John Coltrane: The Ultimate Blue Train

Chris M. Slawecki By

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John Coltrane: The Ultimate Blue Train My soft spot in jazz has always been the blues, and artists who frequently employed blues tonalities—Oliver Nelson, Yusef Lateef, Mingus, Monk.

John Coltrane’s name doesn’t often come up in discussions of the blues. Other aspects of Coltrane’s music—like the sense of energy in his playing, of intuition and unquenchable fire—are discussed, but rarely the way he played the blues. Yet legend has it that Coltrane’s favorite album of his own music was Blue Train, his lush yet emotionally throbbing set with Lee Morgan (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Kenny Drew (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums) recorded in 1957.

Blue Train was the only album that Coltrane recorded as a leader for Blue Note Records, and, this past March, Blue Note released an enhanced CD version called The Ultimate Blue Train, the label’s first interactive CD, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its original release. Ultimate features 20-bit remastering of the five original tracks, plus alternate takes of "Lazy Bird" and the title track, with about 75 minutes of music in total. The interactive portion includes rare session photographs, musician interviews, and a Coltrane Blue Note discography with sound samples.

Coltrane was actually under contract to another label (Prestige) when he recorded Blue Train for Blue Note. Re-issue audio producer Michael Cuscuna explains that, "In late 1956 or early 1957, before he signed with Prestige, Coltrane went up to Blue Note’s offices to ask Alfred Lion for some Sidney Bechet albums. He and Alfred talked about a record deal, but Francis Wolff, who handled the artist contracts, had gone for the day. Coltrane took his Bechet LPs and a small advance, saying he would come back in a few days. He didn’t and the whole thing seemed forgotten."

"In early 1957," Cuscuna continues, "Coltrane signed with Prestige. But he remembered the discussion with Alfred and the advance and insisted upon making an album for Blue Note to honor his commitment."

Jazz fans for four decades have been greatly blessed by Coltrane’s sense of loyalty. On Blue, Coltrane elevates the sound and the feel of the blues to equal importance with traditional blues structure and progressions; the inclusion of Fuller’s smears and moans on trombone, for example, enhance the blues feel and sound, yet a trombone is rarely found in a "traditional blues" band. Fuller helps out by playing with plenty of soul on the title track, as does pianist Drew, who manages the Horace Silver-styled feat of playing both tasteful AND funky.

"Moment’s Notice" is a trademark-Coltrane convoluted, full-breasted melodic workout, with Morgan’s mid-song solo nimble to the point of being breath-taking. Another highlight comes from this gorgeous ballad reading of Jerome Kern’s "I’m Old Fashioned" (the only non-original in the set), with a uniformly excellent round of solos—Drew again digging deep into Silver’s hard-bop pockets, while Coltrane’s is simply, wonderfully beautiful—couched in a luxurious yet blue statement of the melody.

The CD enhancements include audio clips of the session’s sole surviving participants, Fuller and engineer Rudy Van Gelder, audio clips from a 1960 Coltrane radio interview, a video with sound clip of the Miles Davis Quintet (Davis, Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Chambers and Jimmy Cobb) performing "So What" for the 1959 television special "The Sound of Miles Davis," and quotes on and about Trane by artists such as Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Johnny Griffin, Roy Haynes and Archie Shepp.

With no disrespect intended to either the harmonic or technical breakthroughs that Coltrane helped advance on the saxophone, I have always found his most profound impact in the monumental, raw emotion and spiritualism of his sound. This is nowhere more evident than in his blues playing, and obviously throughout The Ultimate Blue Train. He just seemed so much better than other musicians at projecting hurt and suffering, majestic rage and frustration, and ultimately ecstacy and liberation. His playing celebrated sound.


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Track Listing: 1. Blue Train 2. Moment's Notice 3. Locomotion 4. I'm Old Fashioned 5. Lazy Bird 6. Blue Train [Alternate Take] 7. Lazy Bird [Alternate Take]

Personnel: John Coltrane: Tenor Saxophone Kenny Drew: Piano Curtis Fuller: Trombone Jo Jones: Drums Lee Morgan: Trumpet Paul Chambers: Bass

Title: The Ultimate Blue Train | Year Released: 1997 | Record Label: Challenge Jazz


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