John Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings

John Coltrane
The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings

THE MUSIC OF saxophonist John Coltrane exists in the odd position of having its legacy neglected by the same powerful cultural authorities who feel required to pay it lip service, such as the neo-conservative jazz establishment centered around New York's Lincoln Center. Yet the recordings of Coltrane, more so than those of disciples (from Dave Liebman to Charles Gayle) and fair-weather friends (i.e., said neo-cons), naturally become us. Hence the fanaticism the music engenders in a polymorphous audience not often taken by experimental musics. It is, in the words of Kool & the Gang, "wild and peaceful."

Consider the rerelease of Coltrane's 1961 four-day stay at the Village Vanguard--discharged in various manners over the last three-and-a-half decades--now collected in a single four-CD set with three previously unreleased takes. It is being used by Impulse! as a heavy anchor to (re?)re-promote the entire Coltrane catalog; and the collection, though handsome, often resembles an elongated bit of beggary. It even includes a fold-out poster inventorying 24 other Coltrane releases we can soon own (or own again, as the case may be).

Notably absent on that poster is the cover of The Major Works of John Coltrane, which includes two takes of 1965's "Ascension," a recording that stands as Coltrane's most important and uncompromising work. It's a small, but telling omission. Impulse! would seem to prefer to promote this music as ear candy outside of its artistic/historical context. But, like it or lump it, Coltrane's oeuvre means little without the understanding of the connection between "Ascension," and everything that came before. Without offering us 1965, the 1961 that created these exquisite live sessions, in a sense, does not exist.

Featuring an augmented version of the quartet that featured McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums, this was neither the most important music that Coltrane ever recorded, nor the most "interesting"; but it is, in its way, perfect--a culmination of his first period of depth. Coltrane's playing, even at its most atonal, always implied harmony, and it's pleasing to hear his notes utilized so directly. His tenor and soprano work played against other horns--particularly Eric Dolphy's alto and bass clarinet--create a shivering, tuneful dissonance. Coltrane was taking the modal approach (which he would eventually shake off) as far as it could go, and here that approach midwifes moods both furtive (the famously inventive 15-minute take of "Chasing the Trane") and meditative (like "India," which features Ahmed Abdul-Malik's tamboura). And while the set might be tagged as a fanatic's fetish object--some pieces appear up to four times--listening to it just might make you a fanatic, too.

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