Coltrane in 1961: From First Impulses to Fantastical New Modes of Communication

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Coltrane in 1961: From First Impulses to Fantastical New Modes of Communication

Coltrane pictured here sitting for an interview in 1961. It was a year that included one studio album and one live album with a new label, in addition to his last album as a sideman for Miles Davis and last as a leader for Atlantic. Plus a monthlong engagement at the Village Gate with Eric Dolphy at the end of the summer and an extended engagement at the Village Vanguard before a European tour at the end of the year. A moment in contemplative repose would’ve been rare for John Coltrane in 1961.

By Matt Silver

By early 1961, John Coltrane had wrapped My Favorite Things and soon its release would make it both a critical and commercial sensation. Coltrane had taken a schmaltzy, waltzy show tune and made it the height of hip sophistication. He was on the precipice of no longer being just another artist on a record label’s roster, about to become what Reggie Jackson would aspire to be in 1977: the straw that stirred the drink. 

After “My Favorite Things” became a critical and commercial smash in 1961, Coltrane frequently sought to include a lyrical, often waltzing, soprano sax vehicle on his albums, even as they became increasingly “out there.” Photo by Lee Friedlander.

Impulse Records was then a new kid on the block, established in 1960 as the jazz imprint of Am-Par Records, ABC-Paramount’s recording division. Creed Taylor, the chief of Impulse Records, had seen Coltrane play the Village Vanguard in Dec. 1960 and left the show inspired to have Trane record an album for the new label, the corporate behemoth subsidiary which quickly became known for “thinking like an independent and spending like a major.” 

But Trane, by that point, didn’t want a one-record loan-out like he’d had with Blue Note in 1957, when he’d recorded Blue Train while still under contract with Prestige. And he would’ve known that at the time Taylor first approached him even Impulse’s best known artists—like J.J. Johnson, Oliver Nelson, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, and Freddie Hubbard — were simply “on loan” to Impulse, beholden to the benevolence of their primary record labels. 

No, after the groundbreaking Giant Steps and the commercial triumph of My Favorite Things, Coltrane had a much better idea of where he stood as an artist, at least in terms of negotiating power. And Creed had seen and heard enough of him to convince his superiors at ABC-Paramount to make John Coltrane Impulse’s first exclusively contracted recording artist.

“It wasn’t as if we stole John from Atlantic,” Bill Kaplan, Am-Par’s chief in-house lawyer at the time, told Ashley Kahn, the author of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. “He walked in! But then, most artists wanted to move on up. Get bigger money and bigger exposure, more distribution. They wanted to better themselves.”

Ashley Kahn’s “The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records” is a great read for Coltrane fans but maybe an even better those looking for historical insight into the music industry generally.

Trane knew that for his Impulse debut, he wanted to build on the momentum he’d generated at Atlantic. Only two years removed from his last recording session for Prestige, the resources afforded him at Impulse were lightyears apart. Little to no constraints on studio or rehearsal time meant that Coltrane could pretty much have as many sidemen as he wanted and could now literally afford to take the time to work out ambitious original material. Creed Taylor, as Kahn reports, knew from talking to Bill Evans and Oliver Nelson “that John was intensely interested…in the modal, African kind of music.” And Taylor had the resources at his disposal to effectuate virtually anything his new star signee would’ve envisioned. 

So what did Coltrane envision, you ask? In addition to his core group of McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and bassist Reggie Workman, Coltrane’s vision called for a big band consisting of five French horns, a pair of euphoniums, a tuba, a piccolo and additional reeds in the form of a baritone sax and the polymath Eric Dolphy, who would play alto, flute, bass clarinet and conduct — AND write virtually all the arrangements. 

Africa/Brass was the name of the album. Recorded in late May and early June 1961, it’s one of only two big band albums Coltrane would make. An achievement in itself, Africa/Brass was loved by some and judged harshly by others.

About Coltrane’s Impulse debut Down Beat’s Martin Williams had this to say shortly after its release: “Coltrane has done on record what he has done so often in person lately, make everything into a handful of chords, frequently only two or three, and run them in every conceivable way, offering what is, in effect, an extended cadenza to a piece that never gets played…”

Still, whether or not the critics knew it at  the time, Africa/Brass marked the beginning of what would be Coltrane’s golden age, with the formation of what would become the most celebrated jazz quartet in history—Coltrane’s Classic Quartet—in place by the end of the year, when one Philadelphian, Jimmy Garrison, would replace another, Reggie Workman. 

But before setting time circuits for a one-way trip into the future, Trane had to clear his balance of a pair of obligations. After their final European tour together in Spring 1960, Trane would record in studio one last time with Miles Davis in late March 1961. On Someday My Prince Will Come, Coltrane plays on two cuts, the title track and “Teo,” which, taken together, constitute “the most exciting, impassioned, music on the set” — at least in the opinion of author Joe Goldberg, who published Jazz Masters of the Fifties in 1965, two years before Coltrane’s death.

And then, in between recording sessions for Africa/Brass, on May 25, May 1961, Coltrane completed his final recording for Atlantic, Olé Coltrane, an album that features guests carried over from the Africa/Brass sessions two days earlier in trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Art Davis, and the great woodwinder Eric Dolphy, who is credited as George Lane — presumably because he didn’t have permission from his record label to play on the recording. Like Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s Sketches of Spain, recorded just a year earlier, Olé demonstrates interest in Spanish folk music. But  more significantly, with this finale for Atlantic being recorded just two days after the first Africa/Brass session, we see, particularly on “Dahomey Dance” with its use of two bassists, a continuation of Coltrane’s interest in integrating ideas he’d gleaned from East Indian and African music.

These interests proved to have staying power—through the rest of Coltrane’s life and certainly into the fall of 1961, where over the course of four nights in early November, he’d produce the celebrated live recordings at the Village Vanguard. 

Impressions (released in July 1963) includes a lengthy, and by now famous, bass clarinet solo by Eric Dolphy on the Coltrane original “India,” one of a pair of live tunes — the other being the inaugural performances of the album’s title track, a Coltranian anthem derived from Miles Davis’s “So What” by way of Ahmad Jamal’s “Pavanne.” 

These live sessions contain some of the Coltrane canon’s most dissected, polarizing and pored over individual performances. 

The “Chasin ‘ the Trane” from Nov. 2, 1961, which, at over 16 minutes, constitutes the entire B side of the original “Live” at The Village Vanguard  LP released in Feb. 1962, is a lifestyle, a worldview, an aesthetic, and maybe as close to a cult as a musical composition can become. “Chasin’” serves as the high-water mark of Coltrane’s 1961 foray into the avant-garde — or what DownBeat’s then-associate editor John Tynan referred to alternately as “musical nonsense being peddled in the name of jazz“ and “anti-jazz,” the latter of which its practitioners and proponents soon refashioned for use as a transgressive merit badge. 

It’s challenging listening, at once more cerebral but also more primal than anything Coltrane had done before. Without the harmonic guardrails of McCoy Tyner’s piano, “Chasin’” is effectively a category five musical hurricane, with only the loose framework of a themeless 12-bar blues and the heroic assiduousness and sheer focus of Jimmy Garrison (guesting on bass, not yet an everyday member of the band) and Elvin Jones (drums) tethering Coltrane’s expansive overblowing to anything gravity-bound. 

This performance remains polarizing and, to this day, still contains the raw material to evoke passionate debate, though its vocal detractors are either fewer today or simply afforded fewer platforms from which to blaspheme. Perhaps it is simply a truism that one generation’s counterculture is another’s consensus, and vice versa.



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