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The Amazing John Coltrane & Eric Dolphy At The Gate

The Amazing John Coltrane & Eric Dolphy At The Gate

Courtesy Herb Snitzer


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When Nixon was elected in '68, I left for Mexico. Six years later I came back and found out that all of my tape reels had been given to the New York Public Library. I didn't even know they were there until 2019, when a Dylan archivist found a box marked ‘Alderson?’
—Rich Alderson
The Impulse! label has released several outstanding John Coltrane live albums since 2000. With the exception of the latest, the sensational John Coltrane With Eric Dolphy: Evenings At The Village Gate (2023), each was recorded in 1965, the year when Coltrane's classic quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, was at its zenith. The 2-CD A Love Supreme: Deluxe Edition (2002), which included a recording, previously available with poor audio only, of Coltrane's signature suite at the Antibes Jazz Festival in July, was followed by another 2-CD, One Down, One Up (2005), recorded at New York's Half Note in March and May. More recently there was A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle (2021), which featured an augmented lineup at the city's Penthouse in October.

John Coltrane With Eric Dolphy Evenings At The Village Gate winds the clock back to the summer of 1961, not long before the formation of the classic quartet. Coltrane, in incandescent form, fronts a similarly hard-kicking sextet completed by Tyner, Jones, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, flute and alto saxophone, and twin bassists Reggie Workman and Art Davis.

All of these albums were produced or co-produced for release by Ken Druker, Senior Vice President, Jazz Development at the Verve Group, of which Impulse! is a part. Below, Druker talks to AAJ about the latest album. But first, some scene setting...

The five tracks on Evenings At The Village Gate were recorded during Coltrane's four-week run at the New York club in August and September 1961 by Rich Alderson, the Gate's resident sound technician. We cannot be certain, but the collective wisdom of those involved in the project—which alongside Druker includes Alderson, Coltrane historian Lewis Porter, and Ravi Coltrane—is that they were recorded on two separate nights, precise dates unknown. "My Favorite Things," "When Lights Are Low," "Impressions" and "Greensleeves" were taped on one night (and appear on the album in performance order), "Africa" was recorded another night. No other recordings from the engagement are known to exist.

We should be grateful for what we have got, however, for the tape reels concerned disappeared from view around 1968 and were only rediscovered, by chance, in 2019 (the first four tunes) and 2021 ("Africa").

In an essay in the album booklet, Alderson tells the story. Here is an extract: "In 1965 and '66, I was hired to build Bob Dylan's stage sound system and went on the road with him. Around that time, I also got involved with the Institute of Sound at Carnegie Hall, a small non-profit run by a former child actor named Richard Stryker, which was dedicated to preserving historic recordings, primarily opera.

"Eventually, when Nixon was elected in '68, I decided to leave the country [for Mexico] and left all my reels—music by different musicians, my own musique concrete stuff—with the Institute. Six years later I came back and found out that Richard had died and all of the recordings had been given to the New York Public Library. For a long time, I didn't even know they were there until Parker Fishel, a Dylan archivist, found a box marked 'Alderson?'—with the question mark."

Long story short: The tape Fishel found was the one with four tunes on it. Following the discovery, the Public Library contacted Lewis Porter, who listened to the tape, was knocked out by what he heard, and contacted Ken Druker. Then in 2021, the drummer George Schuller, son of Gunther Schuller, was researching a Lee Konitz tape collection at the library and came across the box containing the "Africa" reel. He, too, got in touch with Druker.

"We had to work around Covid," says Druker. "When Lewis told me about the first tape I was planning on releasing those four tunes. Then two years later, George told me about 'Africa.' We had to go into the Library all masked up, and Lewis, Ravi, George and I went in and listened to everything again, including 'Africa.' I'm glad we didn't jump on it right away, because I had some other Coltrane things in the queue, the Canadian film soundtrack (2019's Blue World) and the Seattle gig. I'm glad we waited because we ended up with 'Africa' as well."

Alderson says that when he recorded Coltrane at the Gate it was not with a record release in mind. He simply wanted to test the speaker system he had recently installed at the club, and did so with just a single microphone hung over the stage.

"The mic was an old RCA 77-A that I modified by removing the back to make it more omnidirectional and sound less boxy," says Alderson in his essay. "When I recorded Coltrane, it was the only time I ever used just one mic for a live performance. If the recording was intended for commercial release, I used a fuller setup. In '82, with Grover Washington, Jr., I had a full recording truck and more gear than you could shake a stick at. At the Gate, the ideal spot for the mic was in the ceiling above the stage, so I placed the RCA there and ran a line through the length of the club [into the apartment above the club where Alderson was living] and recorded the music on a Nagra III reel-to-reel. I remember checking the sound with a set of Beyer headphones."

Despite the basic recording set-up, the sound quality on Evenings At The Village Gate is extraordinarily good. Partly this is down to Alderson's skills, partly to the tape transfers made by Jeff Willens at New York Public Library's Media Preservation Labs, partly to the mastering by Kevin Reeves at East Iris Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. And partly, no doubt, due to luck, for the sun shines on the righteous. The tracks are shot through with potency and immediacy and possess an audio quality that places the listener directly in the room (check the YouTube clip of "Impressions" below).

The recordings the same band made at the Village Vanguard two months later, with Rudy Van Gelder at the controls of a more elaborate set-up, are undoubtedly cleaner. But a recording does not need to be clean to be effective. Raw is sometimes more. On Evenings At The Village Gate, Coltrane and Elvin Jones—whose relationship was the most important within the band—are up close and vivid. Eric Dolphy sounds good, too. McCoy Tyner, Art Davis and Reggie Workman sound acceptable, more than that on their solos. In the background, you can sometimes hear musicians or audience members, it is not clear which, calling out affirmation and encouragement. You cannot decipher the actual words, but you sure can hear the exhilaration behind them.

"For what it is, the audio quality is shockingly good," agrees Druker. "One ribbon microphone hung over the stage. And it sounds fantastic. The tapes themselves were in great condition already and I think Kevin Reeves has done a really terrific job with the mastering."

For Druker, one of the thrills of the music itself is the presence of Eric Dolphy. "As good as everything else is, Dolphy is virtually given an entire feature on 'When Lights Are Low,'" he says. "I can't think of another situation where someone joining Coltrane's band was given that much space. Coltrane solos towards the end, he takes a few choruses, but it's really a feature for Dolphy. That was unique. It spoke to the love Coltrane had of Dolphy's music and to their relationship. That was the first thing that jumped out at me. Then, when you listen to all of it, the rest of the performances are just astounding.

"Also it's a recording from a very critical period in Coltrane's development. A lot was happening and happening so quickly. Things were changing from month to month. We're really just a month before the classic quartet is formed. Richard Alderson made me think about this: 'My Favorite Things' had come out a few months earlier, in March. It was a radio hit already. And Alderson said that he thought, and probably a lot of other people thought, that Coltrane would now be heading in a pop direction. He had a hit, there was a formula to it, he could have made some money. But as we know, listening to the Gate recordings, that wasn't what Coltrane did at all. If anything, he went in the opposite direction. So people coming to the club may have been expecting the hit of the day. And what they got most nights was two basses and bass clarinet and flute. That would have been surprising."

In 2023, we know there are many unreleased Coltrane recordings out there. There are, for instance, around 84 CDs-worth of material in the collection of live tapes the saxophonist and Coltrane aficionado Frank Tiberi made between 1960 and 1964. The recordings, however, are not as felicitous as those heard on Evenings At The Village Gate, and Impulse! and Tiberi do not feel they are candidates for release right now. But sound-restoration technology is improving all the time, and fast, and it is possible that in the not too distant future some at least of the tapes will be of a high enough audio standard to permit release.

Meanwhile, the serendipitous and unpredictable tale of the Gate recordings, from Rich Alderson's apartment to Carnegie Hall to the New York Public Library to Impulse!, shows that life is full of the unexpected. We can be certain there is more great Coltrane material out there. We just do not know when it will be discovered.

Heads Up: Another live album which packs a high-octane sonic punch despite being recorded with just one microphone hung over the stage is Ray Charles' In Person (Atlantic, 1960). There is no connection with Evenings At The Village Gate (though Charles' trumpeter on the gig, Marcus Belgrave, did record with McCoy Tyner in the 1980s). Consider this just a word to the wise.



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