane chose set lists from tunes he felt had the potential "to grow."

Track durations on live albums are usually longer than on studio recordings, but Coltrane took that further than most contemporary bandleaders. Partly this was to accommodate solos by his bandmates, but mainly it was to allow extra time for his own solos, for as he matured as a player, he found he had more, not less, to say. Coltrane's first live LP under his own name, Live At The Village Vanguard (Impulse, 1961) contains just three tunes, and Bye Bye Blackbird: His Greatest Concert Performance (Pablo, 1981), recorded in 1962, contains just two. Track times of twenty minutes or longer are the norm (and some tunes had live durations which could not be fitted on to even both sides of an LP).

By 1962, Coltrane's live performances had become so intense that they frequently sparked out of body experiences among audience members. In an interview with Black Creation magazine in 1972, the bassist Art Davis said: "John would play for hours a set. One tune would be like an hour or two hours and people would just be shouting, like you go to church, a holy roller church or something like that. It would get into their brains. John was after the spiritual thing and he had that. He had this power of communication, a power so rare it was like genius. For that I call him a prophet."

Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp said much the same. In the sleeve notes for One Down, One Up: Live At The Half Note (Impulse, 2005), recorded in 1965, Shepp said: "There were nights when I would hear him at the Half Note and, ohhhh, he'd make any Black Panther proud... The place was packed. And man, they played until four o'clock in the morning and it was like being in church. I mean Coltrane brought something which raised this music from a secular music to a religious world music."

There were occasions when the intensity of Coltrane's performance was met by hostility. One such incident was reported by reed player Anthony Braxton in an interview with The Wire magazine in 1991. "I saw a woman come into the club and with the hook of her umbrella try to grab him around the arm while he was playing with the quartet," said Braxton. "I could have killed that woman! But after the set, when she came up to scold John for playing this loud, crazy music, he was so kind to her, so understanding." Among similar incidents is one recalled by the drummer Rashied Ali. Ali told Coltrane biographer Cuthbert Simpkins of a club gig during which Coltrane was accosted by a man who got in his face and verbally abused him for several minutes. Ali tried to intervene, but Coltrane stopped him, sayng: "No, let the man have his say." When the man finally ran out of steam, Coltrane quietly said, "Thank you."

Coltrane's genius was colossal, but his humility was river deep. Referring to attacks in the press, Art Davis said: "He was very much a man of conviction, even though a lot of people said a lot of very bad, hurting things about him. He'd say 'that's their opinion,' rather than cursing someone out or saying, 'if I see that motherfucker I'm going to beat the shit out of him.'"

Fortunately for us, there are many Coltrane live albums out there to explore and enjoy. Some are marred by poor audio quality but they all, without exception, contain first-class music. All the albums in this top ten have excellent sound other than one from 1962 which is included because of the majesty of the performance, which renders other considerations of small concern.

GET ON THE LIVETRANE: TOP TEN ALBUMS

These albums are presented in order of recording, not of release.

Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane
At Carnegie Hall
Blue Note, 2005

At Carnegie Hall was recorded in late 1957, an eventful year in Coltrane's development. In April, he went cold turkey and put heroin and alcohol behind him once and for all. The same month he began an intense study regime with Thelonious Monk, spending days at a time at Monk's apartment. In May, he recorded his first own-name album (Coltrane, Prestige). In June, as a member of Monk's quartet, he began an extended residency at New York's Five Spot which lasted, with breaks, up until November. A recording made by Monk's wife, Nellie, was released as The Thelonious Monk Quartet Featuring John Coltrane: Live At The Five Spot Discovery! on Blue Note in 1993. It is a valuable historical artefact, but the sound quality is better on At Carnegie Hall, which was professionally recorded by Voice Of America on November 29 (the tapes lay undiscovered in the Library of Congress until an archivist came across them in 2004). The Carnegie Hall event was a fundraiser for a community centre and Monk's quartet shared the bill with Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Ray Charles and Dizzy Gillespie. There were two performances, one at 8.30pm, the other at midnight, and the quartet played four tunes in each. The list comprises Monk's "Evidence," "Monk's Mood," "Crepuscule With Nellie," "Nutty," "Bye-Ya," "Blue Monk" and "Epistrophy," plus the standard "Sweet And Lovely." Listened to back to back with Coltrane from just seven months earlier, and the development of Coltrane's music is dramatic.

John Coltrane
Live At The Village Vanguard: The Master Takes
Impulse, 1998

Recorded in November 1961, the LP Live At The Village Vanguard (Impulse, 1962) was the first live album to be released under Coltrane's name and the first of his albums to be produced by Bob Thiele. It was also the first to bring the full force of the jazz establishment down on Coltrane's head. The classic quartet was not yet completely in place and, for most of the four-night engagement, Coltrane led a quintet comprising bass clarinetist and alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones. Coltrane's ferocious, multiphonic-strewn tenor playing caused outrage among Establishment critics. Reviewing a Hollywood performance of the same material by the same lineup some six weeks earlier, Down Beat's John Tynan voiced the opinion of many of his peers by describing what he heard as "musical nonsense" and "a horrifying demonstration of... an anti-jazz trend." When Live At The Village Vanguard was released in February 1962 it faced an overwhelmingly hostile critical reception. The track which caused the greatest ire was "Chasin' The Trane," a blues-based 15:55 tenor workout during which Coltrane, accompanied only by bass and drums, plays with shamanistic intensity. It is a landmark performance which will still turn the endorphin levels of empathic listeners up to eleven. Live At The Village Vanguard: The Master Takes includes two additional tracks, "Impressions," on which Dolphy is out and Workman is replaced by Jimmy Garrison, making it the first released recording of the classic quartet. The whole Vanguard engagement can be heard on the 4xCD box set The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse, 1997), which is a treasure every serious jazz fan deserves to own.

John Coltrane Quartet
Impressions Graz 1962
ezz-thetics, 2019

Jimmy Garrison formally replaced Reggie Workman in December 1961, and Impressions Graz 1962 was recorded in Austria during the classic quartet's first European tour in November 1962. A companion disc, My Favorite Things Graz 1962 (ezz-thetics, 2020), comes from the same concert. The content on both albums was recorded by radio station ORF Steiermark and the top-drawer sound is enhanced by the immaculate mastering which is a signature of Werner Uehlinger's Swiss-based Hat Hut and ezz-thetics labels. The concert was the twelfth in a series of one-night stands, performed without a single rest day, which had taken the band through France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Germany before its arrival in Graz. By 2021 standards, life on the road was rugged in 1962, even for an artist of Coltrane's standing, but the band is as ineffably on its game as ever. We can safely imagine that Elvin Jones was speaking for all four musicians when in a 2001 interview he said, "Playing with those three, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison, it was almost the most important thing in my life during that period of time, the only thing I could think about. I couldn't wait to get to the bandstand and play with these guys every night." The two Graz albums have a combined running time of over two hours. The eight tracks include performances of "Impressions," "My Favorite Things," "Mr P.C.," "I Want To Talk About You" and—Collector's Corner Alert—the only known Coltrane recording of the standard "Autumn Leaves." By turns tender and tempestuous, the albums are essential listening.

John Coltrane
Bye Bye Blackbird: His Greatest Concert Performance
Pablo, 1981

The sound quality on Bye Bye Blackbird: His Greatest Concert Performance , which was also recorded during the quartet's November 1962 European tour, is not a patch on that of the ezz-thetics discs. But the performances are incandescent. The album contains just two tracks, "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Traneing In." On "Traneing In," Coltrane delivers a 12-minute tenor solo which is among the most thrilling he ever recorded, live or in the studio, and which excuses tour promoter and Pablo director Norman Granz's ambitious album subtitle. Fortunately, Coltrane himself suffers the least from the poor quality of the recording (which reissues have marginally improved on) and he is heard front and centre and in pretty much full effect throughout.

John Coltrane Quartet
Newport, New York, Alabama 1963 Revisited
ezz-thetics, 2021

Another superbly remastered ezz-thetics release, this time of the Impulse albums Newport '63 and Coltrane Live At Birdland, both recorded in 1963. (Under Swiss law, recordings made up until 1969 are in the public domain, and as a member of SUISA, the Swiss Cooperative Society for Music Authors and Publishers, Uehlinger pays due royalties for the compositions on them). When the Newport Jazz Festival tracks were recorded, Roy Haynes was depping for Elvin Jones, who had been busted for heroin possession and, to avoid jail time, was spending three months as a "volunteer" patient at the National Institute of Mental and Clinical Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Haynes' approach is lighter on its feet and less polyrhythmic than Jones' but his playing is masterly and, in its own way, satisfyingly intense. The extended tenor and drums duet at the end of "Impressions" is a stone delight, and benefits greatly from the remastering. By October 1963, when Coltrane Live At Birdland was recorded, Jones is back and the quartet's trademark heavier, polyrhythmic sound is restored. The album includes outstanding versions of "Afro Blue" and "I Want To Talk About You." (Another highlight is the heart wrenching "Alabama," one of two tracks which were recorded a month later at Rudy Van Gelder's studio, and was included on Impulse's CD reissue of Coltrane Live At Birdland).

John Coltrane
Afro Blue Impressions
Pablo, 1977

This 2xCD set was recorded on the quartet's October-November 1963 European tour, which was once more booked and recorded by Norman Granz. Sound quality is markedly better than on 1962's Bye Bye Blackbird: His Greatest Concert Performance, although Tyner and Garrison are occasionally a bit lost, particularly when Coltrane and Jones get stuck into the barnstorming tenor and drums duets on "Chasin' The Trane," "Cousin Mary" and "Impressions." Contemporary reviews confirm that Coltrane essayed some full-on sonic paintstripping on the tour, but Granz chose not to include these on Afro Blue Impressions. No matter; what is preserved is superb. The other tunes are "Afro Blue," "Naima," "I Want To Talk About You," "Spiritual," "My Favorite Things" and, in a reversal of Coltrane's usual practice of only touring material which he had previously recorded in the studio, "Lonnie's Lament," which would be revisited at Van Gelder's for Crescent (Impulse) in 1964.

John Coltrane
One Down, One Up: Live At The Half Note
Impulse, 2005

New York's Half Note, a small no-frills establishment in Lower Manhattan just a few yards from the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, was to Coltrane in 1965 what the Bowery's Five Spot had been to Thelonious Monk and Coltrane in 1957—an unpretentious home from home with a hip clientele where the musicians were given free rein to experiment. When not on the road in 1965, the Coltrane quartet spent weeks at a time at the Half Note, bringing the gospel as reported above by Archie Shepp. The 2xCD set One Down, One Up: Live At The Half Note, which was recorded by jazz DJ Alan Grant for his late-night radio show, comes from performances on March 26 and May 7 1965. Disc one's 27:40 tenor burner "One Down, One Up" is as important a landmark in Coltrane's legacy as "Chasin' The Trane" on Live At The Village Vanguard and "Traneing In" on Bye Blackbird: His Greatest Concert Performance. The track moves from a quartet, to a trio, to a duo, as first McCoy Tyner and then Jimmy Garrison drop out, to leave Coltrane and Elvin Jones to first raise the roof and then tear it off altogether. Describing a typical Half Note performance, Mike Canterino, co-owner of the club, told Coltrane biographer J.C.Thomas in 1973: "Trane played for a long time. He'd play every tune as if it was the last number of the last set, with so much intensity and feeling he must have felt he was going to die before he'd completed his solo." Low-fidelity copies of "ODOU" circulated among saxophonists for decades until Ravi Coltrane found his father's first-generation tape copy, complete with Alan Grant's introductions and announcements, and Impulse released the album in 2005.

John Coltrane
A Love Supreme: Deluxe Edition
Impulse, 2002

Another magnificent, unmissable 2xCD set. Disc one is the historic studio album recorded on December 9 1964, restored and remastered by original engineer Rudy Van Gelder from a newly discovered analogue tape to deliver a sound which puts all previous vinyl and digital reissues in the shade. Disc two includes two previously unreleased, long-rumoured-going-on-presumed-mythical recordings of the suite's opening movement, "Acknowledgement," made at Van Gelder's on December 10 by the classic quartet augmented by Archie Shepp on tenor saxophone and Art Davis on bass. So far, so heavenly. The reason the package qualifies for this Top Ten, however, is that disc two also includes the only known live performance Coltrane ever gave of the complete "A Love Supreme" suite, recorded for broadcast by French radio at the Antibes Jazz Festival on July 26 1965. The Antibes performance runs for eleven minutes longer than the studio LP and most of the extra time is given over to part three, "Pursuance," which includes an extended tenor solo during which Coltrane takes the already incandescent material even higher. In summer 1965, A Love Supreme was still to be released in France and some audience members, unprepared for the music, found it hard to take; there were, we are told, more than a few walk-outs.

John Coltrane
Live In Paris
Affinity / Charly, 1987

Recorded on the same 1965 tour as the July 26 Antibes "A Love Supreme," Live In Paris is a CD reissue of two LPs that were released on French label BYG in 1972 as Live In Paris Part 1 and Part 2. Most of the material was indeed recorded in Paris, at a concert at the Salle Pleyel on July 28, but two tracks, "Naima" and "Impressions," were recorded on the second night in Antibes, on July 27. Perhaps in order to to carry the audience with him, Coltrane had changed his set list. The Salle Pleyel performance comprises "Afro-Blue," "Impressions" and "Blue Valse," which is a mistitled 22:42 quartet recalibration of "Ascension," which Coltrane had recorded with a larger ensemble just a month earlier in New York. The Paris audience seems to have been hipper to late-period Coltrane than the jet-set Côte d'Azur festival crowd and it sounds as though the quartet, "Blue Valse" and all, was enthusiastically received.

John Coltrane
Live At The Village Vanguard Again!
Impulse, 1966

We end where we more or less began, at New York's Village Vanguard, but four-and-a-half years later. Live At The Village Vanguard Again! was recorded in May 1966, by which time McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones had quit the quartet and Jimmy Garrison was on the verge of following them. The partings were regretted but amicable: the musicians respected Coltrane's right to pursue his new trajectory but complained that they were often literally unable to hear themselves above the uproar created by second drummer Rashied Ali and multiple guest saxophonists and percussionists. Jones, in addition, heartily disliked Ali, who at the time seems to have behaved like an ego on legs. The lineup is Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet and flute, Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone and flute, Alice Coltrane on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Rashied Ali on drums and Emanuel Rahim on percussion. There are two tracks, explosive versions of "Naima" and "My Favorite Things." The album is not easy listening, but it is considerably more accessible than later live sets such as Concert In Japan (Impulse, 1973), recorded for radio in Tokyo in July 1966. As noted in the conclusion of the aforementioned John Coltrane: An Alternative Top Ten Albums, to get the most from Coltrane it is necessary to go the distance with him. That means absorbing albums which may not reveal their beauty first time around. Live At The Village Vanguard Again! is a blinder. You are in for a treat.

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