1 March 2020

Jazz Essentials: John Coltrane – The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings

John Coltrane

The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings


In late October 1961 saxophonist John Coltrane started a run of gigs at the famed Village Vanguard club in New York’s Greenwich Village. His new-that-spring record label Impulse! – famously “The House That Trane Built” – took the opportunity to record the group on four nights starting Wednesday 1st November, apparently ignoring Saturday night because that was when the audience would be at its noisiest.

In addition to his working quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, Coltrane brought in some extra musicians: Eric Dolphy on alto sax and bass clarinet, Reggie Workman doubling with Garrison on bass, Garvin Bushell on bassoon and oboe, and Abdul-Malik on oud. The repertoire was limited to seven Coltrane compositions, with just Softly As In A Morning Sunrise and the traditional Greensleeves for variety.

For those familiar with Coltrane from his time with Miles Davis, or for his transformative reading of My Favorite Things in 1960, a massive hit he interestingly avoids here, the music he played in the Vanguard was nothing short of revolutionary. Raw, some might say ugly in places, yet beautiful, too, and consistently inventive, this was music for a new dimension. The group works out on the lengthy Chasin’ The Trane, relaxes on Naima, and is intense on Spiritual.

But perhaps best of all is the Friday night version of India. Before the hippy trail flooded that country, and before the Beatles had found India in their schoolboy atlases, Coltrane wrote a piece about a place he never visited. But this is not the India of the Taj Mahal or the lakes of Kashmir, rather the squalid, cacophonous streets of Calcutta. As the two bassists set up a disjointed two-step and Jones lays down a light pulse, Coltrane plays an ethereal soprano before Dolphy’s bass clarinet breaks in at 6:19 mins with a deep, throaty roar. This is the ecstatic sound of the future, when Coltrane changed the very sound of jazz, although intriguingly he never played India again.

By the way, the music in this box set has partially appeared on a single live album, as one half of the studio-based Impressions set, and on later compilations. But the night-by-night drama of this 4CD blockbuster is by far the best way to return to the Vanguard one more time.

Simon Adams

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