Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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John Coltrane

  • A Love Supreme [Impulse, 1964] A-
  • Africa Brass, Vol. II [Impulse, 1974] A
  • Interstellar Space [Impulse, 1974] A-
  • The Africa Brass Sessions, Vol. 2 [Impulse, 1974] A
  • Ken Burns Jazz [Verve, 2000] ***
  • The Best of John Coltrane [Prestige, 2004] A-
  • One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note [Impulse, 2005] A-
  • "Live" at the Village Vanguard [Hallmark, 2014] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

A Love Supreme [Impulse, 1964]
This four-track, 33-minute January 1965 release is without question Coltrane's most beloved album. Only certified gold in 2001, it never cracked the Billboard 200 as it cemented 'Trane's divine status in Japan, was adored by American hippies from the Byrds and Carlos Santana on down, and served as theme music to Lester Bangs's wake at CBGB. The through-composed product of two weeks of solitary brainstorming at the Long Island home Coltrane had established with his new wife Alice, it's meditative rather than freewheeling, with each member of his classic quartet instructed to embark on his own harmonically mapped excursion and the title set to a chanted four-note melody you could hum in your sleep. I'm on my fourth consecutive play with no signs of tune fatigue as I write, plus my wife loves it. All true, all remarkable. But how much you value it, I expect, depends on how much faith you place in your own spirituality. Having finally freed my changer to move on to My Favorite Things, which I've loved since I bought it in 1960, I wonder how soon I'll play it again and regret to say that that may well depend on who dies when. And having purchased the Deluxe Edition CD to augment my vinyl, I say go for the single. A-

Africa Brass, Vol. II [Impulse, 1974]
Those who've listened to them all assure me that this is indeed the first Coltrane LP since his death that isn't tainted with rip-off. I gave up listening to them, but I listen to this one all the time. A

Interstellar Space [Impulse, 1974]
These duets between Coltrane on tenor (and bells) and Rashied Ali on drums sound like an annoyance until you concentrate on them, at which point the interactions take on pace and shape, with metaphorical overtones that have little to do with the musical ideas being explored. European, Oriental, African--I don't know. But amazing. A-

The Africa Brass Sessions, Vol. 2 [Impulse, 1974]
Nothing wrong with 1961's Africa/Brass itself, and--near as I can tell without owning either--Impulse!'s 1995 and 2006 Complete Africa/Brass Sessions both combine the 1961 original with this 1974 vault dig, which I raved about at the time even though the inundation of outtake albums that followed the 40-year-old's 1967 cancer death was what taught me to cast a cold eye on all posthumous product. But instead, this January I bought Not Now's 2012 Africa/Brass, which combines the 1961 Africa/Brass with the less than memorable 1961 Coltrane Jazz, a mistake that inspired me to find out whether I'd been right 35 years ago. And how about that, I had, because the dollops of massed horns that give the album its name contrast far more dynamically against the forward-looking "Song of the Underground Railroad" than the original album's generic "Blues Minor." And while I admit that Elvin Jones is more spectacular on the 1961 "Greensleeves," the world is a better place with two of 'em. A

Ken Burns Jazz [Verve, 2000]
If a best-of is really all you want, this will suffice even though it lacks "Giant Steps," but I say Coltrane is better absorbed period by period and breakthrough by breakthrough ("Alabama," "Afro Blue") ***

The Best of John Coltrane [Prestige, 2004]
Designate a misnomer so as not to to say lie the title of what now seems to be a rare item, which is not, unfortunately, The Very Best of John Coltrane, though it does seem to be the first disc of Prestige Profiles: John Coltrane. Coltrane worked with both Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk before forming his classic quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, both of whom tower over such sidemen as leader-pianists Red Garland and Mal Waldron on the dolled-up blowing sessions cherry-picked here. These 1957 and 1958 recordings are money dates, the material mostly standards although one called "Slowtrane" closes the collection out. But that turns out to be the charm. This period was just when a detoxed 'Trane was mastering the sheets-of-sound sound that would revolutionize jazz, and while he's willing to fit in, his solos just naturally immolate the stalwart thoughts of such hornmen as Donald Byrd, Pepper Adams, and the excellent Idrees Sulieman. It's relaxed, expert, even engaging postbop jazz blown away by the winds of change for a thrilling minute on every track. It's a giant striding among mortal men. It's stimulating background music forced to admit that there's more to entertainment than this. A-

One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note [Impulse, 2005]
There's so much posthumous Coltrane I don't even want to hear it all. So I resisted this somewhat overpriced, somewhat underrecorded 87-minute double CD--until I played it a second time. The selling point is the title tune, at 27:40 the longest Coltrane solo on record even though it begins in the middle. It gets really good after bass and piano sit out so Coltrane and his friend Jones can bash and blow at each other undistracted. A-

"Live" at the Village Vanguard [Hallmark, 2014]
The relaxed quietude of side one is lovely enough--'Trane applying both soprano and tenor sax to the Eric Dolphy-aided 14-minute original "Spiritual" before caressing a six-and-a-half-minute Hammerstein-Romberg "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise" on soprano solely. But this endlessly rereleased album is sacred for one reason: a second side consisting entirely of the 16-minute "Chasin' the Trane," 'Trane wailing and whaling on tenor as Jones furiously drives and depth-bombs and bassist Jimmy Garrison tirelessly anchors and intensifies (and Dolphy is said to interpose brief alto commentary, though I've given up on figuring out where). I still remember the first time I heard it: April 1963 in Michael Levin's dorm room, which was also the second time and probably the third, because neither of us could get enough of how it both evoked and rendered unto history a theretofore unknown species of chaotic command I'd first encountered shouting and cheering for a Coltrane-Dolphy encore at the Village Gate in I believe 1961. "Chasin' the Trane" is as important a recording as "She Loves You" or "West End Blues." So buy the album, put track three on repeat until you've had your fill, and then learn how the calmer stuff fits in. A