‘Trane CD suffers from repeats
Live Trane: The European Tours
To label John Coltrane a certifiable genius is an accurate assessment. But to say his music has been universally accepted by jazz fans is blatantly untrue. The tenor titan has far too many edges to be appreciated by anyone without a broad perspective of jazz.
Like Miles Davis, his former soulmate, Coltrane was usually one step ahead of the pack and as history tells us, innovators often swim upstream.
Though born to bop, Coltrane’s musical ideas shifted fairly early on to much more adventurous sounds. In short, he went through a series of transformations that eventually led him to abandoning traditional chords in favor of harmonies that often were atonal.
Now, with the issuance of a seven-disc box set representing a collection of songs Trane recorded during a tour of European cities between 1961 and 1963, listeners have a chance to revisit the sounds of Coltrane’s quartet. Fired up by enthusiastic foreign audiences, the foursome registered superior performances although the placement of mics at concert halls occasionally missed the mark. A case in point: Bassist Jimmy Garrison’s humming on the 1963 disc occasionally nearly drowns out soloists.
The recordings came at a point in Trane’s career – it ended with his death in 1967 – when he had a relatively small book for his new foursome. As a result, repetition of songs is the order of the day even though the collection includes 19 tracks that were previously unreleased. Consider: six versions of “My Favorite Things,” five takes each of “Mr. P.C.” and “Impressions,” and four of “Naima.”
And we’re not talking snippets, either. Coltrane had advanced to the point that he explored every song as completely as possible. That, in turn, produced tracks of “Mr. P.C.” that exceed 26 minutes, “My Favorite Things” that runs 25 minutes and “Impressions” that consumes 27 minutes. Put another way, there are 37 performances of only 17 themes, but the seven discs clock out at better than eight hours.
Not surprisingly, Coltrane’s young lion sidemen at the time are now regarded as master musicians: Elvin Jones, whose polyrhythmic style was ideally suited to Trane’s aggressive arpeggios and inventive harmonies; pianist McCoy Tyner, whose distinctive, personal approach also was a hand-in-glove fit; bassists Reginald Workman – heard only on the first disc and part of the second – and Garrison, his replacement; and brilliant but at times erratic multiple reedman and flutist Eric Dolphy.
Since so many songs are repeated, the challenge is to discover the way Coltrane’s foursome reshapes a tune from one performance to the next. There are differences, you know, even if some are subtle. Mostly they can be found in Trane’s transition from a tenorman who respected chords to one who ignored them and his drift away from vertical to the Coltrane collection is a classic, but it’s best enjoyed in small bites.
You can take “My Favorite Things” only so often and to wade through five takes without giving your ears a break is too much – even if the melody is the most appealing in the compendium.
Cam Miller is a free-lance jazz critic in Lake Wildwood. You may write to him care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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