In His Last Live Performances with Miles Davis, John Coltrane Becomes an International Star

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In His Last Live Performances with Miles Davis, John Coltrane Becomes an International Star

And with this next step toward immortality, you can hear his musical sensibilities shifting

Even though he’d already released “Blue Train” and “Giant Steps” as a leader, this final tour with Miles Davis might have been the very thing John Coltrane needed to become a fearless leader.

By Matt Silver

Imagine Sting playing just one more sold-out gig with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers as The Police. Or maybe Alexander Hamilton and George Washington getting together to teach the new country they built how to say goodbye, just "one last time."

If Miles Davis and John Coltrane — The Final Tour (Legacy, 2018) is any indication, not all fantasies of unlikely artistic reunions need be consigned to oblivion, even if the artists, corporeally speaking, have been.

Long live posthumous releases, because this compilation captures the two most iconic performers in the history of jazz performing live together, in venues across Western Europe, for the final time.

It was the spring of 1960; John Coltrane had been playing with Miles Davis’ band for the past five years and had evolved, taking giant steps some might say, from an unknown sideman who rarely soloed into…John Coltrane.

It’s no stretch to submit that Coltrane wouldn’t have become Coltrane playing with anyone other than Miles. That group together—Miles, Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax)—enabled John Coltrane to find his voice…and use it. Cobb once told The New Yorker that, by the end of his tenure with Davis, Trane “would play an hour solo himself…[when] we were only supposed to be on the stand for forty minutes or something.”

But by early 1960, Coltrane was itching to leave the nest. Cannonball had embarked the previous fall, and with the commercial and critical success of Blue Train and the release of Giant Steps already in his rearview, Coltrane knew that his day as a leader had come.

So when Miles asked him to join Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” European tour in the spring of 1960, Coltrane simply didn’t want to. Trane recommended a young Wayne Shorter to serve as the tenor-man in his stead—and, in fact, Miles did eventually hire Shorter; Shorter would replace George Coleman as the quintet’s tenor in 1964—but Miles wanted someone who knew the group’s charts.

He wanted Coltrane.

And in order to get him, it seems—after listening—that the two giants had reached what I’d have to imagine was a sort of tacit understanding: It would be Davis’s band, but Coltrane would be given a wider berth than ever before.

Though it was still very much Miles Davis’s band, Coltrane was out front more — and for longer — than ever before.

Click to hear Coltrane’s nearly six-minute solo on “All of You” from Paris’s Olympia Theatre in March 1960.

Coltrane’s playing was evolving. The meticulously enumerated chord stacking and pentatonic patterns that descended upon you and enveloped you and defined the Giant Steps listening experience — and might be said to have marked the zenith of the “sheets of sound” period that had defined his playing from Soultrane (1958) through the end of the decade — would be set aside to make room for something more freeing. Exacting, painstaking perfectionism had taken him this far, but his thinking now seems to be: if he can leave the woodshed, he'd be free to leave the nest for good. 

Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter seems to capture this very sentiment in his liner notes to The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings box set released in 1995.

"He played magnificently on this tour," writes Porter. "And in fact, the extra time with Davis was probably of value, because during the nights of playing at length on "So What?", "On Green Dolphin Street", and "All Blues," he developed a wild looseness and abandon.

Miles, of couse, was brilliant, too. But this moment in time was about Coltrane playing with fire and fury, bravado and perhaps a tinge of what we might today call swagger.

Coltrane’s disposition was soft-spoken, gracious, thoughtful, and well-mannered but his playing was becoming bolder, guardrails eroding.

The take of “On Green Dolphin Street,” from the Olympia Theatre in Paris (disc one), showcases the manner of genius Coltrane is beginning to display with more and more regularity by this time. Weaving one technical story after another, he wails, he screeches, he belches expressionistically in the lower register in a manner that presages the kinds of avant-garde sensibilities that would come to characterize late-stage Coltrane.

Click here for a furious five-minute Coltrane solo from beginning at the 3:26 mark.

But here, Coltrane’s space-walks remain tethered to the chordal structure, whereas in later Coltrane works, he’d experiment by going full Sandra Bullock from Gravity.

The “So What” from the next night in Stockholm (disc three) is literally a revelation. The first ideas we hear issuing from Coltrane’s tenor come just shy of the four-minute mark and sound familiar, really familiar. They sound like the earliest embryonic expressions of “Impressions,” a tune that, along with “My Favorite Things,” would come to be known as one of Coltrane’s anthems and one that would not be officially recorded until nearly twenty months later at the Village Vanguard in November 1961 (unofficially, the first “known” recording of “Impressions,” per Lewis Porter, is from a July 1960 performance at the Showboat in Philadelphia). 

That Coltrane would use “So What” as the vehicle for working out, via solo, the heads to his own future compositions, especially this one, is not surprising in the least, primarily because “Impressions,” like “So What,” is, at least in part — again, props to the prolific Lewis Porter for connecting the dots — almost certainly derived from the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s treatment of pops composer Morton Gould’s “Pavanne,” which Jamal recorded in both 1955 and in Jan. 1960.

In his solo on “So What” from the first set of the band’s first night in Stockholm, you can hear Coltrane working out, via his solos, ideas that would become themes for future compositions, like “Impressions.”

As Porter points out in a Nov. 2022 entry on “Playback with Lewis Porter,” his very fine Substack page to which I recommend all jazz enthusiasts subscribe, “Davis frequently said, in interviews and again in his autobiography, that he loved Ahmad Jamal’s trios and got ideas from them. In fact, while Coltrane was in Davis’s group, they regularly played staples from Jamal’s recorded repertoire—originals like “Ahmad’s Blues” as well as standards like “Billy Boy” and “Just Squeeze Me.”

These are the kinds of thrilling discoveries that make The Coltrane Legacy worth celebrating not just through this month but into eternity. And this great four-disc set presents the perfect opportunity to pinpoint exactly where Coltrane was in his ever-evolving musical sensibilities at the dawn of the 1960s; it becomes hard not to conclude that he’s eschewing the meticulous chord-stacking — the so-called Coltrane changes — that had made his Giant Steps possible, both literally in terms of the landmark album and figuratively in terms of his development as a musician.

But this European tour is basically contemporaneous with Giant Steps' domestic release, and the thing that becomes craziest to think about is this: By the time it hit airwaves and record collections, Coltrane was already on to his next musical Rubik’s Cube.

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