It is now 50 years since the corporeal body known as John Coltrane passed, allowing his spirit to ascend to higher levels of consciousness.
In that time, the name ‘Coltrane’ has become a by-word in sonic futurism, with his questing spirit for fresh ideas resulting in some of the most startling sounds of that, or any other, era.
From his beginnings as a hard-bop stylist through his continual straining at the definitions of form, John Coltrane helped lead The New Thing while perpetually seeking out his own path.
Leaving behind an enormous catalogue of work as a leader and side man, full studio recordings and live, John Coltrane’s work can often seem enormous, unwieldy.
Here’s a few pointers on where to start.
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Best known as a free jazz stylist of quite startling power, John Coltrane first gained wider attention as a hard bop player keen to play harder, faster, rougher than ever before. One of the key members of a glut of post-Sonny Rollins tenor players in American jazz, this record brought together a stellar cast to work on some of his finest R&B-derived material.
Lee Morgan – also taken from us at a cruelly young age - is outstanding on trumpet, while Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones join Coltrane as fellow Miles Davis alumni. It’s the songs, though, that stand out: virtually ever song on this record (only his second as leader) would become a jazz standard.
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Ira Gitler famously John Coltrane’s approach as “sheets of sound” - an astonishing series of ideas manipulated and expressed with remarkable velocity. His first for Atlantic, ‘Giant Steps’ is perhaps the definitive manifestation of what Ira meant – rapidly chord changes, building up to create an enormous sense of both weight and possibility.
The saxophonist’s final album of the 50s, it found Coltrane bidding adieu to the decade in fine form - ‘Mr P.C.’ has a wonderful sense of groove, while ‘Naima’ underlines just how fragrantly, sweetly beautiful Coltrane could blow.
Like the sound of the latter? Try 1963’s marvellous yet often under-rated full length ‘Ballads’.
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When Impulse Records – then backed by ABC – bought out John Coltrane’s contract with Atlantic Records he was offered one of the most expensive contracts in the history of jazz music. Little could those record executives realise, however, that they were essentially bankrolling a new dictionary for African-American music.
Launching his Impulse career with typical ambition, ‘Africa/Brass’ found John Coltrane fusing a growing awareness and appreciate for free jazz with the Big Band template.
Utilising unusual instruments – a groovy euphonium, for one – it also displayed Coltrane’s willingness to speak out on civil rights. The side long ‘Africa’ is a stunning expression of roots and identity, while the complete set also includes a radical reinterpretation of ‘Song Of The Underground Railroad’.
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‘A Love Supreme’
Released in 1965, ‘A Love Supreme’ has almost been discussed so thoroughly that it has once again become unknowable. One of the finest jazz documents ever created, it owes its roots to John Coltrane’s exit from the throes of drug addiction, his loving marriage to Alice Coltrane, and the broadening and deepening of his spiritual outlook.
Despite all the press inches, the libraries of books written about it, listening to ‘A Love Supreme’ remains a tremendously personal experience – there’s so much to be adored, from that opening Jimmy Harrison bass line, drummer Elvin Jones’ percussive flurries, McCoy Tyner’s moments of fluid beauty, and of course the religious yearning that underpins final track ‘Psalm’.
‘A Love Supreme’ is the fulcrum of John Coltrane’s catalogue, and it remains one of the most thrilling aural journeys anyone can embark on.
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John Coltrane died of liver cancer on July 17th, 1967. The summer of love was in full swing, but jazz greats were left stunned by the news. Appropriately, his funeral was intensely musical – the service was opened by the Albert Ayler Quartet and closed by the Ornette Coleman Quartet.
During his final years John Coltrane experimented and recorded relentlessly, expanding and contracting his group in the process. Much of these recordings were lovingly presented over the following years, but few match the sheer power of ‘Meditations’. The saxophonist’s final recording dates with long-time conspirators drummer Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner, this bedrock allows John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders to embark on lengthy tenor duels, racing each other to the music of tomorrow.
Closing, somewhat aptly, with ‘Serenity’, the sleevenotes for ‘Meditations’ allude to the musician’s spiritual beliefs: “I believe in all religions”.
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