Thursday, June 7, 2012

For Fanatics Only? John Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings

Every so often, there'll be offerings under the heading "For Fanatics Only?", highlighting box sets that the casual listener or fan of a performer or group would not likely be interested in, but which a true fan-atic would probably appreciate.

The first of these covers a set that expands upon what is, after A Love Supreme my favorite John Coltrane recording.  The single album Live at the Village Vanguard, released in 1962, took three tracks from four nights of recording by notable engineer Rudy Van Gelder and became famous (or infamous) for the mind-boggling Chasin' the Trane, in which the legendary tenor and soprano saxophonist launched into a performance without a head arrangement or theme and proceeded to blow his way through nearly 16 minutes of stunning tenor sax playing, puncutated by phenomenal variations in color, tone and phrasing and presented with remarkable control.  Van Gelder remarked that he named the tune because he literally was "chasing" Coltrane with the recording equipment to capture the performance in highly challenging circumstances in a small, packed and oddly-shaped basement nightclub.

The other two tracks from the original album include the solemn and stately "Spiritual," in which Coltrane developed a theme from an old 19th-century gospel spiritual and used his soprano, as well as his tenor, to create beautiful and also heart-wrenching solos.  Trane's work is juxtaposed in interesting, if unusual ways, by the sinewy and twisting bass clarinet work of the sadly undervalued Eric Dolphy, who was making impressive and challenging music as a leader with Prestige Records (a Blue Note live album of Dolphy's has been featured on this blog already.)  Meanwhile, the standard "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" swings strongly, due in large measure to the stellar rhythm section of bassist Reggie Workman and drummer par excellence Elvin Jones, who works the brushes as well as anyone in jazz, and features excellent soloing from pianist McCoy Tyner.

In 1963, two more lengthy tracks formed the backbone of another album, Impressions.  The title track features the same chord sequence as the famed Miles Davis track "So What," a piece on which Coltrane performed from the popular and critcally-successful 1959 album Kind of Blue.  But, as all great artists do, Trane took the source material from a familiar environment and then transmuted it into something completely his own.  The other piece, however, is just as staggering.  "India," which in its modal form of playing, but also Trane's soprano sax playing, does evoke a broad feeling of Indian music and the musician had been listening to Indian classical music, as exemplified then by sitarist Ravi Shankar and sarod master Ali Akbar Khan (these two were also recently profiled on this blog for an album of their performances from the 1960s.)

Actually, in the early 1990s, an older woman I knew from work had heard that I'd become a Coltrane fan and, as her son worked for MCA Records, then owner of the Impulse! Records catalog, gave me two cassettes issued by MCA of highlights of Trane's Impulse work.  The tracks that drew my attention most were excerpts from A Love Supreme, the tremendous "Out of This World" from the eponymous 1962 album, "Chim Chim Cheree," from a 1965 record that features some of Trane's most powerful and impassioned soloing, "Africa" from his first Impulse album, the masterful Africa/Brass, and, finally, "India."

For the fanatics, though, 1997 brought the mother lode: the release of the 4CD box set, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings.  Everything that had been recorded by Van Gelder on 1, 2, 3 and 5 November 1961 is here.  There are 22 tracks of 9 individual pieces, including four versions of "India" and "Spiritual", three of "Chasin' the Trane" [well, one is called "Chasin' Another Trane" and features a frequent collaborator on drums, the inimitable Roy Haynes], two of "Impressions," "Miles' Mode," "Naima," and the traditional "Greensleeves" and one each of "Softly" and "Brasilia," the latter not appearing on record until the same 1965 album that featured "Chim Chim Cheree."

Trane was in an interesting experimental mode, not just by having Dolphy appear on several tracks, especially on the first night, but also in having two bassists, Workman and Jimmy Garrison, who made his debut with Trane at this engagement and became his regular bass player for the next 5 1/2 years, an oud player named Ahmed Abdul-Malik (recall that Nubian oud master Hamza El Din has also been spotlighted on this blog) who provided an exotic coloration on India, and the oboeist Garvin Bushell, a little-remembered jazz and classical woodwind multi-instrumentalist, whose career started in the 1920s and whose work on the 2nd and 5th of November, added a deeper layer of sound and color to "India" and "Spiritual."

For a devoted follower of Coltrane, who revels in his experimentalism, drinks in the wonders of his live recordings and is an aficionado of the previously released Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions albums, this box set is an essential purchase.  Even the several versions of key tracks reveal a variety and diversity in lineups and performance that show just how amazing Coltrane's work was developing in the early 1960s.

Despite sour reviews from some critics who labeled the music "anti-jazz" or intoned that Trane should have saved his playing for the "woodshed" [in other words, in private rather than in front of an audience], or felt that Dolphy was completely out of place with Trane, these reactionary ripostes only seem more ridiculous as time goes on.  However, in 1962, the biting remarks had an impact on readers of jazz publications and, to some extent, to the musicians, especially Trane and Dolphy, with the former expressing disbelief at how the latter, universally known as a quiet and gently personality, was being raked over the coals by so-called authorities who were, fortunately, on the wrong side of history.

Whatever "anti-jazz" was supposed to mean in the light of the advancing the music as exemplified by Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus and many others by late 1961, John Coltrane with his Africa/Brass collection and this live recording vaulted into the front ranks of any type of musician anywhere, much less jazz.  This box set is a remarkable excursion into feeling, experimentation, passion, dynamics, etc. and, though Coltrane and producer Bob Thiele soon embarked on a series of records to counter the "anti-jazz" label, including albums featuring ballads, a collaboration with Duke Ellington, and another with the incredibly smooth singer Johnny Hartman, there was no turning back ultimately. 

In a way, the path from Live at the Village Vanguard to A Love Supreme is pretty direct and it is one of many reasons why I feel this are the two strongest Coltrane recordings in terms of the impact he had on the direction of jazz music or music generally.  The 4-CD box set, with a great booklet featuring many photos, a discography and an excellent essay by Mark Wild, just gives a much deeper and intense exploration to those fanatics interested and willing in delving deeper into the wonders of John Coltrane's music in late 1961.

John Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse! Records, 1997)

Disc One:

1.  India  10:20
2.  Chasin' the Trane  9:41
3.  Impressions  8:42
4.  Spiritual  12:29
5.  Miles' Mode  9:53
6.  Naima  7:33

Disc Two:

1.  Brasilia  18:35
2.  Chasin' Another Trane  15:26
3.  India  13:14
4.  Spiritual  15:03
5.  Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise  6:25

Disc Three:

1.  Chasin' the Trane  15:55
2.  Greensleeves  6:08
3.  Impressions  10:49
4.  Spiritual  13:31
5.  Naima  7:02
6.  Impressions  14:45

Disc Four:

1.  India  13:55
2.  Greensleeves  4:51
3.  Miles' Mode  15:12
4.  India  15:06
5.  Spiritual  20:29

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