Monday, September 18, 2006

John Coltrane: Heavyweight Champion Ad Infenitum

When looking back on jazz musicians past, they've all had "hot streaks" or flashpoints along their recording trajectory during which they cut their important stuff and Coltrane, in my book, had two: one was when he left Miles Davis' outfit for Atlantic Records in '59, right after wrapping up his tracks on the Kind of Blue LP (he'd already begun recording the Giant Steps album) and finally stepped up to the plate to helm his own ensemble and the other's when he went to Blue Note. The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings chronicles the jazzman's tenure at that groundbreaking record label.

As compilations go, you can put CD's 1--6 on shuffle and forget about it, you're set. But if you'd like to cut to the chase for a quick pass, here's a list of deep cuts to jump to labeled disc/track:
1/3; On "Bags & Trane" JC and Milt "Bags" Jackson (vibes) saunter along like Siamese cats and Paul Chambers' bass--bowing solo would make Charles Mingus crack a crooked grin.

1/6; The hit--and--run intro on "Bebop" will raise your eyebrows (and pulse) as Coltrane lets the fingers do the talking. After Bags lays it down from the left side, Trane releases a rope--a--dope with a white--hot barrage of notage that will put you on your back -- his solo on this is one of my top 20 solos on any instrument, in any genre....

1/9; Coltrane bounces up in your face on "Giant Steps" which was re-popularized on Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues.This alternate version is my fave because it's a couple of ticks slower than the LP cut; isn't as rushed, making it easy to settle into...

2/1; On "Spiral" the rest of the quartet really shine; Tommy Flanagan's piano vamps (and solo) infused with Art Taylor (drums) and Paul Chambers (bass) keep the timing in the pocket --- Trane unveils an ever--stellar performance out in front, this is one of those cuts on which you can feel everyone involved breathing together as if they were on a stage in front of you...glorious...

2/3 and 2/2; "Countdown" (both versions) is worth noting because it's essentially a song--length solo that's that's akin to watching Bruce Lee working it out in the dojo -- no plotlines to follow, no villains, just the protagonist flexing out with his nunchuku --sonic stream of consciousness poetry, yo...

2/6; "Mr. PC" holds another one of those great cross genre solos. In it, the breathing thing returns and is evidenced when Coltrane begins to knead together a handful of his signature glisses with an authority that trumps the Franklin Mint's any day of the week --when he hits those bullseyes, you'll know it. This is another joint where Flanagan unleashe a porkpie--rockin' solo (check for the breakdown). There's a reason that the Giant Steps LP will never go out of style...

On disc 3 the quartet's lineup shifts a little when Wynton Kelly (piano) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) take their respective places. The overall feel is tweaked and exemplified on the first cut, "Like Sonny," (3/1) that feels like "this is something else" --Cobb keeps time wiht rim shots and Kelly doesn't keep his foot on the piano pedals as long as Flanagan would've; Chambers has another sweet--spot solo on here when he strums it up and Trane pours sugary stuff all over everything...

3/7; Coltrane joins forces with Ornette Coleman's Avante-Garde partners in crime Charlie Haden (bass) and, Neneh and Eagle Eye's dad, Don Cherry (trumpet) for the speedy "Cherryco." Trane and Cherry cut loose in one of tghe best sparring matches caught on tape.Here, the two dive headfirst into the (then) controversial subgenre that the LP was named after. all the pinions are firing on this joint and Coltrane's run--for--the--border note reduction will cause a white--eyed rolled--back when unleashed; this is the shite Jimi Hendrix would be searching for years later with his Stratocaster...

3/9; Charlie Haden's bass line walks you right into the brick wall of shrieking brass that's found at the beginning of "Focus on Sanity" which then segues into a Trane riff wherein the sax maestro blasts your wig back with an intricately stacked barrage of notes. Not to be outdone, Don Cherry parries and thrusts when he muscles in, first toying with the tagline and then there's a Dizzy Gillespie-ish stroll that's tied into a perfect bow when Ed Blackwell brings the gatling gun wrap--up on the drums...Trane's take on this tune is every bit as tight as it's author's (Ornette Coleman).


Discs 4 and 5 are much more mellowed out than the ones before them and the highlights that I'd point to are "My Favorite Things" *4/3), "Central Park West" (4/4), "Summertime" (4/7), "Mr. Knight" (4/10) and "Blues to Bechet" (5/6) featured sidemen include McCoy Tyner (piano), Steve Davis (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). These cuts signify Coltrane's post Avant-Garde jump back into the blues which becomes clear early on. Too, the listener can hear Trane nice it up on the soprano sax which he hadn't really done earlier.

On the sixth disc of this set, there are three standouts :
6/1; Liberia" begins with a gospel-ish testifying that expeditiously morphs into an infectious canter, with Tyner,Davis and Jones at his back, Coltrane takes the pulpit and sounds off with a heavily embroidered past wind-up -- and off they gallop! After cartwheeling through a couple of passes that allow the quartet's frontman to cut loos, McCoy Tyner rocks wild with his right hand while his left hand pops out some of the phattest chording since the Flanagan stuff mentioned above--- on like popcorn!

6/3; "Equinox" is the quintessential cafe cut on this set. The staff's primary objective, to keep everything solid while Coltrane grinds his mortar and pestle, is achieved as Trane explores practically every possible angle during the 8:32 stretch. Tyner doesn't solo on piano as much as he keeps the melodic foundation going--why fuck with the fung shui, if it's working, son?
6/4; My last "skip to" joint is the sonic odyssey that is that is "Ole" which features bass players Art Davis and Reggie Workman; Eric Dolphy on flute and Elvin Jones on drums. Coltrane pulls out but the tenor and alto saxes for this bruiser of a tun. He and his crew make use of every second of the 18 minutes to say what they have to say and it's all good---this must be what those whirling dervishes hear when they're getting down...you'll feel it too and that's word...

Disc 7 contains 22 cuts that were thought to have been lost in 1969 when a fire destroyed practically all of Atlantic's unissued recordings ---the building was the label's archival storage facility. 6 boxes of Coltrane material wre auspiciously uncovered later on and, in keeping consistent with the compilation's title, these 22 tracks make up the set...The disc, seperated from the other 6 and presented in a CD-sized replica of an old Scotch Reel box holds 9 versions of "Giant Steps," 5 versions of "Naima" and 8 versions of "Like Sonny." Mind you, these are not all full---on recordings ;there's false starts and songs that stop midstream but still it's interesting to get a sonic glimpse of Coltrane in his element, unfettered...

In addition to all of the above, there's a hardbound, 73--page,CD-sized booklet written by Lewis Porter that dives to the core of why this portion of John Coltrane's body of work is as important to the jazz idiom now as it ever was. In it, Lewis points to articles in publications like Downbeat, Melody Maker and Critical Inquiry...there's intimate verbiage from Trane contemporaries like Yusef Lateef, McCoy Tyner, Nat Henthoff and the late, great ,engineering wizard/ producer Tom Dowd--- check for the incisive Q & A in which Joel Dorn (the compilation's producer) speaks with ("Cousin") Mary Alexander who reflects on other sides of John Coltrane that the public never saw...

There's a special place in my heart for John Coltrane's musical legacy. For me he's one of the four horsemen of saxophone (Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and Rahsaan Roland Kirk are the other three) and without question the world of music took a turn for the better when he stepped into to it...
-cP

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