JOHN COLTRANE: ON A MISTY NIGHT (Prestige P-24084). THE MASTERY OF JOHN COLTRANE, VOL. IV: TRANE'S MODES (ABC/Impulse IZ 9361/2).
In the two decades of his professional career, saxophonist John Coltrane passed through nearly the complete spectrum of jazz styles: from the indigo of his early rhythm and blues to be bright-yellow neo-bop of mid-'50s Miles Davis, to the restless infrared discovery of his own "sheets of sound" technique.
At his creative height in the mid-'60s, he liberated jazz from the last of its lyric inhibitions by exploring the modal permutations of chords in series of 16th-and 32nd-note barrages. In his hands, the formerly upright, orderly chord progressions flew apart like shrapnel.
Since his death in 1967 at the age of 40, Coltrane's ghost has been invoked by almost every jazz musician of professional stature (with the exception of the Ellington/Basie school of "classicists"), but has unfortunatley not inspired any to make the kind of creative leap "Trane" himself dared. It is not coincidental that reviewers consistently describe someone like Elvin Jones as a onetime Coltrane sideman; his pallid contemporary excursions, like his last engagement at Blues Alley, bear little resemblance to his forceful earlier work.
Now, as the jazz audience is demonstrably sweeling, a real and knowledgeable Coltrane revival seems imminent, a resurgence that may serve in the 1980s to push jazz into its most widely popular decade yet.
Two of his several labels have just released double-album sets of vintage Trane -- one package dating from late 1956 and the other, of previously unreleased material, from 1961 -- offering the perfect opportunity to grasp the distance Coltrane traveled in the five years between the Miles Davis era and his ground-breaking "live" sessions at the Village Vanguard.
The earlier recordings -- Prestige's "john Coltrane: On a Misty Night" -- were originally released separately as "Tenor Enclave" and "Mating Call," but were remastered last year for this pressing. The sound, therefore, is extremely crisp and far superior to the kind of re-releases that used to stymie jazz collectors.
In '56, Trane was intermittently working with Davis while recording for several labels and free-lancing as leader and sideman as well. His improvisations here are energetic and wide-ranging -- if transcribed, they would resemble the jagged swings of an EKG scan -- but pleasing rather than astonishing, the work of a first-class blower but not necessarily of an inventive genius.
The "Tenor Conclave" cut, with Coltrane, Zoot Sims, A1 Cohn and Hank Mobley all playing tenor sax, is Mobley's salute to the lyrical power of that instrument. The four voices, at once so similar and so individualistic, are incredibly expressive, and make this one of the most arresting cuts in this set.
Compared to the spontaneity of Sides 1 and 2, sides 3 and 4 are really sessions built around pianist Todd Dameron, in whose name these six compositions were originally released. But Coltrane as sideman is no less admirable than Coltrane as soloist, and in fact demonstrates his ability to move freely in another composer's idiom.
Andrew White's liner notes to "On a Misty Night" are especially good. He makes a strong case that Trane, widely thought of as the leader of the avant-garde movement in jazz, was in fact the foremost example of "the tried-and-true school of evolution." With equal assurance, White disposes of the criticisms by musical purists that Trtane's unorthodox style of playing in any way detracts from his work.
With the release of "The Mastery of John Coltrane Vol. IV: Trane's Modes" on ABC-Impulse, virtually all the material recorded November 1 to 5, 1961, at the Vanguard is available; a discography of the sessions is included in the liner notes by critics David Wild. Several alternative takes from different evenings during the engagement have been issued on various albums: Two versions of "Impressions" are included here, and a third was the title cut of a 1963 album.
Three sides of this set are filled with Vanguard recordings, the fourth from an orchestral session May 23, 1961, in New Jersey -- including the first version of the symphonic "Africa" (a June 1961 recording was issued on an album called "Africa/Brass"), which reveals Elvin Jones at his best.
"Africa" begins with a throbbing bass line from Reggie Workman, echoed almost instantly by Paul Chambers; Coltrane solos, then McCoy Tyner on piano, and then Jones breaks loose with a melodically intriguing, explosive movement as suggestive in its way as Stravinsky's "Rite of Spirng."
Other highlights, of entirely different sorts, include the powerful and flashy "Miles' Mode" and the lyrical reversion of "Greensleeves."
As a rule, "On a Misty Night" is the more accessible album for the Coltrane novice, but "Trane's Modes" is far more informative and exacting for the listener.