A spiritual aura surrounds the legacy of John Coltrane. No other jazz musician has been given the hallowed blank check that was long ago bestowed on the late saxophonist. When his work is considered now, too often it's treated as one more step in a mystical -- rather than a musical -- journey.
This is minor complaint and it isn't meant to downplay Coltrane's spirituality; he played to the heavens as much as to any earthbound audience. But it is wrong to focus entirely on Coltrane's cosmic side. To turn him into a shaman is to overlook the fact that he may have been -- with all due respect to James Brown -- the hardest-working musician on the planet in the 1960s. Worse, it smacks of the kind of well-intentioned racism that transforms pop stars into artists and artists into witch doctors.
What the new boxed set Live Trane demonstrates is what a powerhouse performer Coltrane was and what a pool of explosive talent he surrounded himself with in the early '60s. Recorded between 1961 and 1963 on the stages of Europe in front of eager audiences, much of this music has never been heard before.
Seven discs make up the collection. Seven CDs of untethered, straightahead jazz delivered at an explosive pace by the finest rhythm section of the era. But even these topflight musicians -- which include pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones and, on disc one and two, reedman Eric Dolphy -- and all the fervid energy and imagination they brought to the bandstand are not enough. They are routinely lapped in their performances by the sheer force of their front man, Coltrane.
Neil Tessler, the plainspoken critic who contributes the set's liner notes, goes on at length about the richness of the multiple versions of "My Favorite Things," which is the centerpiece of nearly every disc in the collection. And those lengthy takes of the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut -- which Coltrane transformed into an epic modal poem in 1960 -- are superb. But equally exciting is a 1963 reading of "Spiritual," a somber Coltrane composition best known from his famous Village Vanguard sessions two years earlier. But here Tyner steals the shows as he beautifully hijacks the song into a plush, extended blues.
"Chasin the Trane" is another well-known Vanguard performance; one that scared the hell out of a lot of people in its original, frantic, 16-minute, freeform recording. Here, in a Paris performance, Coltrane boils it down to a five-minute foundation, while sustaining all of its earlier thrust.
Also worth raving about is a punchy, stripped-down take of "Blue Train" from 1961; a rollicking 19-minute version of "Traneing In" from 1963; four tender readings of the poignant "Naima"; and five muscular performances of the turbulent "Impressions."
The redundancy of song titles in no way lessens the worth of this collection. Each new take offers a new vision, a new approach. The bandmates give no sign of boredom or disinterest with the recurring playlist. Instead, they sound anxious to explore new musical avenues within the familiar terrain.
Credit Coltrane for igniting the imagination of everyone involved. He, like a handful of his contemporaries -- Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus -- had that gift. They led by example, getting the best out of their bandmates by doing them one better. Talent like that is in short supply. We are so unaccustomed to seeing it that we assume a Supreme Being is in on the deal and fail to recognize sheer genius.
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