Rick James remembers John Coltrane’s albums as uniquely transcendent works, part of a small pantheon of recordings that could appeal to any and every one with even the slightest interest in contemporary music. “Most of the white boys I was hanging out with in Toronto in 1965 were down with Coltrane,” he remarked in a 2001 interview with jazz writer Ashley Khan. “Everyone had Sketches of Spain, everybody had A Love Supreme.” And so it is today: like Mozart, the Beatles and Marvin Gaye, Coltrane’s influence obliterates every conceivable boundary, from genre to age to race. Jetta-driving yipsters, avant-garde aficionados and your office’s obnoxious tech support guy can all stump for Trane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things”.
Given Coltrane’s broad audience and iconic status, we tend to forget that he never did fit neatly in with any given musical community. In the mid-1950s, he overpowered other bebop players with his sweeping runs and radiant tone, and to be fair, he had not yet mastered the art of subtlety; many critics mistook his impassioned playing for anger. A deep knowledge of theory and an expansive sonic vocabulary, not violent emotions, were the forces that drove his brash displays, which meant that Trane was too heady for many technically deficient free jazz fire-breathers. Coltrane’s discography attests to his iconoclasm: though prolific, he worked with a far smaller circle of musicians than many of his contemporaries.
These albums comprise the three Coltrane dates most recently reissued as part of the Rudy Van Gelder Remasters series, and together they give us some sense of just how bold and shocking the saxophonist’s sound must have been to his early listeners. His relationship with the other members of the Miles Davis Quintet is particularly tense. Here Trane plays amongst a group of musicians renowned for their understated eloquence, taut rhythmic interplay, and less-is-more ethos, and he eschews all of these qualities in favor of an ecstatic (over)abundance of notes. The man really would have made a fantastic acid rock guitarist.
Cookin’, the first of these albums, features a relatively subdued Coltrane. Indeed, everyone — Davis, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones — plays with restraint on the record’s most famous cut, “My Funny Valentine”. Davis would eventually grow tired of the song, but he sounds enraptured by it here, giving it a sleek, modern shape. Jones and Chambers have most of the fun on this record. They’re given the most wiggle room in “Valentine”. They pilot “Blues by Five” to a relentless finish, replete with smashing drum breaks, and they lend “Airegin” a hyperkinetic pulse, Jones’ cymbals never stopping to catch a breath. The latter tune also finds the horn players at their most aggressive; the opening reams of tenor sax demonstrate the massive scalar swipes that would come to characterize Coltrane’s early “sheets of sound” style.
Workin’ features one track from the Cookin’ sessions (the Quintet’s last Prestige recordings) and was released like that album in 1956. Perhaps the strongest of Davis’ pre-Columbia offerings, Workin’ can claim no misspent seconds or extraneous notes. Davis and Coltrane complement one another perfectly, their solos circling around similar themes yet sounding quite different because of the contrast between Davis’ pure, muted utterances and Coltrane’s more aggressive statements. I’m not sure, though, that this reissue is altogether necessary — multiple CD editions are already in print, and neither the packaging nor the sound are greatly improved here. And as with the other two discs reviewed here, this one offers no bonus tracks. You’ve probably already got this on your iPod. Move along, nothing new to see here.
A less likely piece in your collection is Traneing In, Coltrane’s second album as bandleader. Garland, Chambers, and drummer Art Taylor provide support, and Trane never quite meshes with them. The backing trio sounds quite at home in the title track’s first three minutes, stating a blues theme and setting the stage for a lyrical Garland solo. When Coltrane finally enters the fray, he almost drowns out his compatriots. It’s as though he’s foisting an unwanted alternate theme on an already crystallized tune. Throughout the disc, Chambers’ solos prove the most expressive, running the gamut from repetitive, introspective intervals to fluid harmonic lines to playful interpolations of standards. All but the most diehard Coltrane fans can pass by this rushed 1957 outing. Or maybe everyone should hear it, if only to remember that brilliance needs discipline if it’s to make its home among the rest of us.