Thelonious Monk – With John Coltrane | Review

With John Coltrane

Thelonious MonkWith John Coltrane Jazzland
JLP 946S (1961)

This outtake collection released to cash-in on Coltrane‘s growing fame is pretty decent.  It features a nearly ideal selection of tunes from the Monk songbook.  And Monk sounds as energized and inspired as ever in his own playing.  Coltrane here, as always with Monk, is something of an awkward fit.  He alternates between a kind of sentimental romanticism that borders on a kind of maudlin spectacle, and busy “sheets of sound” solos that leave little room for Monk’s compositions.  By the time this album was released in 1961, it was clear that Charlie Rouse was a much better fit on saxophone in Monk’s band — or even Johnny Griffin.  It’s not like Coltrane is terrible, but he’s not the star either.

John Coltrane – Interstellar Space

Interstellar Space

John ColtraneInterstellar Space ABC Impulse ASD-9277 (1974)

Coltrane’s Interstellar Space is like a soundtrack to Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison En Enfer [A Season in Hell], as Stellar Regions is for Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations [The Illuminations]. This is one of the more challenging Coltrane albums. It demands constant attention. But it is rewarding. Coltrane had added some of the layered approach of his wife Alice into his sound. His fiery forays here are as dazzling as they are ingenious. His passion perfectly matches his virtuosity.

Rashied Ali plays some remarkable non-linear rhythms on drums. Though he keeps time in a sense, it is a subjective time with no predetermined time signature. The music is of the moment, in the sense of having no need of time to progress. It is confusing, but the instantaneous possibility of the moment is supreme and Ali’s rhythms are presented as they are naturally. Instead of conforming to any external formula, Interstellar Space is spontaneously (and thereby simultaneously) composed, lived, and performed.

This is a remarkable effort in musical abstract expressionism. While totally true to the impulsiveness of free improvisation, this is also a strong statement of Coltrane’s (and Ali’s) struggle to resolve the inner self and the outer one in the most idealistic sense of reconciling a personal place in a harmonious social context. Whew, it is that and more. This is one of the great efforts to be a completely free individual in a world as great as imaginable.

Interstellar Space rebels against order and structure, in a sense, but only against falsehood. One of the basic contradictions of so-called “free jazz” was stated quite succinctly by pianist Paul Bley, talking to The Wire magazine in 2007 about the saxophonist Ornette Coleman:

“There was an article in Down Beat in something like 1954, in which I mentioned that jazz had reached a crisis and that AABA form had too many As, and not enough CDEFG.  So I began working with groups where we would play totally free, and that led to a kind of dead end, because ‘totally free’ didn’t necessarily allow you to continue.  A totally free piece is a totally free piece, end of concert. ***  [But Ornette] suggested ABCDEFGHIJK, in which repetition was anathema *** It wasn’t totally free because totally free was A forever, metamorphosing.  It was a form that took hold, because you could finally return to the written music, and the audience had something to hold on to.”

What might be added is the sort of complaint that the feminist Jo Freeman made about (so-called) structureless groups, which tend to have a de facto structure (tyranny) if there is no formal structure.  These things are basically what Coltrane was working through on his own with recordings like those on Interstellar Space.  The music wasn’t just a formless morass, metamorphosing, but neither was it music that was composed in advance according to a detailed score.  It fell somewhere in the middle, loosely organized without that loose organization seeming like a constraint, able to go wherever and equally the product of the efforts of both Coltrane and Ali.  The performers aren’t operating completely independent of one another, in some kind of purely horizontal relationship.  But they are constantly negotiating the terms of how the music evolves.  One might quote a political economist here:

“But is this anything other than picking up Rousseau’s classic idea that being free, in politics, does not mean living outside of all constraint, but living according to rules we have set for ourselves? That is, living according to verticality [that is, hierarchy,] such as we have chosen to institute it, in the form that we have chosen to give it.”

This is a particularly useful analogy, given that Rousseau favored small states, much as a sax/drums duo is the smallest possible “group”, meaning that the problem of negotiations between participants doesn’t face the problem of exponentially-increasing complexity that shackles larger groups.  This isn’t to say that the horizontal vs. vertical question is entirely side-stepped, but rather the question of verticality is addressed in a sort of controlled laboratory setting, if you will.  Rashied Ali just makes it deliciously apparent how much space a “sideman” has within the context of a Coltrane group, and by extension, how the role of a “star” soloist can be rethought within the free jazz movement.

Coltrane recorded Interstellar Space on February 22, 1967; he died on July 17, 1967. For a considerable time these were believed to be the last known studio recordings he made, though additional studio recordings were later discovered. “Venus: Second From the Sun; Love” (AKA “Dream Chant”) is, melodically, extremely similar to “Stellar Regions” from Stellar Regions, which was recorded a week before Interstellar Space but not released until 1995.  Many of these recordings were unnamed and only later named by Alice Coltrane for release.  Though posthumously released in album form, these songs do make up a coherent set of music.  They all cohere around a common musical perspective.

While made up of archival recordings, Interstellar Space remains one of the most essential John Coltrane albums.  Listeners should seek out a reissue that includes the excellent bonus track “Leo,” which was recorded at the same session as the other songs but left off the original LP due to space constraints (but previously released on The Mastery of John Coltrane, Vol. 3: Jupiter Variation), plus a “Jupiter Variation” false start track.

John Coltrane – Transition


John ColtraneTransition GRP GRD-124 (1970; 1993 reissue)

If this album was from anyone other than Coltrane, I might be tempted to praise it more.  The performances here are all superb, and Coltrane is in his prime.  Musically, it’s very similar to A Love Supreme, though without the same intense focus and unity of vision.  At times, the performances here hint at what the group accomplished on Meditations.  Perhaps the main drawback of the album is the fact that the second track “Welcome” is pretty weak by Coltrane standards and that totally disrupts the flow.  But also Transition is an archival release that was tampered with on at least one reissue, which further hampers the allure of the album due to the fact that the added tracks had been previously released on another album (one of those being “Welcome”) and one of the original tracks (“Dear Lord”) has been omitted.  Then again, those are petty concerns.  In all, this is still a worthy and thoroughly enjoyable album, but I must admit that in terms of importance to both 1960s jazz and Coltrane’s discography it falls just shy of being essential.

John Coltrane – Meditations


John ColtraneMeditations Impulse! AS-9110 (1966)

Meditations features one of the unusual line-ups of Coltrane’s post-Ascension recordings. Coltrane plays exclusively on the left channel with the talented Rashied Ali, a fiery and highly abstract drummer. The right channel features a young Pharoah Sanders blasting his aggressive and abrasive-but-warm saxophone, along with veteran Elvin Jones on drums. McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass then bring balance to both channels.

John Coltrane had the most fully formed and beautiful tone of just about any saxophonist. His technical perfection was only surpassed by his unfathomable improvisational style. Coltrane could effortlessly assimilate any influence. More than simple imitation, Coltrane drew the very essences of these influences and developed them into new forms. Here, the abstract rhythms of Rashied Ali and the rough texture of Pharoah Sanders combine in this journey away from conventional structure. John Coltrane is generally the last word on anything he has attempted. Listening to him play reveals the all the joy and beauty of the universe. The limitless possibilities of a loving, peaceful existence unfold with the clarity of prophets. Here, he explores the most basic elements of humanity; however, he connects living elements to divine pursuit of Truths (yes, with a capital “T”), as explicated through his music.

“The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” sounds forced into unnecessary structure. The solos, particularly Coltrane’s, at times seem to lose sight of their original goals, and yet, the passion and faith never waiver. Coltrane had a gift for shrewd commentary. A serious and deeply spiritual person, he could reaffirm his faith while simultaneously criticizing the church (he believed in all religions).

“Love” begins the last three movements. The dissonance of Coltrane’s melodic line resolves to a three-note consonant line. Jimmy Garrison begins the song with a moving solo. Coltrane broke jazz conventions as he dove completely into free jazz. The first two songs are continuous performances, as are the last three. Songs begin with solos, only revealing a defined statement much later. On “Consequences,” the two saxophonists blur the beginnings and ends of their solos beyond identification.

Traditionalists generally jump ship after A Love Supreme (more precisely, before Ascension) and ignore all late-period Coltrane. Yet, the most rewarding material comes from his final years. Meditations features John Coltrane at his most intense (at his most passionate, Coltrane is not casual listening). It is a foolish thing indeed to attempt to explain what Coltrane achieved with this album.

John Coltrane – Stellar Regions

Stellar Regions

John ColtraneStellar Regions Impulse! IMPD-169 (1995)

Stellar Regions was recorded on February 15, 1967. The recording masters were kept by Alice Coltrane for decades before release. What makes Stellar Regions an essential ‘Trane disc (it is phenomenal, perhaps the better of even A Love Supreme) is the dramatic changes evident in his music. His vibrato shifts from the wide style of John Gilmore and Albert Ayler to a quicker, gushy style resembling Ben Webster. He jumps from a rumbling low register to a smooth, clear higher one, like the vocals of Rev. Claude Jeter.  Of course, tempos of the songs are much slower than as heard on Interstellar Space, recorded slightly earlier. In a sense, it is clear on hearing these recordings that Coltrane was dying. But this is without sadness. Coltrane’s music is completely at peace. While in his music he perhaps sees in the distance some great horizon yet uncrossed, there is also a total acceptance of what is within his reach. Jimmy Garrison is at his peak on “Jimmy’s Mode” with a solo tender but hip, questioning but aware, fluid but crisp. His solo finds where a delicate swing fits into Coltrane’s vision. As an artist, Coltrane was still in motion. As his battle alternated from confidence to uncertainty he added new perspective. He used every defilement to see clearly, and from there collected his many views and assembled, regrouped for further toils. This is the start of a new life. It is complete rebirth. Such a thing seems possible here. Stellar Regions is like a musical accompaniment to Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations [The Illuminations]. It is a spiritual recognition of the vast possibility beyond that grasped in the present. Yes, Stellar Regions communicates about all that needed be said before Coltrane went silent upon his July 17, 1967 death. This album is, along with Interstellar Space, Music. By that I mean this is the culmination of everything music — and Coltrane — was and is. What a wonderful thing.

John Coltrane – Blue Train

Blue Train

John ColtraneBlue Train Blue Note BLP 1577 (1958)

Well, I’m willing to argue that Blue Train is not really that special.  Maybe I might reconsider someday (it has been some time since I have listened to it), but for now, it strikes me as kind of boilerplate hard bop overall.  Maybe it’s that boilerplate aspect that draws so many people who wish to dabble in jazz to this album, because it is relatively uncomplicated, it adheres to most expected formulas, it is widely available, and it is a pretty even album.  But as a reviewer on RateYourMusic put it, lots of other tenor players could have made this album.

One argument I recall having about this album started when I commented that it wasn’t really offering anything new when it was released.  In response, what I heard was something like, “But in like 1957-58, this was cutting edge for the day!”  Well, I’m afraid not.  In the same time frame, Sun Ra was years ahead of this, even if a lot of Ra’s contemporaneous recordings wouldn’t be released until a few years later.  Let us not forget that Coltrane was to be heavily influenced by Ra’s tenor John Gilmore in the years to come.  But aside from Ra, there also was Cecil Taylor with albums like Jazz Advance, or Ornette Coleman with albums like Something Else!!!! or even Lennie Tristano with precious few recordings but outsized influence.  The cutting edge stuff might not have been that well documented, and may have continued to evolve, but it was out there being played around the time Blue Train was recorded and released.  Just because the late fifties were a relatively slow time for innovation in jazz recordings doesn’t mean I need to handicap this disc.

Now, I don’t mean to rag on Trane that much.  My point is merely that he hadn’t achieved greatness yet.