10 of the best John Coltrane tracks

The great saxophonist died 50 years ago this week. Here are 10 of his finest moments

 

John Coltrane died 50 years ago this week. In the intervening decades, the saxophonist’s reputation has suffered not the tiniest decline. One could comfortably list 50 essential tracks by Coltrane, but we have only so much time on this earth. To make the task a little easier, we have stuck to recordings that list Coltrane as leader. So, you won’t see anything from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. More controversially, we’ve excluded recordings such as the excellent rediscovered Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. The regretted exclusions were so numerous we don’t even bother listing the runners-up. We begin controversially . . .

10. MY FAVOURITE THINGS – From The Olatanji Concert: The Last Live Recordings (1967) – This is an unusual selection, but the last extant live recording of My Favourite Things – made just months before the saxophonist’s death – demonstrates quite how deep into abstraction he had passed. Begins with a bass solo. Moves on to something like a train crash. Brain juddering.

9. BLUE TRAIN – From Blue Train (1958) – Surprisingly, Coltrane made just the one recording for Blue Note records. The lengthy title track – with its drooping, much-sampled opening – is comfortably the highlight of a solid set featuring the great Lee Morgan on trumpet.

8. GIANT STEPS – From Giant Steps (1960) – Hard bop styles are revved up to create a busy chord progression that has inspired a hundred improvisations in the succeeding years. Not exactly pretty. But the intricacies are delicious,

7. CHASIN’ THE TRANE – From the Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (1961) – Essentially one enormous tenor improvisation, this angular track pulls all the flavours of Coltrane’s music into the same awkward package. There are genuflections to the “negro spiritual”. There are gestures towards the free jazz to come. Epic.

6. NAIMA – From Giant Steps (1960) – See also the lovely, live versions on the Vanguard Recordings. Coltrane was just as capable of sweet introspection as he was of furious deconstruction. This delicate tribute to his then wife makes cunning use of a floating refrain that never quite reaches its conclusion.

5. MY FAVOURITE THINGS – From My Favourite Things (1960) – To this point the soprano saxophone had, in jazz, been associated almost exclusively with the old-school stylings of Sidney Bechet. Improvising over exultant piano chords by McCoy Tyner, Coltrane uses the instrument to make a spiralling raga of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s show tune.

4. ALABAMA – From Live at Birdland (1963) – Coltrane’s instrumental response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young Alabama girls in 1963. Begins with a lament. Moves on to equivocal celebration. Returns to the lament. A powerful emotional record of a terrible time. (Despite the LP title, Alabama is a studio recording.)

3. ASCENSION Part I – From Ascension (1965) – A bit of a cheat this. The “track” is essentially an entire vinyl album. But it would be a scandal to leave out Coltrane’s exhaustingly powerful experiment in big-band free jazz. Begins with a crazy fanfare to the heavens and goes on to invite solos from a host of talent including Freddie Hubbard, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp.

2. A LOVE SUPREME Part I – ACKNOWLEDGMENT – From A Love Supreme (1965) – Another slight cheat. Acknowledgement is just one part of an album that forms a coherent suite on the theme of faith. The opening section is nonetheless among the most complete tracks in the Coltrane oeuvre. Begins with a famous bass line from Jimmy Garrison that plays to the album title’s rhythms. Ends with the quartet chanting the words aloud.

1. INDIA – From From the Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (1961) – So much is packed into this swirling, complex live recording. The drone that sounds beneath the piece satisfies the promises made in the track’s title. The falling refrain in the core riff influenced the Byrds’s Eight Miles High. The version featuring Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on tanpura and Garvin Bushell on (probably) cor anglais involves a level of ambition and experimentation that still makes the mind spin. Yet India is also a miracle of control. Its secrets are still to be fully unpicked.

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