Music

John Coltrane: Soultrane

A pivotal, pristine moment in the history of jazz, of music, of the world.


John Coltrane

Soultrane

Subtitle: Rudy Van Gelder Remasters
Label: Prestige
US Release Date: 2006-06-13
UK Release Date: 2006-08-28
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First things first: let's take it as read that this is a classic of the 20th century jazz canon and an essential point of reference in Coltrane's own tumultuous career. 1958 found Coltrane recording for Prestige as a leader, having left Thelonious Monk's quartet and before heading back to Miles Davis' band to make history on Kind of Blue the following year. Here, he's hunkered down with the Red Garland Trio (Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Arthur Taylor on drums), enjoying the easy interplay that had developed between the musicians over years of playing together, and taking the opportunity to throw out his newly-honed chops. Yes, this is the album on which Coltrane first emerged as the primary innovator of the jazz world, wielding an astonishing technical virtuosity and a blinding vision of the possibilities of the tenor sax.

That said, it's striking to hear just how conventional the settings sound. This is '50s jazz, coming from a world of standards, hard bop and the great American songbook. Tellingly, none of the tunes here is composed by Coltrane. And yet, in almost every bar one can hear just how hard Coltrane is straining at those boundaries, reaching out in pursuit of the moments of pure transcendence and elevation to which he single-mindedly devoted the later years of his career. In this way, it's hard not to hear this album with those later wild experiments in mind, looking for the seeds of the great avant-garde statements he made in the following decade.

So, with the benefit of historical hindsight, it's truly fascinating to hear this earlier stage in Coltrane's career as a preamble to the discoveries he was yet to make. For one thing, he sticks exclusively to the tenor saxophone -- contemporary music's principle 'weapon of choice' at the time, having superseded the trumpet earlier in the '50s. Within a decade, the tenor itself would give way to the electric guitar as the prime voice of musical innovation, but here Coltrane is riding the crest of that instrument's most important period -- without recourse to the soprano that later became such a staple of his repertoire. Moreover, this album was recorded in what might now seem like a peaceful age of innocence, before the great upheavals of the '60s -- before Coltrane's experiments with LSD and before his life-changing exposure to Albert Ayler's earth-shaking innovations. Consequently, Coltrane plays it straight: no extended techniques, no abrasive over-blowing, no shrieks, no cries; just a mellow, clean tone coming right out of the heart of the horn.

But, oh, the notes he plays. The opening track, "Good Bait", is a bluesy, boppish, mid-tempo swinger penned by Tadd Dameron and Count Basie, but just moments into his first solo, Coltrane is unleashed, transforming the tune into a wildly angular search for new shapes. It is here that he first demonstrates his trademark multi-phonic dexterity, impatiently pouring out great gouts of notes in the search for the ultimate combination -- a technique christened by Ira Gitler in his original liner notes as "sheets of sound," an utterly apt and incisive appellation that stuck with Coltrane for the rest of his days. Coltrane stretches this simple vamp out to an astonishing 12 minutes of endless extrapolations, packing more ideas into each bar than most of his contemporaries could manage in an entire tune.

But anyone who thinks Coltrane is all bluster and aggression would do well to hear "Theme for Ernie", a plaintive and elegiac ballad written by Fred Lacy in memory of Ernie Henry, the alto saxophonist who died aged 31 in 1957. Here, Coltrane is pure emotion, displaying the same heartfelt intensity of feeling that would so often be mistaken for anger in his later years.

The rest of the album features some equally timeless performances: "I Want to Talk About You", a classy Billy Eckstine ballad given an exhaustive 10-minute investigation; "You Say You Care", a high-spirited, finger-snappin' swinger; and -- best of all -- "Russian Lullaby", a blistering, frenzied rendition of an Irving Berlin tune preformed at the very limits of up-tempo possibilities. It's also on this final number that we can appreciate what a fantastic job Rudy Van Gelder -- the engineer on the original 1958 sessions -- has done on this remastering: when Coltrane takes his final, unaccompanied sax break, the echo is so clean and crisp it almost sounds like you're in the room with him.

Given a time machine and the right connections, this reviewer surely would be.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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