John Coltrane Live Trane The European Tours Pablo 7PACD-4433-2
Sometimes the best ideas are those which seem obvious after the fact. Take for example this packaging of the Coltrane European concert recordings previously issued on Pablo with others which have appeared on a string of bootlegs over the years. This seven CD set not only gathers together material which is uniformly excellent, but it really holds together better than, for instance, the Impulse box of Quartet recordings, which arbitrarily excludes Eric Dolphy’s contributions. This set consists of recordings made on tours between November, 1961 and November 1963. Coltrane’s basic approach and repertoire was constant throughout this period, so much so that the one fear a listener might have about the box would concern the many versions of “My Favorite Things” and “Impressions” that are featured. The recordings come from nine concerts; Coltrane called “My Favorite Things” six times “Impressions” But it far easier to listen to repeated versions of these tunes than the endless rounds of “Autumn Leaves” on the Miles live recordings of the time, or “Well, You Needn’t” on Monk sessions. It’s not just that Coltrane’s performances are so much longer than either of his former boss’s that the melodies themselves count for a smaller percentage of each track. He also varies the melodic statements considerably more, and his delivery is so focused that each version draws you in a matter of moments.
Evidently all of the recordings come from concerts organized by Norman Granz, who arranged the tours. Evidently no recordings were made at gigs on the tours that weren’t directly supervised by Granz, though it remains a mystery how the tapes got into the hands of bootleggers. During the 70’s a host of labels including Beppo, Affinity, Charlie, and Jazz Connoisseur issued the material, and one advantage of having it all together is that you can be sure of having it all – one never knew, without doing some research, what was duplicating what. As evidence, one supposes, that Granz considered the prates beneath notice, we are told that anything that wasn’t on the Pablo records (“Afro-Blue Impressions”, “The Paris Concert”, “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “The European Tour”) is “previously unissued.” Nice touch.
The only complaint is the liners, which conform to the unfortunate tendency of writing on Coltrane to grind axes that have nothing to do with the subject and do it as florid a fashion as possible, that has been with us ever since Frank Kofsky’s infamous interview (“Well, it could be, Frank. It could be…”). First up is Carlos Santana, who tells us that Coltrane found the Light and for a time was the Light, then we get Neil Tesser, who is determined to prove something, but it’s hard to say what. The reader should just bypass the notes, but I will take issue with some points because some of them touch on commonly held misconceptions.
Tesser leads with one that would at least seem original. After gushing about the amount that Coltrane accomplished in 20 years of adult life, Tesser goes into rapture about the fact that his recording career taken from his first important work with Miles until his death covered only twelve. This is impressively wrong-headed. Charlie Parker’s first significant recordings were made in 1944, eleven years before his death. And of course Charlie Christian, Fats Navarro, and, closer to home, Eric Dolphy are but three of dozens of important players who had far shorter careers. Louis Armstrong and Lester Young had long careers, but their reputations are based on what they accomplished in less than a decade. In fact, Coltrane’s twelve years of constant evolution represent quite a long time. Only Miles is an obvious example of a figure whose development continued for longer.
The biggest problem is that Tesser is bound to show us that Coltrane’s modal style, which he views as a radical departure from his earlier work, was an earth-shaking step from which eveything else must be measured. To start with, Tesser has an inaccurate idea about what the term “modal” and what it meant. Neither Miles nor Coltrane improvised on modes in a strict way like Indian classical musicians. They just started using tunes with simple chord progressions and superimposed flights away from the basic harmonic structure in a way that was much freer than was possible with bebop progressions. Thus Coltrane didn’t turn his back on the “sheets of sound” approach, as Tesser claims, so much as adopt it. This involved considerable reworking, but back to that. When it came to the way he played on blues tunes, or especially ballads like “I Want to Talk About You”, he didn’t alter his basic approach in the slightest. He did continue to evolve, and part of that was in learning to stand back a little from the almost frenzied pace of his hard=bop days. He was more mature and in control, and my sense is that his interest in Indian music was a huge influence even on these non-modal tunes.
It would take a book to deal with all the misinformation generated in these notes, but one final point that really needs addressing is Tesser’s extraordinary assessment of Eric Dolphy’s playing here, which he compares unfavorably to the leader’s based on his judgment that Dolphy was less comfortable with the freedom of the open-ended modal structures Coltrane was employing. One could certainly argue that Dolphy seemed hemmed-in by McCoy Tyner’s emphatic reiteration of basic harmonic information. But that a participant on Ornette’s “Free Jazz” date or “Mingus Presents Mingus” could be daunted by “My Favorite Things?” Please.