Tuesday, November 01, 2011

John Coltrane Quintet - Village Vanguard - November 1, 1961

This is night one of the legendary and at the time, infamous, four-night run of John Coltrane and his group at the Village Vanguard, in New York City.

Coltrane's core group for this run was a quintet consisting of Coltrane on soprano and tenor saxophone; Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet and alto saxophone; McCoy Tyner on piano; Reggie Workman on bass; and Elvin Jones on drums. A total of nine different musicians performed over the four nights. We will get to those...

One need only listen to the opening track from the opening night, "India", to understand why these recordings sharply divided critics and audiences. As was often the case with Coltrane in 1961, there are two bass players on the track (Jimmy Garrison being the second). In addition, multi-instrumentalist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, himself primarily a bass player, sits in on the Indian tampura, which is responsible for the droning sound so dominant in the piece. This is jazz world music and it seems pretty safe to say there was no other music being made at the time to compare this to. At the end of the piece the audience reaction is polite but certainly subdued.

The next number, "Chasin' the Trane" is no less odd, though for entirely different reasons. Coltrane and Dolphy trade tenor and alto solos, respectively, with each more angular than the other. The playing is about as "out" as it can be while staying within some semblance of rhythm and melody.

"Impressions" is one of Coltrane's most oft-played songs of the era, with this version propelled by the engine room of Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. Neither holds back on this take. As with the first two songs the heart of this is a massive blowing session between the two horn players with Jones and Garrison pushing and pushing, with some patented Tyner pyrotechnics kicking in around the six-minute mark. It is exhilarating and exhausting stuff!

The pace slows down a bit with "Spiritual," another regular number from Coltrane sets at the time. The players and audience both get to catch their breaths. This is not to say this is a lazy run-through. Workman replaces Garrison and he and Jones put out a steady shuffle for the horn players to wend through and around. Dolphy's bass clarinet work, especially, is fine indeed. All the while, Tyner's building up a head of steam in the background. He finally gets his stay at about 6:40, with just the absolute right point of view. Some really, really terrific piano work. Bluesy, smart, subtle and totally captivating. When Coltrane grabs the reins again to kick of the latter third of the song, his brief solo devastates.

"Miles Mode", also known as "The Red Planet", is a composition of disputed authorship. That topic is discussed here so let's ignore those details for now. This song is little more than an opening statement and then an onslaught of modal solos from the horn players and Tyner. The solos are incredibly high concept, at times sounding like they are written charts played in reverse. The intellectual and musical ability required to pull these - in the moment - off is astounding. Tyner, Workman and Jones make a fiery trio for over three minutes, with the horns coming back in to repeat the quirky theme as a coda.

A typically delicate "Naima" follows with a gorgeous bass clarinet solo from Dolphy and one on piano from Tyner. Interestingly, Trane's role is limited to brief interludes of establishing the melody line at the beginning and end of the piece.

Night one closes with the Coltrane composition "Brasilia", a song that would stay in his repertoire through 1965. Again, it is the horn players who lead the way, Coltrane on tenor, Dolphy on alto. Their combined solos span the first 10 minutes or so of the take, before yielding to Tyner, whose interplay with Workman and Jones is tight. Workman holds down the bottom, Jones sprinkles in accents and Tyner jams. Workman gets his own solo moment at about the 15-minute mark and wastes not a note.

This was an incredible evening of music, and just the start of a run that would turn the jazz world upside down while birthing a theme of controversy that would last at least the rest of Coltrane's life. His music was becoming more dense, diverse, spiritual, and exploratory. The ride was not for everyone, and maybe still isn't. It is a ride worth taking, though. Judge for yourself.

Listen to the John Coltrane Quintet live from the Village Vanguard, November 1, 1961. Click to stream the tracks as they appear on The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings.