This month marks the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s essential masterpiece, A Love Supreme. With it comes the release of The Complete Masters, an exhaustive reissue of Coltrane’s masterstroke—complete with every overdub, nascent take and recorded conversation. Never before has such a complete and rich version of A Love Supreme been available. In celebration of this anniversary, we asked our resident jazz critic Bill Bolin to rank his ten favorite Coltrane offerings. In reverse order.
As always, give us a ring or stop on by and we’ll be glad to find a copy of any—or all—of these records for you.
10. INTERSTELLAR SPACE (Recorded 1967, Released 1974)
Another example of Coltrane’s improvised free jazz sessions, in this case in a more intimate duet setting—with percussionist Rashied Ali. Thought by some to be unlistenable at the time of its release, subsequent audiences have found Interstellar Space’s challenging unpredictability and manic energy both exciting and necessary.
9. DUKE ELLINGTON & JOHN COLTRANE (1963)
This is one of Coltrane’s (and Ellington’s) more accessible recordings. For those that are accustomed to the playing of Coltrane’s usual pianist, McCoy Tyner, this recording is a restrained change of pace. Of note is a wonderful rendition of Ellington’s classic “In a Sentimental Mood.”
8. AFRICA/BRASS (1961)
This is Coltrane in a big band setting that includes seldom-used (for jazz ensembles) French horns and euphonium (a baritone brass instrument that’s fallen out of use in recent times). The sound is big and bright, but never cluttered. Of particular note are the contributions of trumpet player Freddie Hubbard and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy. The 1995 reissue includes wonderful alternate takes of “Greensleeves” and “Africa”.
7. COLTRANE (1962)
Here’s Trane in the first recording of the classic quartet. Of special note is the Mal Waldron composed “Soul Eyes” with Coltrane’s searching, slightly plaintive tone. A master class for the saxophone. The 2002 Deluxe Edition is recommended for the inclusion of pianist Tyner’s “Not Yet” and the two takes of Coltrane’s “Impressions.”
6. ASCENSION (1965)
This is where some casual listeners may jump ship. This is not easy-listening Coltrane, this something of a musical assault. Ascension, along with Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, ushered in the wildly improvisational free jazz movement. All of the free jazz elements are here: blistering solos (Coltrane is in rare form, as is the great trumpeter Freddie Hubband and Coltrane’s spiritual soul-mate Pharoah Sanders), insistent, agile rhythms (the session featured two bassists Jimmy Garrison and Art Davis), and ensemble sections at once modal and polychromatic (mode changes were usually signaled by Coltrane or pianist McCoy Tyner). Two sessions or editions were recorded, both fine and available in uninterrupted form on the 2000 Impulse! release.
5. BLUE TRAIN (1958)
Coltrane is joined by an adept band that includes the sadly underrated trumpet master Lee Morgan. Blue Train is inspired and restrained—the epitome of cool.
4. JOHN COLTRANE and JOHNNY HARTMAN (1963)
Although Coltrane purists are likely to take issue with this record’s inclusion on any top ten list, this is easily one of his most accessible and beautiful albums. In many ways, it’s comparable to Sinatra’s excellent In the Wee Small Hours—smoky late night music to soundtrack brandy and break-ups.
3. MY FAVORITE THINGS (1961)
Here we have Coltrane’s lively take on a handful of popular music standards. It features Coltrane playing the soprano sax on side one and his usual tenor on side two. This is one of the most listenable and welcoming jazz albums in the repertoire.
2. A LOVE SUPREME (1965)
Recorded with the classic quartet of McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums), this record is a milestone that quite inarguably pushed the boundaries of the genre. Coltrane’s playing is at times meditative and at others demonstrative, bordering on aggressive. Coltrane’s mantric chanting and Jones’ use of gongs imparts an Eastern dervish feel. The Deluxe reissue (recommended) features a rare live rendition and adds the great tenor sax player Archie Shepp to an alternate take of “Acknowledgement.” Both a comfort and an inspiration.
1. GIANT STEPS (1961)
While in junior high, I decided to learn about jazz. Based on readings, I bought Giant Steps and Davis’ Kind of Blue. As you might imagine, my small-town life was expanded—more like, exploded—my musical tastes were modified and I was better for the change. Giant Steps is the first record made up entirely of music composed by Coltrane and it features great examples of third-related chord movements that are now commonly referred to as Coltrane changes. “Naima” is a track of particular, almost pastoral beauty and has since become a jazz standard.
Note: you may wish to round out your collection by owning some of these excellent compilations: Heavyweight Champion (collecting his Atlantic label records), The Classic Quartert: The Complete Impulse! Recordings, and The Prestige Recordings.