Coltrane 1961

Perhaps it’s a form of cosmic justice, but it seems that just as a form of audio playback technology is perfected, it dies. But often, in its death throes, it also finds its finest expression and suddenly now that the CD is on the run, oodles of live material, some of which has never been heard before, have been digitized and released on CD. While some of it is bad-sounding nonsense meant to make a quick buck (until a weight of bad user reviews on Amazon blows their cover), some of it is important and worth hearing.

While there have always been lots of tempting rock CD and LP bootlegs (Springsteen’s Piece de Resistance, for example, being beyond essential), live jazz recordings, mostly European radio broadcasts, while available in the U.S. on occasion, have always been more the province of specialty shops in places like Rome and Barcelona.

Now along comes a legitimate UK release, So Many Things, The John Coltrane Quintet which collects tapes from a number of European shows from Trane’s much recorded and much debated 1961 tour of the UK and the continent with what is often referred to as his “classic” quartet, of McCoy Tyner on piano, Reggie Workman on bass, and drummer Elvin Jones. This is the same group who recorded, among other things, Coltrane’s breakthrough record, My Favorite Things. This trip also included a special guest, the always incendiary Eric Dolphy, whose solos on flute and alto sax were too out, too uncontrolled for many audience members and critics alike. Whether he was a useful spur to drive Coltrane’s solos to new levels or merely a showoff who took space from Tyner and even Coltrane’s playing, is an argument that continues to smolder. According to the excellent liner notes for this set by Simon Spillett, many in the both the press and the audience at the UK shows, vehemently objected to Dolphy’s squawking histrionics which in turn motivated Coltrane to respond in kind. Many carped because the band no longer “swung.” Needless to say, given the subsequent arc of Coltrane’s career and the glories of his late career masterpieces like Ascension, and Sun Ship this stylistic nitpicking, now looks ridiculous. He was just then beginning to incorporate and embrace the world of the avant garde that would come to define his latter music. His music was growing in exciting and yes, brash ways, as is so boldy demonstrated by the pair of very different versions of “Naima,” each stretched and pulled in different harmonic directions.

For audiophiles, this four disc set represents yet another example of the eternal dilemma of sound quality versus the importance of the content. In other words, how bad does the sound quality have to be before you’ll stop listening? While it’s fascinating to hear how different the six full versions of “My Favorite Things” are here from each other and the familiar studio version, the sound quality throughout is thin and very limited. While this set pays the usual lip service to being “newly remastered,” only so much can be done with source material of this quality and vintage. While nothing here is unlistenable, the sound varies from good to poor. It’s a Coltrane concert coming out of a tin can. But what music!

Lofty's picture

Anyone, critic or fan, who says Eric Dolphy is "uncontrolled" or a "showoff" is unfamiliar with modern jazz or an idiot. Dolphy was one the of the greatest reed players with a unique ability to express tonal color in his playing. John Coltrane held Eric Dolphy in the highest regard. He wept when he learned of Eric's death. Robert Baird: to even mention this (and perpetuate it) indicates you must believe this to some extent.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

In defense of Mr. Baird, I think he was quoting common misconceptions, not stating them as his own.

Question: Is this different from the CD "John Coltrane Quintet with Eric Dolphy, Complete 1961 Copenhagen Concert," which is available on Amazon & eBay? If so, how? Are there different tracks?

This is unequivocally important music, not just as jazz, but from the point of view of the history of music. The pairing of Dolphy & anyone in live performance, and any and all 1960 Coltrane recordings are seminal. I don't think anyone would argue with that.

Am checking this concert out, as I type, on YouTube. I don't hear any untoward "squawking" or "uncontrolled" music" at all. In fact, it sounds like a lot of 1960s jazz, i.e, not really entirely new or unique, just part of the general movement toward greater musical freedom.

In a similar vein, I highly recommend:

1) "Miles Davis & John Coltrane, Live in Stockholm 1960" (Swedish vinyl Dragon is best; CD is NOT). Coltrane is breathtaking: exploring and probing the limits, rough-hewn and thrilling. Miles, as in so many of his live recordings, is good, but not great. Contains an interview with the soft-spoken Trane. Essential document of Coltrane's musical evolution.

2) "Mingus at Antibes" (w/ Dolphy & Bud Powell, 1960, live). On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 12. Electric. Balls out. Rocks without restraint. (I rarely use such superlatives.) One of those rare rare recordings one has to listen to all the way through. Definitely not background music.

The above recordings all have one thing in common: the struggle of American jazz musicians to overcome the melodic and harmonic limitations of their medium (which they no longer do, at least not very earnestly). In this, jazz was and still is evolutionarily way behind the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern & Berg), which truly freed music from the limitations of not only harmony and melody, but rhythm. Perhaps this partially explains why jazz, as many hold, reached a state of "arrested development" with Trane. It went only so far, no further.

Allen Fant's picture

Great coverage, as always, RB. Let us not forget the bigger boxed set called Coltrane- The European Tours -from the early 2000's.