John Coltrane
Photo: Cover of John Coltrane's 'Blue Train'

The 10 Best John Coltrane Solos

John Coltrane redefined the vocabulary of jazz with his “sheets of sound” and modal approaches. He also revolutionized how people play the saxophone.

John Coltrane completely changed the face of music in a recording career that lasted only a little over ten years. He was so influential in so many ways that it’s impossible to list them all. Naturally, many of his compositions have become part of the standard jazz canon, tunes that all young jazz musicians must contend with in order to be considered legit. He redefined the vocabulary of the genre with his “sheets of sound” and modal approaches. Coltrane revolutionized the way people play the saxophone, from his adroit use of the upper registers (known as altissimo) to his popularization of the soprano saxophone in jazz. His classic 1960s quartet is considered the apotheosis of the modern jazz combo for many. Above all, though, Coltrane played some of the most innovative, sublime, poetic solos in the history of the music. Every jazz musician aspires to capture even an iota of Trane’s musical and spiritual energy.

Ranking one Coltrane solo over another is an act of absurdist thinking. Nevertheless, the process of deciding which Trane solos are the best of the best gave me a good reason to go back and listen to his catalog once again, as if an excuse is even needed. I hope you do the same.

10. “My Favorite Things” (My Favorite Things)

John Coltrane popularized the use of the soprano saxophone in jazz, and this track had a lot to do with it. “My Favorite Things” demonstrates the broad appeal of Trane’s art. He managed to take a Rogers and Hammerstein tune that everyone has heard before and turn it into a pleasantly meandering epic, one that fellow musicians gawk at for its technical prowess — yet also became a radio hit (albeit in an edited form). Instead of soloing over the tune’s chord changes, Trane solos over an extended vamp of only two chords, thus cementing the modal approach that he had been working on for a while by 1960. There’s a mesmerizing, bewitching quality about it that’s a far cry from the original tune.

9. “Oleo” (Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet)

Despite his gaining fame for the experimentalism of his later career, John Coltrane could play straight-ahead bebop like none other as well. “Oleo”, a tune by Sonny Rollins based upon the ubiquitous “I Got Rhythm”, is the perfect vehicle for Coltrane to show off his chops and artistic creativity. “Oleo” is definitely one of the most singable solos in Trane’s catalog. During every chorus, he manages to throw out an improvised melody worthy of a pop song. This is Coltrane at his height with the Miles Davis Quintet. Straightforward jazz doesn’t get much better than this.

8. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (Coltrane’s Sound)

Standards have always been the hallmark of the jazz canon. As musicians learn how to play jazz, they always must contend with the repertoire of show tunes and American pop songs that often get called on the bandstand. John Coltrane had a way of taking standards and twisting them to the point where they were sometimes barely recognizable. There are a multitude of examples of this phenomenon, but “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” is definitely one of my favorites. This version features an Afro-Cuban-inflected groove and a chord structure that’s modified from the original to fit the modal sounds Coltrane was embracing in 1960. Trane’s solo moves in and out of keys while keeping the essence of the standard tune intact. Here, we have a primary example of Coltrane, the masterful melodic manipulator.

7. “Blue Train” (Blue Train)

Above all, John Coltrane was a bluesman. He’s played so many amazing solos on blues tunes that I don’t even know where to start. There’s a reason “Blue Train” stands above the rest, though, and has become so famous. Trane’s solo on this title track swings like mad. The saxophonist is so locked in with the rhythm section that it seems like they’re inseparable. Coltrane blows his way through eight blustery choruses, rarely pausing to take a breath. “Blue Train” finds Trane at an intersection between the bebop of his early career, the blues that he would redefine throughout his life, and the technical “sheets of sound” approach that he was developing at the time. There’s something here for fans of each stage of Coltrane’s musical development.

6. “Jupiter” (Interstellar Space)

John Coltrane’s latter music, the stuff he was making right before his death in 1967, is controversial, to say the least. Much like the final music of Beethoven, Coltrane was breaking through to something new at the end of his career, music that was wildly forward-looking and misunderstood by many. Interstellar Space was originally not released until 1974 and consists entirely of freeform duets with drummer Rashied Ali. Most of the tunes abandon principles of melodic and harmonic structure. Coltrane is playing with a kind of wild abandonment, making squeaks and squawks come out of his horn that nobody even knew existed. The interplay with drummer Ali is the glue that holds “Jupiter” together, though. It’s interesting to hear how Trane can make relevant art with essentially no parameters. In some ways, this is harder to do than when you are given many guidelines.

5. “Alabama” (Live at Birdland)

“Alabama” was written as a memorial to the four girls killed by white supremacists during the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. John Coltrane plays with the kind of sparseness and spiritual sensitivity appropriate to the subject manner. The music in and of itself serves as a eulogy. You can hear the emotions of sorrow, anger, and hope, all coalescing into one solo. It’s also one of Coltrane’s most accessible solos, thus a really good place to start for anyone who’s not that familiar with his music. The opening and closing sections are out of time, with Coltrane and his bandmates moving together at their own languid pace. The effect is wildly hypnotic.

4. “Resolution” (A Love Supreme)

A Love Supreme is justifiably one of the most well-known records of all time, jazz or otherwise. Musicians and artists from all different genres and mediums have cited John Coltrane’s 1965 masterpiece as an important influence. Trane’s creative juices were really flowing here, for he was making music that was both technically brilliant and spiritually relevant. It was like Trane was channeling something here, a sort of energy that only he possessed but was kind enough to share with the world. The entire album is essential, and there really are no standout tracks or solos. “Resolution” is as representative as any, though. Trane’s solo features equal influence from the blues and the more experimental, modal music that’s a hallmark of this record. Coltrane takes a melody and shifts it through several different keys as if to prove its versatility.

3. “Giant Steps” (Giant Steps)

You haven’t really made it as a jazz musician until you learn to play on “Giant Steps”, a tour de force featuring a new chord change on virtually every beat. Although this type of song structure has the potential to yield boring, mechanical music, Trane’s solo goes beyond just breathtaking on a technical level. This was the pinnacle of Trane’s “sheets of sound” approach, wherein his goal was to create music vertically (focusing on arpeggiating chords) rather than horizontally (focusing on creating distinct melodies). John Coltrane would explore the many implications of each chord, often substituting alternative chords for the more traditional ones that the listener would expect. Within the barrage of notes, though, the shifting patterns create a kind of spellbinding effect. Coltrane brilliantly returns to certain key notes to create a sense of repetition, providing an anchor for the listener. Nobody can do this like Trane.

2. “Blue in Green” (Kind of Blue)

When one thinks of John Coltrane on the saxophone, one most likely thinks of flights of technical brilliance that leave one breathless. This is understandable since Trane no doubt played a lot of notes during his career. However, he was also one of the greatest melodists in the history of music. Never did his ability to construct a beautiful melody shine through more than on “Blue in Green”, the most sublime, gorgeous track on Miles Davis’ landmark 1959 record Kind of Blue.

Trane’s solo is short but sweet. The chord changes to “Blue in Green” are complex, often shifting modalities and moods. Coltrane manages to construct a simple melody amongst all the harmonic complexity, one that is relentlessly singable. I often go to “Blue in Green” when I experience major events in my life, whether positive or negative. It always seems to speak to my current emotional state, and Coltrane’s sensitive solo deserves a lot of credit for the song’s power.

1. “Crescent” (Crescent)

Here, we find John Coltrane at the height of his powers, playing with perhaps the greatest ensemble in jazz history. In 1964, Trane stood betwixt and between the tonal music that had made him well-known and the experimental, free-form jazz that would define his latter career. “Crescent” employs definite chord changes, but Trane pushes the limits of what is possible in tonal music, often slipping in and out of the keys. He never loses his sense of melodic construction, though.

The more abstract moments on the record are tempered with beautiful, bluesy melodies that sound as natural as anything Coltrane has ever played. The solo’s effectiveness is enhanced by the playing of fellow musicians Jimmy Garrison (bass), Elvin Jones (drums), and McCoy Tyner (piano). Their playing is remarkably tight and calm. No matter how animated Trane gets as a soloist, they keep the groove locked down. Tyner even drops out about halfway through the solo, giving Trane all the space he needs to do his thing. Saxophonist Dave Liebman has ranked this solo as amongst Coltrane’s most memorable, citing its uniquely poetic qualities. I agree with him.

This article was originally published on 1 February 2012.