Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings – A Personal Impression
Monday December 29, 2014
The initial days of November 1961 dawned amid both fear and hope. While the world continued to shiver through the ominous chill of the Cold War, U Thant became acting Secretary General of the United Nations following the sudden, and suspicious, death of Dag Hammarskjöld. Scotsman Sean Connery garnered the lead role in the upcoming James Bond film, Dr. No. A United States of America federal order banning segregation at interstate public facilities took effect. The Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited New York. And in a tiny yet fabled Greenwich Village nightclub, a noteworthy ensemble of musicians expanded the boundaries of contemporary jazz. The leader of the group was a 35 year old saxophonist named John Coltrane.
I was, at the time, barely nine, and didn’t know anything about Coltrane. Progressive jazz represented totally unfamiliar territory to me. But this state of affairs was destined to dramatically change.
As I entered my teens, I began to listen to some of my older brother’s long playing records, including works by Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis. There were also two distinctly different albums by John Coltrane residing in the record rack – Ballads and Kulu Sé Mama. I found the first disc musically and sonorously satisfying. The second, though, with its overlay of meditative incantation, intrigued me far, far more.
Intrigue led to investigation. Within a few short years, I had amassed a rather extensive collection of Coltrane LPs issued on the Prestige, Blue Note, Atlantic and Impulse! labels. Coltrane’s live recordings, in particular, seemed to convey to me a heightened sense of exploration and energy, especially those drawn from his group’s performances at the Village Vanguard in November of 1961.
Like many listeners, I encountered these performances in piecemeal fashion. The albums Live At The Village Vanguard and Impressions, initially marketed during the early 1960s, offered but a glimpse of what had actually transpired at the Greenwich Village locale. Not until the late 1970s, with the release of The Other Village Vanguard Tapes and Trane’s Modes, did a more complete picture of the 1961 engagement emerge. I promptly proceeded to ‘wear the grooves thin’ on both of these double-LP issues. Then, some two decades afterward, four nights of recorded musical magic finally surfaced when Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings, a 4-CD boxed set, was made available.
The real genesis of the November 1961 Village Vanguard sessions occurred six months earlier, when recording for the John Coltrane Quartet’s Africa/Brass album commenced. For this, his first release on the Impulse! label, Coltrane took the unusual step of augmenting his core group with additional musicians in order to create a more orchestral resonance. Foremost among these musicians was the multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, who had played with Chico Hamilton and Charles Mingus.
Coltrane once related, “We’ve been talking about music for years, but I don’t know where he’s going and I don’t know where I’m going. He’s interested in progress, however, and so am I, so we have quite a bit in common.”
Dolphy contributed appreciably to Africa/Brass, as well as to Coltrane’s final release on the Atlantic label, Olé Coltrane. He also accompanied the Coltrane quartet as it toured during the summer and autumn of 1961 – a tour that included stints at the Village Gate in New York City and at the Monterey Jazz Festival on the west coast (where they were joined by guitarist Wes Montgomery). Dolphy’s distinctively angular voicing technique on alto saxophone and bass clarinet provided a fascinating foil to Coltrane’s blistering solos on tenor saxophone and his flurries of exaltation on soprano sax. (Dolphy was also an accomplished flautist.)
McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s pianist, recalled, “They played so differently. Eric added another dimension to the sound.”
Shortly after the group arrived at the Village Vanguard in late October, Rudy Van Gelder, Impulse!’s sound engineer, set up his equipment on a table close to the stage. Van Gelder taped the better part of four evenings’ worth of music – from Wednesday November 1st through Friday November 3rd and, lastly, on Sunday November 5th.
Multiple renditions of a number of the nine chosen compositions were recorded, thereby giving the listener an opportunity to sample varied interpretations of these pieces. Furthermore, Coltrane’s utilization of bassists Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison, sometimes in combination, as well as Ahmed Abdul-Malik on oud (some claim the instrument was actually a tamboura) and the veteran Garvin Bushell on oboe and contrabassoon, served to enrich the overall sound of the group on many of the selections. Behind these musicians, the inimitable drummer Elvin Jones constantly propelled the music forward. (Note that Roy Haynes sat in on drums for Thursday night’s Chasin’ Another Trane.)
The sheer breadth of musical inventiveness displayed on Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings encompasses pieces ranging from the eastern-derived exoticism of India to the lyrical tenderness of Naima. Coltrane’s classic, hard-hitting Thursday rendition of Chasin’ The Trane is counterpointed by Dolphy’s remarkable five and a half minute freeform alto saxophone solo on Miles’ Mode the following night. Spiritual, a thoughtful unearthing of the emotional roots of despair and their hopeful resolution, grows from little more than twelve minutes in length on the first evening of recording to over twenty minutes of soul-searching intensity by Sunday. And versions of the well-known Impressions are provided from each of the first three nights. These represent but a few of the many highlights on offer.
Immediately following their Village Vanguard engagement, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman and Elvin Jones embarked on a whirlwind European tour, which included concert dates in Britain, France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and West Germany.
Dolphy tragically passed away in the summer of 1964, after falling into a diabetes-induced coma in Berlin. He had only just turned thirty-six. Coltrane died from liver cancer some three years later, at the age of forty.
Much has been written down through the intervening years concerning the quality and historic significance of, as well as audience and critical reaction to, the John Coltrane group’s late 1961 live performances in New York City. Suffice it to say that even today, I know jazz aficionados who have a difficult time digesting the music in its entirety. Nevertheless, within that sphere of life where art and its capacity to express the intangible meet, these recordings stand as seminal testaments to an unrelenting quest for spiritual enlightenment. One simply needs to listen ‘through’ as much as listen ‘to’ what’s being offered by the musicians involved. It's a journey well worth taking.
Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings is marketed on the Impulse! label (an affiliate of MCA & GRP Records, Inc.). It is widely available through retail music purveyors as well as on-line providers. The 4-CD boxed set code is IMPD4-232.
Cigar Weekly’s Managing Editor, Doug Kuebler (jazznut), is an inveterate aficionado and collector of wines and whiskies (subjects he has written on extensively over the last three decades), as well as an avid fan of music ranging from the popular and ethnic genres through folk and blues to classical. He is especially fond (surprise!) of jazz.