Coltrane Redux

It is remarkable that two prime discoveries in John Coltrane’s recording history should appear in the same year; one of them an improved elevation from the world of underground tapes, the other a total surprise.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, “At Carnegie Hall” (Blue Note); John Coltrane, “One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note” (Impulse!)

By Milo Miles

One can have too many John Coltrane (1926-1967) albums, but it’s a very large number. After he kicked heroin in 1957 and devoted himself to music, the legendary tenor and alto saxophonist incarnated the romantic ideal of the driven musician, a man on a quest with a horn. In that last decade of his abbreviated life, several Coltranes came into being and these consciously willed transformations of his sound only add to fans’ fascination. So it is as fortunate as it is remarkable that two prime discoveries in Coltrane’s recording history should appear in the same year; one of them an approved and improved elevation from the world of underground tapes, the other a total surprise.

The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane album, “At Carnegie Hall,” is the result of a surprise discovery in the Voice of America vaults. The recording corrects what seemed to be one of the great shames in recorded jazz: that while Coltrane played extensively with Monk’s group for much of 1957, the lineup left behind only three studio tracks and the very murky concert document, “Discovery! Live at the Five Spot.” In the latter, the piano sounds particularly remote. Thus, the record will lose a lot of stars in future rankings, now that the Voice of America tape provides a dynamic and much more probing alternative.

The Monk-Coltrane collaboration was a mutual breakthrough, with the Five Spot gigs drawing public attention as never before (to Monk in particular — Coltrane had been a sideman with Miles Davis, after all), pushing Coltrane in new, freely flowing directions; and, as we can finally hear beyond a doubt, giving Monk’s compositions their most radiant settings with horns.

Bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson incarnate what “hard-swinging” means, but never become the focus of the show, as either Monk or Coltrane dominate many tunes. Monk controls “Crepuscule with Nellie,” while ‘Trane appears to be the master on the incomplete version of “Epistrophy,” but the key sensation is the joyous adventure of the two front men listening to each other.

Coltrane is far more confident, at ease even, than he was on his earlier recorded attempts at Monk’s musical knots. He goes for outright, off-kilter lyricism on “Monk’s Mood.” And both players show they have learned how to tell jokes together that are more than funny throughout “Nutty.” The purest interactions may come during the standard “Sweet and Lovely,” where, separated from Monk’s vivid, idiomatic writing, the sax and piano anticipate each other’s sounds and cooperate on all sides, up and down the tune. This is a gorgeous moment that could have been lost forever.

The John Coltrane who played with Monk in 1957 was not the same one who played on Alan Grant’s late-night radio broadcasts from the Half Note in 1965. This Coltrane was full-on into his quest and free jazz — or, more broadly, the New Thing — had happened between the two dates. And Coltrane knew his new thing would have to take a stand somewhere in relation to the New Thing.

The trend in jazz had become Modernist and monumental. Making art was a test of manliness, so of course size mattered. The era demanded fat novels, big canvasses, and long, long solos. The marathon blowing sessions of those years and on into the ’70s are cast into the shadows nowadays, unjustly overall, but understandably in too many cases. The temptation, for everyone from Pharaoh Sanders to Archie Shepp to Sonny Rollins to John Coltrane, was to keep playing even after you ran out of ideas until inspiration struck again, and then you were off for another five or 10 minutes. What’s more, such macho displays tended to turn the band into a clattering caboose following in the wake of the solo express train.

The most celebrated Coltrane Quartet was in its final year during the sets of March 26 and May 7, captured on “One Down, One Up.” What makes this a particularly potent collection is that well-documented tensions among Tyner, Jones, and Coltrane are either inaudible or actively aiding the electricity of the performances. McCoy Tyner goes off on a quest of his own during “Afro Blue,” building a patient, exploratory mood that contrasts ideally with the tormented, bravura searching of Coltrane’s saxophone. For once in this period, Elvin Jones does not seem conflicted about who’s in charge of the rhythm direction and how much wide open is wide open enough. He makes this half-prayer/half-rant version of “Son of Praise” into an equal with meditative studio treatment.

A curious coincidence about “At Carnegie Hall” and “One Down, One Up” is that the son of one of the principals helped bring the albums before the public: T.S. Monk in the first case and Ravi Coltrane in the second. Ravi not only discovered the Half Note tapes, but also produced this cleaned-up version. Because it’s a family project, he is inevitably interested in promoting “One Down, One Up” as a dominantly-Coltrane reissue.

Ravi notes correctly that “One Down, One Up” is a fervently transitional work that builds on the chanting liberations of “A Love Supreme” toward the full-bore free-forms of Coltrane’s last years. Yet the past is not abandoned. The nearly 23-minute version of “My Favorite Things” manages to be a decidedly “out” treatment, yet still dulcet.

But no question Ravi wants to champion the heroic Coltrane of the title track, often cited as one of the master’s most sustained flights of imagination. No drab stretches, no foot-tapping, no frantic running through dry variations to get to the next set here: “One Down, One Up” presents a fierce but uplifting high-wire crossing over every void you can imagine — Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Earth to the Moon — where the sax player builds plainspoken themes into great whorls without a stumble. The last third of the nearly 28-minue workout shrinks, or expands, to a duet with Jones that is seething with momentum and suspense by the finish. Ravi is right to extol this valiant incarnation of his father. Too often now, the bold plunge into the open field is dismissed as “not jazz.”

Yet it’s exhausting to follow Coltrane to the end of his voyage. It’s an almost ascetic test of attention and emotion. The persistent suggestion that Coltrane is communing with the divine is no accident. Sustaining such intensity is demanding on listener and musician. And this is where Monk’s “ugly beauty” comes to the rescue. After all these years, the pianist’s oddity has become almost homey — you can live in his tunes and luxuriate in Coltrane’s warm interpretations. “One Down, One Up” may be a Coltrane album to stick on the mantelpiece and admire, but “At Carnegie Hall” is the one people will take into their hearts.

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