John Coltrane On Impulse!: Play By Play

By OfficialDiscogs OfficialDiscogs
updated 4 months ago

In June 2018, the venerated jazz label Impulse! Records released Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, a collection of rediscovered 1963 recordings by the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane.

Within the grooves, Coltrane finds himself both honoring and straining at jazz tradition — a conservative hard bop listener can dive in and enjoy the music, but it also foreshadows the free-form experimentation that he’d pursue until his death from liver cancer in 1967.

After Coltrane found himself going Both Directions 55 years ago, his career and musical thinking began rapidly accelerating toward the unknown.

Whereas many artists enjoy distinct phases in measurements of years at a time, Coltrane was capable of changing day-by-day. On September 30, 1965, he recorded the brain-breakingly atonal Live in Seattle. The next day, he recorded Om, which begins with sinewy Hindu chants.

He was capable of both massive expansion — coaxing a big band’s worth of players into violent noise — and arresting minimalism — sending the pianist and bassist home so he and a drummer could battle it out in harmonic free-fall.

Coltrane recorded more than enough world-class jazz before he joined the Impulse! roster with a swipe of the pen in late 1961. But if you’re interested in what happened once he threw caution to the wind, casting off musical shackles at the risk of ire from the public, his fans or even his own collaborators, then this unrepeatable part of his discography is worth investigating.

In honor of the release of Both Directions at Once, here’s a rundown of every live, studio and compilation album under Coltrane’s name for Impulse! Records.

  1. The John Coltrane Quartet - Africa / Brass

    5 For Sale from €50.77

    Coltrane’s first release for Impulse! expanded his legendary quartet — bassist Reggie Workman, pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones — to a whopping 21 musicians. The result is something resembling big band music, but roiling, unsteady — the strange orchestral elements hanging faintly in the air. Africa/Brass is also a crucial early collaboration between Coltrane and altoist Eric Dolphy, a partnership initially sniffed at by Down Beat magazine as “anti-jazz.” This was to both of the saxophonists’ chagrin — Coltrane later fumed that the review “made it appear we didn’t know the first thing about music.” Africa/Brass foreshadowed Coltrane’s expanded lineups in his final years, in which he’d perform with two bassists, two drummers and beyond, but this “anti-jazz” proved to be a meeting of two of the genre’s greatest minds. Neither Coltrane or Dolphy truly made one like this again.

  2. The John Coltrane Quartette* - Coltrane

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    Sometime around 1961, our hero fully graduated from hard bop to modal jazz, which throws out pre-written chord progressions in favor of modal scales. This “will he or won’t he” jumping-off point in his evolution resulted in some of Trane’s richest work. That said, if the heaving morass of Africa/Brass has the listener scrambling for something lighter, nimbler, one could do worse than its Impulse! successor Coltrane. Nothing overly challenging here — just four of the best players of all time, ripping through Great American Songbook standards like “Out of This World,” the luminous love ballad “Soul Eyes” and even the children’s novelty hit “The Inch Worm.” His stunning early-’60s run has left the breezy Coltrane often overlooked, but Trane’s quartet may have never been better than they were in ‘62.

  3. Coltrane* - "Live" At The Village Vanguard

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    This one’s less notable for its vibrant performances than its aghast reaction from jazz critics and the public. Sure, Coltrane and his new cohort Eric Dolphy may be experimenting with some out-there modes and phrases, but it’s hardly what Down Beat’s John Tynan would accuse it as — “musical nonsense being peddled in the name of jazz.” Really, it’s just another document of Coltrane in a crucial period, with dynamic readings of originals “Spiritual” and “Chasin’ the Trane” alongside Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise.” If Tynan heard this as a provocation, one can only imagine how he’d react later to “Offering” or “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost.”

  4. John Coltrane - Impressions

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    A toss-up of live and studio recordings from Coltrane’s main haunts of The The Village Vanguard and Van Gelder Studios, Impressions is an easily digestible trip around the world. Dolphy, who doubles on bass clarinet and alto sax here, is especially in outrageous form — on “India,” his hypnotic, often atonal runs will drop your jaw. But the guys don’t stop there — CD bonus track “Dear Old Stockholm” is an old Swedish folk tune, and the original ballad “After the Rain” is an ethereal gem. Somehow, these disparate jams form a complete program — and ‘60s rockers were listening. The Byrds, who’d later pay homage to Coltrane’s sax on their single “Eight Miles High,” reportedly took only one tape on the bus for their 1965 tour dates — Ravi Shankar on one side, Impressions on the other. They’d evidently never look at a Rickenbacker the same way — frontman Roger McGuinn remembered: “We played that damn thing 50 or 100 times.” And even though the album itself was more of a mixtape than a concerted studio effort, Impressions still inspires.

  5. John Coltrane Quartet* - Ballads

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    Ironically, it’s Coltrane’s most conservative album of his lifetime that may have caused the biggest splash at the time. Ballads is really just that — classy, mellow renditions of standards like “Too Young to Go Steady” and “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” And according to critic Gene Lee’s original liner notes, the band had never even played the tunes before, simply arriving to the studio with store-bought sheet music and working out the progressions on the spot. Taken with Coltrane’s radical experiments of the same era, some have taken Ballads as a step backward or even as a record-company cash-grab, but such arguments are specious. Coltrane was always just as attracted to restraint, space and beauty as he was to going nuclear on jazz conventions.

  6. Duke Ellington & John Coltrane - Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

    Coltrane was but one of many younger players Duke Ellington made albums within the early ‘60s — the legendary pianist also recorded with Count Basie, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and more. However, this fruitful co-led session brought out the best in both men. Duke Ellington & John Coltrane is cut from a similar cloth as Ballads, recorded the same month, but Trane sounds even more “in it” on this mix of standards and originals. There’s nary a weak track to be found, with Duke’s original “Take the Coltrane” as just one uptempo highlight — you can hear just how over-the-moon Trane is to jam with one of his undisputed heroes. Coltrane later reflected on the sessions with awe, saying Ellington had “set standards I haven’t caught up with yet.” It’s the sound of one generation reaching out to another.

  7. John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman - John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman

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    A nearly-unknown New York jazz singer who briefly worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Erroll Garner before going solo, Hartman was a peculiar choice for one of Coltrane’s rare collaborations with a vocalist. But Coltrane heard something in his rich baritone from the first time the two shared a stage at the Apollo Theatre in 1950, saying “I just felt something about him. I don’t know what it was.” The two reconvened in the spring of 1963 for this set of moody, low-lit ballads, now acclaimed as a landmark of the genre. Coltrane never went this route with a singer again and Hartman recorded and performed solo — often at NYC cocktail lounges — but John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman remains a crepuscular classic.

  8. John Coltrane Quartet* - Crescent

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    If the next year’s A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s stone-cold masterpiece and a gateway for any prospective jazz initiates, Crescent is the perfect appetizer. It’s the sound of the band truly loosening up, with its open-ended, meditative sound never reaching a level of hysterics as it would in subsequent years. Above all else, Crescent’s five originals use empty space remarkably, with Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones letting ballads like “Wise One” and “Lonnie’s Lament” unspool at their own unhurried pace. And even Jones gets his spotlight on “The Drum Thing,” essentially an eight-minute-long drum piece. Though overshadowed by some of his quartet’s achievements on the near horizon, Crescent contains many spare, sterling moments worth investigating.

  9. Coltrane* - Live At Birdland

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    Despite a confusing premise — only the first 3 tracks were recorded at the titular venue, or live at all — Live at Birdland is rightfully seen as one of Coltrane’s finest on the stage or studio. So many moments resonate, whether hearing Jones, Tyner and Garrison lift off from their cross-rhythmic version of “Afro Blue” or the whole group moodily simmering through “Alabama” — a tribute to four children killed in a Birmingham church bombing. Just as delightful is Trane’s take on Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You,” in which Coltrane furiously improvises sans band for half the length of the track — perhaps the germ of Interstellar Space three years later?

  10. John Coltrane - A Love Supreme

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    Five decades later, with Coltrane being crowned as the greatest saxophonist who ever lived and even being venerated as a saint by a San Francisco congregation, his deepest statement more than holds up. A four-part musical prayer to an inclusive, interfaith God that details his recent overcoming of drug and alcohol addiction, A Love Supreme is still quite a ride even for the least jazz-minded listener. Each careen beyond Trane’s upper register (and Western tonality itself) remains heart-stopping; it still reads as a cry of gratitude for the gift of life. Coltrane’s poem “A Love Supreme,” recreated syllable-by-syllable in the closing track “Psalm” and printed in the original liner notes, truly says it all: “God will wash away all our tears… He always has… He always will.”

  11. The John Coltrane Quartet - The John Coltrane Quartet Plays

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    Fully titled The John Coltrane Quartet Plays Chim Chim Cheree, Song of Praise, Nature Boy, Brazilia, this 1965 session mostly continues the Quartet’s move toward atonality. At this point, some jazz critics had mixed feelings about Coltrane pushing the music into high-gravity territory from its roots as “cool” and “hip,” with Miles Davis remarking that Coltrane reached out and influenced those people who were into peace. Hippies and people like that.” With Davis’ words in mind, Coltrane’s reading of eden ahbez’s pastoral standard “Nature Boy” — popularized by Nat King Cole — might clue one in on what demographic he was after.

  12. John Coltrane / Archie Shepp - New Thing At Newport

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    By the Newport Jazz Fest performance that produced 1965’s New Thing at Newport, the classic quartet had exerted themselves as far as they could go. Whether it be impatience with the sound, the crowd or each other, the band sounds vital yet exhausted, especially on “My Favorite Things.” By the end of the year, Coltrane would introduce Rashied Ali and Alice Coltrane to the group, signalling his move away from the beloved classic quartet and into murkier, stranger creative territory.

  13. John Coltrane - Meditations

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    After A Love Supreme, Coltrane began hurtling at an accelerated rate away from what the average listener would even call “music.” Meditations, his deepest dive into the unknown thus far, gushes spiritual ecstasy, yearning and rage for every second of its runtime; listening front-to-back eventually takes on the sensation of staring into the sun. Opener “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost” is a devotional call to action, with Coltrane’s sax grinding against the song’s rails, sending sparks outward. The remaining four tracks — “Compassion,” “Love,” “Consequences” and “Serenity” play out like an even further-out A Love Supreme in miniature, with the master violently swinging from prettiness to turbulence.

  14. John Coltrane - Ascension (Edition I)

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    When describing Ascension to Dutch critic Michiel de Ruyter, Coltrane nonchalantly called it a “big band thing.” But it only takes about 30 seconds of spinning the LP in question to know you’re not in Glen Miller or Cab Calloway territory. Featuring a behemoth of an ensemble including Freddie Hubbard, Pharoah Sanders, Artie Shepp and others over Coltrane’s core quartet, the only direction given to the Ascension players was to end with a crescendo. There are no breaks, no quiet parts in this sonic hurricane; Ascension frankly does not let up. And fellow tenor player Dave Liebman may have described Ascension’s incendiary qualities best: “It was the torch that lit the free jazz thing.”

  15. John Coltrane - Live At The Village Vanguard Again!

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    Critics were divided by Coltrane’s second album recorded at the Village Vanguard. On one hand, this is a revolutionary band at its peak, with ambitious reworkings of old chestnuts like “My Favorite Things” and the ballad “Naima.” But this time, Trane may have gone a bridge too far. “Naima,” which originally appeared on the classic Giant Steps album as a tender, ethereal ballad to his wife, is radically reimagined here, but to the point where the point of the song is smothered. And “My Favorite Things,” which Coltrane famously turned into a hypnotic Eastern vamp without sacrificing the melody, is basically incinerated by Pharoah Sanders’ screeching. Perhaps Live at the Village Vanguard! turns out to be a lesson in not forsaking your roots even when playing “out.”

  16. John Coltrane - Kulu Sé Mama

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    The last album Coltrane would release during his lifetime, Kulu Sé Mama is nonetheless defined by an outside auteur: Juno Lewis. A percussionist and inventor obsessed with the music and art of Africa that had surrounded him in his New Orleans upbringing, he contributed Mama’s titular opening track, a devotional to his mother and father that becomes overwhelmed by Coltrane’s pained, guttural playing. The other two tracks are Trane originals — most notably “Welcome,” in which Trane extends a pure, inviting motif of three luminous notes. Kulu Sé Mama is a tad all over the place stylistically, but that gorgeous ballad would seem to literally invite the listener into the LP’s gnarly confines.

  17. John Coltrane - Expression

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    A noted introvert who rarely did interviews or participated in the public sphere as opposed to his colleague Miles Davis, Coltrane preferred to throw himself into his work, often spending eight hours a day in dedicated practice. By the time of Expression, which was finalized just days before his death, Coltrane seemed to have tried every note, scale, mode and melody, draining every drop of feeling he had. Expression is a posthumous collection of Coltrane’s final studio work, and what a tracklisting: the man clearly had even more left to say. “Ogunde,” which Trane would develop to monstrous proportions live, is majestic and mellow here, and “Offering” mangles itself in angry noise. Expression raises even more questions than answers, even as it seems to push the definition of “music” to its limit — given just a few more years to live, where could Coltrane have gone from here?

  18. John Coltrane - Om

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    (1965, r. 1968)
    Coltrane’s darkest and most controversial album begins with his quartet chanting from the Bhagavad Gita: “The rituals taught by the scriptures: all these I am, and the offering made to the ghosts of the fathers, herbs of healing and food, the mantram, the clarified butter!” And when they kick in, there’s a dark, unhinged vibe to the playing, the musical equivalent of a bad trip. Om was recorded the day after the guys cut what became Live in Seattle, and clearly sounds like a continuation of that album’s flesh-rending sound. Critics were unkind to Om upon its release, and while it doesn’t hold up next to other abstracted later works like Interstellar Space, its through-a-glass-darkly atmosphere can still fog up a room.

  19. John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane - Cosmic Music

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    (1966, r. 1968)
    Coltrane’s first co-credited album with his wife, Alice, is aesthetically all over the place — Pharoah Sanders on a piccolo solo! A sax freakout for Dr. King! — without really congealing into a whole. While most of Alice Coltrane’s solo work is dreamy, expansive and haunting, often interweaving synthesizers, harps and Indian instrumentation to create a unique aural universe, Cosmic Music doesn’t quite gel. There are a handful of great moments here to be sure, but most curious fans are advised to reach for Alice’s spellbinding Turiya Sings or Journey to Satchidananda before trying to crack this one.

  20. John Coltrane - Selflessness Featuring My Favorite Things

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    (1963, r. 1969)
    This 1969 collection is interesting but inessential, down to the awkward title. The time-hopping tracklist features two cuts from Coltrane’s 1963 Newport Jazz Festival appearance and a more “out” third from 1965, without much context as to why the tracks are featured together at all. That said, you can’t beat the music. The performance of “My Favorite Things” is surely worth hearing -- every way Coltrane would distend, distort or demolish that Sound of Music composition over the years is worth preserving. While it’s still inarguably worth hearing, everything you can hear on Selflessness has been often presented in superior takes on many other posthumous Impulse! releases.

  21. John Coltrane - Transition

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    (1965, r. 1970)
    If you mostly dig that sweet spot between the “easy” and the “difficult” that Coltrane nailed on Crescent and A Love Supreme, apply here. Like on those albums, the rhythm section of Garrison and Jones are mostly still rooted in traditional hard bop, which maintains the quartet’s connection to earth when Coltrane goes so far “out” that he loses signal. The LP and CD versions of Transition differ a bit, but you really can’t lose here, whether you get a plaintive “Welcome,” an ambitious 20-minute “Suite” or the rippling, crashing title track. As creative Transitions in jazz go, you can’t beat these four players in 1965.

  22. John Coltrane - Sun Ship

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    (1965, r. 1971)
    This 1971 collection of 1965 recordings is a bit of an oddity — most pointedly, it wasn’t recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, but Bob Thiele. But Coltrane’s quartet had found a new way to streamline their increasingly challenging musical ideas, playing with dynamics and tempo on tracks like “Amen” to disorienting effect. It’s also one of the final records Coltrane would make with his old mates behind him before he would expand the lineup up to 11 players, often leading to co-conspirators like Pharoah Sanders mischievously scrambling the formula. But in this mix of ethereal ballads and avant-garde fire, Sun Ship is quite a ride.

  23. John Coltrane Featuring Pharoah Sanders - Live In Seattle

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    Recorded at Penthouse Jazz Club in the fall of 1965 only to sit on the shelf until 1971, Live in Seattle features Coltrane and Sanders indulging their most violent sounds -- and Garrison and Jones with one foot out the door. The two tenors, joined by bass clarinetist and double bassist Donald Barrett, less duke it out in the composition than draw and quarter it altogether. Seattle does mellow out from time to time, like on pensive readings of “Out of This World” and Garrison’s bass showcase “Tapestry in Sound.” But mostly, Seattle disposes of both “transitions” and “impressions” in favor of jazz as a sustained traffic collision. Though rather indigestible even for this period of Coltrane, Seattle is a force of nature.

  24. John Coltrane - Infinity

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    (1965, r. 1972)
    More of an after-the-fact curiosity helmed by his pianist wife, Alice, than a real Coltrane album, Infinity features string and harp overdubs over 1965/66 recordings of the quartet. The results are mostly a fiasco, with the orchestral and jazz elements not quite congealing. Most confoundingly, Alice even replaced Jimmy Garrison’s bass lines with Charlie Haden — both fine players, but how can you improve on perfection? Mostly ravaged by purists and casual fans alike, Infinity is more valuable as a one-time curiosity than anything a Coltrane fan would cherish forever. For more authentic collaborations between the Coltranes rather than this aesthetic head-scratcher, check out Expression, Stellar Regions or Live in Japan.

  25. John Coltrane - The Africa Brass Sessions, Vol. 2

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    (1961, r. 1974)
    These three outtakes from Coltrane and Dolphy’s 1961 classic Africa/Brass shed more light on that groundbreaking album. Specifically, it’s a shame that the muscular “Song of the Underground Railroad” didn’t make it on the original LP — whereas the classic album it was left off has a few tentative moments, “Railroad” is pulsing and purposeful. Elsewhere, alternate takes of “Africa” and “Greensleeves” show slightly divergent routes those tracks could have taken. Taken as a whole with the original recordings, The Africa/Brass Sessions, Vol. 2 is a vivid foregleam of the violently avant-garde direction Coltrane would take about five years later.