Monday, September 25, 2017

Straight Horning: John Coltrane - 1961 Village Vanguard

soprano saxophone
This week I had been listening to some Sam Newsome and an album of his was planned for this post. Then, as it was Coltrane’s 91st birthday yesterday, I decided to get out of the apartment and listen to some Coltrane and make that the subject of today’s post. It was all going to plan until I placed the disc into the computer and my CD player decided to stop working (I tried the old faithful “turn it off and back on” to not avail). So there was no Coltrane on soprano yesterday - but there is today.  

I came to the Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings around mid-1999, and it’s a recording I can clearly remember listening to for the first time (the library strikes again!). It was a period when I was listening to a lot of Eric Dolphy, that’s what led me to it, and that was where my focus was directed. But today it’s the straight horn that has my attention.

If you are interested in Coltrane but haven't got around to these recordings, you are missing out. 
It's an early incarnation of the "Classic" quartet with Reggie Workman on bass. But Jimmy Garrison is there also (and would soon take over the bass spot), plus there's the addition of Eric Dolphy (as/ along with Ahmed Abdul-Malik (tanpura) and Garvin Bushell (cor anglais and contrabassoon) - although the latter two only appear on a couple of tracks each, they add a different color to the ensemble sound. [side note: in addition to this recording with Coltrane, Bushell looks to have recorded with a range of artists including Mamie Smith, Gil Evans, Jelly Roll Morton, Chick Webb, Slim Gaillarrd and more.]

Usually when it comes to Coltrane, it’s just a few tracks here and there - rarely an entire album. The last time I pulled out this set was to listen to the 3 versions of “Chasin’ the Trane,” and before that it was a handful of the soprano tracks. Today, I listened to more than my normal fill of Coltrane in a single seating - all of the soprano tracks, and make up half of the 22 tracks in the box set:
Disc One: “India” and “Spiritual”
Disc Two: “India,” “Spiritual” and “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise”
Disc Three: “Greensleeves” and “Spiritual”
Disc Four: “India,” “Greensleeves,” “India” and “Spiritual”

If only there were soprano versions of “Chasin’ the Trane” and/or “Impressions” from this gig, but he seemed pretty set on using certain horns for certain tunes. On all but the first version of “Spiritual” he plays the opening theme and first solo on tenor, then switches to soprano to solo again and take the song out. Maybe one day I’ll spent some time hanging with “Spiritual” for some tenor/soprano contrasts and comparisons.

Recorded more than a year after My Favourite Things and his first studio session on soprano, The Avant Garde, he’s more confident on soprano on the Vanguard recordings and (almost) pushes it to breaking point. “Greensleeves” seems pretty tame when listening to the versions of “India” from either side of it on disc four. And maybe it's “India” that opens disc four that is my favourite of the soprano tracks from this collection. The jury is still out because I haven’t heard his entire soprano output, but so far I would pick “Chim Chim Cheree” from The John Coltrane Quartet Plays as my favourite Coltrane on soprano with the Vanguard recordings running a close second. Although, I’m not sure that it is based solely on his soprano playing - the live energy, and a slightly unpolished quality of the Vanguard performances are also contributing factors.

I definitely prefer Coltrane in small doses, but I’m open to recommendations, in particular recordings that feature his soprano playing. I’ll get to Sam Newsome next week, and in the meantime .....I hope he doesn't mind being bumped by Coltrane.

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