The Best From The Best
Jazz is an acquired taste. I say this even though it is my favorite genre of music and as a jazz guitar player. We can say this for a variety of other styles as well, but jazz specifically always seems to get thrown into the category of the “musician’s music,” or something you can only enjoy if you understand or have studied it.
To a point, this might have some validity to it. Back in the twenties, thirties, and even into the forties, big band swing, ragtime, and other sub-genres of jazz were all the rage and could be considered the most popular music of the day. Save for the fact that it was some of the only music being played back then, people really did enjoy something they could dance to and see live as an escape from their everyday lives.
Now, we are in a time where the simpler the music the more popular it is. We would rather have a catchy chorus and dance beats than a trumpeter or saxophonist going off on a ten-minute solo. But, historically, jazz has housed some of the most talented and genius musicians of any genre. One of the names that always arises in every conversation about jazz is John Coltrane.
John Coltrane maintained a successful career as a jazz saxophonist for about twenty-two years, during and after which he would be named as one of the most influential musicians in history. Coltrane worked with many of the major musicians you can name in his era like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, and many others. Coltrane essentially became a defining factor in every sub-genre he ventured into, starting with his days in Miles Davis’ band and translating into every group he led or was featured in.
All of his albums are explorations and multi-layered journeys that take the listener to places they never expected to go. Through his long discography with labels like Impulse, Blue Note, Atlantic, and others, Coltrane experimented with many sounds, instruments, and concepts. From straight ahead jazz, to free form and experimental, Coltrane has done it all and is considered to be the reigning champ of the jazz saxophone.
There are so many Coltrane albums (and others he has appeared on) to listen to and all of them are fantastic in their own right. Let’s take a look at 5 of his greatest offerings to the jazz community.
*Just as a reminder, this is a very difficult list to compile since ALL of Coltrane’s albums are masterpieces.
5). Giant Steps
Ah Giant Steps; the tune that is the bane of every jazz player’s existence. This high tempo, straight-driving tune not only features John Coltrane on his game – delivering one of the greatest solos played on a fast-tempo swing song – but also has some of the hardest chord changes in music. It is tough to solo on! The album Giant Steps was recorded in 1959 and released in early 1960. It was the first album Coltrane recorded with Atlantic records and featured an amazing rhythm section consisting of Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. The album has many fast-paced tunes that keep your attention throughout and also make you wonder how someone can play the tenor saxophone like that. The ballad “Naima” is still considered one of his most beautiful compositions. He wrote it for his wife Juanita who he referred to as Naima. This album showed Coltrane in the prime of his straight-ahead jazz phase while giving hints to his eventual exploratory nature.
4). Duke Ellington and John Coltrane
This is a type of “best of both worlds” in terms of jazz for me right here. By 1962, Coltrane had settled in with what would be known as his “classic quartet” which lasted for four solid years. This quartet featured Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and McCoy Tyner on piano. For this recording, Tyner opted to step aside and let another legend tickle the ivories. Duke Ellington, is of course, known for being one of the best and most prolific big band leaders and pianists in jazz. His band housed the top musicians in the genre and wrote many jazz standards that are still played today.
For this land mark album, Ellington ditches his full band and demonstrates how diverse he is by playing in Coltrane’s small group. The album is a great mixture of swing songs and ballads and Ellington shows his elegant and simplistic soloing style. Coltrane is noted saying “I was really honored to have the opportunity of working with Duke. It was a wonderful experience. He has set standards I haven’t caught up with yet. I would have liked to have worked over all those numbers again, but then I guess the performances wouldn’t have had the same spontaneity. And they mightn’t have been any better.”
3). Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard
An album list isn’t really complete without a defining live album, and Coltrane has amazing ones to choose from. Live at the Village Vanguard was Coltrane’s first live album released by Impulse! Records in 1962. The original album only featured three songs but was re-released in 1997 with other versions and outtakes. It has a special guest on bass clarinet, Eric Dolphy, who is another great jazz player in his own right. What occurred in the famed New York City jazz club those few nights in November 1961 was raw musical genius and it seemed to divide the jazz world at that time. Coltrane’s playing left people with the question of whether his playing was musical expression and exploration, or “pure musical nonsense.” As John Coltrane announced in an issue of Downbeat magazine, “the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe.” The album is now featured at the top on many of the “best live jazz albums” lists.
At any rate, this album was an early-era live representation of where jazz was going and who was going to take them there. All aboard the Col-train!
2). Blue Train
If the avant-garde or experimental sound isn’t for you or you haven’t worked up to that point yet, then Blue Train is a perfect place to start. The album was recorded at the end of 1957 and released in 58. At this point, Trane was ending things with Miles Davis after many albums and tours with his various groups and helping the veteran trumpeter solidify his sound. Blue Train shows Trane’s early workings with fast yet articulate lines, going out of the key center, and producing “sheets of sound”, a term coined by a music critic. This is a full out jazz master class filled with musicians who are synonymous with their instruments like Curtis Fuller on trombone, Lee Morgan on trumpet, and Paul Chambers on bass. The album was certified gold and remains as a classic jazz album to this day.
1). A Love Supreme
This album is not just my favorite John Coltrane album (and in my opinion, the best) but is also considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time in any genre. By 1964, Coltrane’s quartet was at the peak of their career and considered the best jazz group of the time. Coltrane had gone through a lot at this point, battling with drugs and other personal issues while trying to maintain his playing. By then, he had become very spiritual, turning to his faith in his times of need. His connection to this becomes evident in his music, especially in A Love Supreme.
At this point, the band’s playing was second nature; they were able to anticipate each other’s every move. When a band can achieve this, they are given total creative freedom and are able to manipulate the song the way they want instead of being slaves to it. The album was very truly a spiritual awakening in many ways and demonstrates what can happen when a gifted musician gives themselves to their music.
Please listen to all of these albums!
Written By Patrick Ortiz