The John Coltrane Guide

From sideman to mesmerizer to evangelical to interstellar space

You can buy your Coltrane in bulk these days, and maybe you should. Not just for completists, boxes likeThe Prestige Recordings , Atlantic/Rhino'sThe Heavyweight Champion, and Impulse'sThe Classic Quartet assist in tracking their subject's path from '50s journeyman to '60s avatar. But facsimiles and expanded editions do the job almost as well, plus they're more affordable and beginner-friendly, and they channel the lure of vinyl originals by miniaturizing the look. You're missing the story with best-ofs.

Mating Call
[1956, Prestige]

This sideman date with star-crossed bebop pianist and composer Tadd Dameron might not be as essential as the ones with Miles and Monk you hardly need me to recommend. But I promise you'll fall for "On a Misty Night," Coltrane's most lyrical and dancing recorded solo to that point.

photo: Chuck Stewart

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    Cattin' With Coltrane and Quinichette
    [1957, Prestige]

    Compare and contrast: Already stacking chords and subdividing bebop's basic eighth-note unit, Coltrane could be playing twice as fast as Prez devotee Quinichette, even when the rhythm section supplies the same tempo for both.

    Traneing In
    [1957, OJC]

    Folks who were there say the somber and careening blues title track was the first recorded performance to approach the rigorous explorations Coltrane was by then routinely mesmerizing nightclub audiences with. And his closing flourish on "Slow Dance," a luscious melody by the forgotten Bernstein protégé Alonzo Levister, shows that "Naima"'s melody was on his mind long before Giant Steps.

    The Ultimate Blue Train
    [1957, Blue Note]

    Although '50s wisdom had it the difference between Blue Note and Prestige was a day of paid rehearsal, Blue Note's real edge—and the reason Coltrane, until then seemingly no composer, suddenly blossomed forth with "Moment's Notice" and the looming title track—was in allowing musicians to retain their publishing. In this case, it may be no more than the reunion with Philly Joe Jones, the drummer most in sync with him before Elvin. Having Lee Morgan as a foil doesn't hurt, either. The CD-ROM material congratulates you on your good taste in making this purchase.

    Coltrane Time
    [1958, Blue Note]

    Originally issued as Cecil Taylor's Hard Driving Jazz, it doesn't work as well as it might have, for which blame sidemen unsympathetic to the pianist. But like the 1954 session by Miles and Monk that produced both "Bags' Groove" and a fistfight, this is one of those instances in which tension proves its own reward.

    Giant Steps
    [1959, Atlantic]

    The year of Kind of Blue and Ornette Coleman's Five Spot debut was also the year of Coltrane's tour de force on the changes of . . . they speed by so quickly no one's ever been sure if "Giant Steps" is derived from Tin Pan Alley or a Nicolas Slominsky exercise. Only Charlie Parker's "Ko Ko" presages its dazzle and profundity.

    The Avant-Garde
    [1960 (1966), Atlantic]

    This romp with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell provides the only clue we have of what Coltrane might have sounded like sitting in with Ornette. Coltrane adds another dimension, going for the harmony that isn't there.

    My Favorite Things
    [1960, Atlantic]

    Coltrane's greatest hit—though pianist McCoy Tyner is the quartet member who takes to modes as if born seesawing between major and minor.

    Coltrane Sound
    [1960 (1964), Atlantic]

    Late-released leftovers. "Equinox," a two-chord vamp stretched to the breaking point, shouldn't have had to wait. Nor should a "Body and Soul" that rivals Coleman Hawkins's. It's the first one I bought, and it proved addictive.

    The Complete Africa/ Brass Sessions
    [1961 (1995), Impulse]

    Figures the only Coltrane album produced by Creed Taylor would be orchestral. But the horns hit like an augmented rhythm section—on "Blues Minor," like a second Elvin Jones.

    The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings
    [1961 (1997), Impulse]

    This four-CD box, which expands the original LP with material from Impressions and the vaults, isn't the only live Coltrane you'll ever need, but its three epic versions of "Chasin' the Trane" are a good start. Plus generous helpings of Eric Dolphy, Coltrane's musical soulmate and very nearly his match.

    Coltrane (Deluxe Edition)
    [1962, Impulse]

    "The Inch Worm" shows Coltrane wasn't above fishing for another modal, three-quarter-time novelty hit. But the reasons for buying this now are the gorgeous "Soul Eyes" and a shattering "Out of This World."

    Live at Birdland
    [1963, Impulse]

    It's the one with "Alabama," his famous requiem for four little girls killed in a church bombing that summer—something of a ringer for being recorded in the studio. The concert highlight is "I Want to Talk About You," a ballad with an extended cadenza as searing and inventive as any of Coltrane's uptempo adventures.

    John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
    [1963, Impulse]

    Coltrane performed a mitzvah by reviving the career of a neglected crooner, while casting himself in the unfamiliar (but not altogether unlikely) role of obbligatist. As perfect as Lester Young with Billie Holiday, and—assuming a certain level of taste and sophistication—still a potent first-date aphrodisiac. Or so I'm told.

    Crescent
    [1964, Impulse]

    Simultaneously a ballad album, a darkly ruminative suite, and a subtle exercise in reconfiguring Latin rhythms into a rubato three-against-four (though not billed as any of those things), this has been a favorite of conservatives from Martin Williams to Wynton Marsalis, who regard it as Coltrane's quartet peak. Only what's coming up next stops me from going that far.

    A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition)
    [1964–65 (2002), Impulse]

    "Among the pious I am a scoffer: among the musical, I am religious" —George Bernard Shaw. Try thinking of the holy visitation in the grips of heroin withdrawal that Coltrane describes in the liner notes as a born-again experience, and this becomes his evangelical testimony. Coltrane's most celebrated work, and rightly so. (Along with dry runs, the in valuable bonus disk preserves Coltrane's only live performance of the work.)

    Ascension
    [1965, Impulse]

    Whenever people talk of Coltrane going off the deep end after A Love Supreme, this squalling tribal gathering organized around raw energy and a handful of chords is inevitably offered as Exhibit A. An artifact in which only the most intrepid will take pleasure, it's nevertheless essential for providing evidence of how Coltrane helped shaped the '60s avant-garde and how its rank and file reshaped him.

    Live at the Village Vanguard Again
    [1966, Impulse]

    Released on the heels of Meditations during my junior year in college. The studio album was the one I relied on for catharsis (or just consolation) at the time, but Again is the one I reach for now whenever I want to re-experience the thrill of hearing Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders storm the heavens arm in arm. And I think I realized it was more substantial right from the start.

    Interstellar Space
    [1967 (1 974), Impulse]

    Piano and bass were becoming residual by the last days of Coltrane's quartet; you braced yourself for the moment he abandoned any pretext of an underlying harmony and went mano a mano with Elvin Jones. These duets with Rashied Ali start there—and the spare compositional guidelines only up the intensity. By turns agitated and calm, loamy and celestial, this magnificent session was held back until '74—as if to ensure Coltrane's influence from beyond the grave.

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