Revinylization #28: Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard and Crescent, from Impulse! and Acoustic Sounds

John Coltrane spent his final years with Impulse! Records, from 1961 until his death, in 1967, at the age of 40. Those years were his most adventurous, as he sorted through every sound he could create in his spiritual quest, as he put it, to "get the one essential." His range of recordings in those years spanned from "Greensleeves" to A Love Supreme, from ballads with pop singer Johnny Hartman to multiphonic fireworks with alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy.

Two new Coltrane reissues on vinyl, from the partnership of Universal Music and Acoustic Sounds, typify the breadth of this range and the depths of his explorations. Live at the Village Vanguard, recorded on November 2 and 3, 1961, was Coltrane's first live album, catching a growing trend of laying down tracks before live audiences at the storied Greenwich Village jazz club. (Stan Getz's quartet was the first, in 1957; the most famous, by the Bill Evans trio, took place five months before Coltrane's.)

The album was also, in its day, a shock. Coltrane's rapid chord extensions had been described as "sheets of sound"; at the Vanguard, he stormed forth with blizzards of sound, eruptions of pure energy, especially in the 16-minute, spontaneous stream of consciousness "Chasin' the Trane," which takes up all of Side B. And on "Spiritual," which covers most of Side A, he played alongside Dolphy, whose intervals on bass clarinet were even more unconventionally dissonant. Even so, the album understates the radicalism of the live sets. The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recording, a four-CD boxed set released 36 years later, contains 22 tracks, all but five featuring Dolphy. The original album (as well as the UM/AS reissue) contains the mildest of those five, "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise," which was also one of only two standards Trane played that week.

Even so, serious jazz followers were virulently split when the album came out in early 1962. Downbeat ran two reviews, both focusing on "Chasin' the Trane." One hailed its "unmistakable power, conviction, and near-demonic ferocity." The other, by veteran critic Ira Gitler (an erstwhile Coltrane admirer who'd coined the phrase "sheets of sound"), denounced it as "yawps" and "squawks." Another Downbeat critic condemned one of the live sets, which he'd attended, as "a horrifying demonstration" of a "growing anti-jazz trend."

In retrospect, the album—especially "Chasin' the Trane"—stands as an uncontested masterpiece, a trailblazer of '60s avant-garde, and more accessible than much of what followed in this realm. As critic Gary Giddins has noted, "Chasin'" stays locked to 12-bar blues (he counts "about 80 choruses"), and when Coltrane starts to stray, his Herculean rhythm section—bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones—steers him back in line. The resulting tension between freedom and structure sparks much of the excitement. (The album cover lists Reggie Workman as bassist, but, though he did play the Side A tracks, Garrison, who replaced him in the band during the Vanguard dates, played on "Chasin'.")

For the next four years, the rhythm section, which also included pianist McCoy Tyner (who laid out on "Chasin'"), was essential to the energy and tightness of what came to be called Coltrane's "classic quartet": Tyner with his dynamic block chords, Jones with his propulsive polyrhythms, and Garrison's agility, anchoring the pace in half-time, double-time, or keeping time, as the spirit moved him.


Crescent, the other new Coltrane reissue on UM/Acoustic Sounds' Impulse! LP series, was recorded in April and June 1964. It's a very different album but no less masterful or searching. In the interim year-and-a-half, Trane and the quartet had made five albums (Ballads, Coltrane, Live at Birdland, and the collaborations with Hartman and Duke Ellington).

All of them stepped back from the volatile expressiveness of Vanguard; many featured standards. With Crescent, Coltrane resumed his spiritual quest—it was just his second album, after Giant Steps, that featured only original compositions—though in slowed-down, meditative state. Three of the tracks—the title tune, "Wise One," and "Lonnie's Lament"—are ballads and among Coltrane's most gorgeous pieces. The other two tracks are odd: "Bessie's Blues" is a retread to his 1950s blues; "The Drum Thing" is mostly a long drum solo. Still, they too are appealing.

This was the last album Coltrane made before A Love Supreme, which took a six-month hiatus to write and then record, and you can detect the roots sprouting in Crescent, though you also hear the wanderings. "I don't know what I'm looking for, something that hasn't been played before," Nat Hentoff quoted Trane as saying on Crescent's liner notes. "I know I'll have that feeling when I get it." He clearly found it with A Love Supreme, but then took off for orbits in deeper space with Ascension, Kulu Sé Mama, Meditations, and Expression—restless till the end.

The sound quality of both reissues, engineered by Rudy Van Gelder and mastered by Ryan Smith, is very good, with caveats. Vanguard is from a second LP master; the original tapes vanished long ago. Coltrane's horn stands out, present, vibrant, 3D, but the piano is hooded and the drums move around. The reissue lacks the full warmth and air of the original pressing, but good luck finding one. This is much better than any other reissue. On Crescent, Coltrane is vivid throughout, but on the tracks recorded in April, the piano and drums sound thin; on the tracks from June, they sound fine. Luckily, "Wise One" and "Lonnie's Lament" were laid down in June. These are classics.

Glotz's picture

And they are exactly as described here. Fantastic by any measure. Just glad I could purchase them before the disappeared once again.

Soultrane and Saxophone Colossus (Rollins) also hit Acoustic Sounds very recently, had to snatch up those too!