John Coltrane had visited Europe in 1960 as a member of Miles Davis’s band. His run with that band would end soon after that, but the Acrobat label captured that tour on last year’s All of You: The Last Tour, 1960. Now, Acrobat captures Coltrane’s 1961 return to Europe, this time as a band leader. He brought in tow his excellent quartet: Reggie Workman on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and McCoy Tyner on piano. Throw in a fiery Eric Dolphy, who always adds a challenging angle to Coltrane’s work (see Live at the Villange Vanguard for further evidence), and you’ve got a volatile band behind one of jazz’s most explosive players travelling just one of the many experimental astral planes he would find in his short life.
The success of Coltrane’s tour was not, however, a foregone conclusion. Coltrane’s playing in Davis’s band was met with confusion and sometimes even derision. To hear All of You is to hear a Coltrane pulling away from Davis’s carefully controlled system. He was playing outside of even those wide-open bounds. When he returned to Europe the next year, his new bracing and abrasive turns had only intensified. At some early shows in London, where he and the band would run through, say, a 35-minute version of “My Favorite Things”, Coltrane was dismissed as a “terror”, Dolphy’s soloing was derided, and the band’s exploration was seen as messy, even in puzzling opposition to what jazz should be.
The four discs on So Many Things finds the band looking for some sweet spot between a groove the audience can latch onto and the experimentalism that shaped this period of Coltrane’s career. Though perhaps more focus is put on the new sounds he found with Rashied Ali, Pharoah Sanders, and his wife later in the decade, the early ’60s was a key moment for John Coltrane, one where his blues and ballad playing exploded into something new and dynamic. Over these four discs — and through shows in Paris, Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Stockholm — the band is continually searching for new approaches to old favorites.
Any fan of Coltrane is unlikely to be surprised by many of the tracks that appear here. There’s four different versions of “Blue Train”, four versions of “Impressions”, three of “I Want to Talk About You”, and a whopping six takes on “My Favorite Things”. Even “Naima” pops up twice. Only disc two, split between shows in Paris and Copenhagen on November 18 and November 20 respectively, sports a remotely unique set list. In Copenhagen, the band stutters and rolls through a smoldering version of “Delilah”, with all the speed, nuance, and wild-eyed power at full throttle in Coltrane’s solos. They also play “Everytime We Say Goodbye”, a ballad comedown that centers around the subtle power of Tyner’s keys. It’s an excellent and bittersweet juxtaposition to the unpredictability of “Delilah”, perhaps a moment for the audience to catch its collective breath.
Outside of those moments, the sets repeatedly return to familiar territory. The true charm of So Many Things, though, is that there is no real feeling of repetition in hearing the same sides so many times. The entire box set starts with a 16-minute version of “Blue Train” that assures you Coltrane and his band are far removed from the smooth sounds of the classic 1957 album that track came from. Coltrane’s notes pull at the structure of the song, while every crash of a cymbal from Jones blows another hole into it. Dolphy is both counterpoint to and echo of Coltrane’s expansive soloing. He has his own path through solos. Where Coltrane always feels like he’s trying to get away, or to get lost if only to find the long way back, Dolphy sounds as if on a vision quest, weaving through the track like a man possessed.
Each version of “Blue Train” here provides new revelations. By the time we get to Stockholm on November 23, the band plays it as an all-out sprint, but the track is as tight as ever even as the playing goes on and on. The six takes on “My Favorite Things” further explore the band’s newfound cohesion, not just where it got to but the sometimes bumpy road to get there. Disc three opens in Copenhagen with a false start of the song, for which Coltrane quietly apologizes, and the version that follows sounds off-kilter for at least a few minutes, and if it finds its groove it is still a strange one. Tyner’s playing is more abrasive than usual, Coltrane’s solos more inscrutable than ever, the rhythm section nearly punishing their instruments to get through the track. By the time they get to Stockholm, though, the band has found the groove yet again, Tyner and Coltrane playing off each other seamlessly and the rest of the band following suit. These shows reveal a band finding its communication, with the audience and each other, but also constantly pushing at the language they’ve found. As Workman and Jones get tighter, as Tyner’s chord phrasings get both more sweet and complex, Coltrane and Dolphy spit out enough fire not to melt the structures of the performances, but at least to bend them a little.
Many of these recordings were initially made for radio play and, as such, the sound quality is up and down. Most of the first three discs sound too airy and treble light, and you miss a bit of the rhythm section’s nuance in the recordings, which absolutely sound like radio takes. There’s a sort of imagining that can happen with this fidelity. You can imagine what it would be like to sit around the stereo and hear Coltrane play live. But that sort of thinking only goes so far. There’s a charm to the fidelity, but those recordings are at their best when the sides focus on one player, say when Coltrane or Tyner go off on a solo. When the whole band plays, things sometimes sound chaotic. Disc four, though, sounds excellent and is nearly worth the price of the set all on its own. The band is in its best form of all of these shows, and the fidelity is excellent. All in all, So Many Things is a worthy addition to any Coltrane collection. It may not be the complicated revelation last year’s Offering release was, but this reminds us of another experimental time in Coltrane’s career, one where he’s figuring out where to go next, and the audience is figuring out how to keep up.