November 17, 2020

Giant Steps, A Selected Discography of John Coltrane

Jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane arriving at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1963.

Wikimedia Commons | Dutch Natonal Archives

By Rick Mitchell

few weeks ago a friend  asked what music I have been turning to get through these dark times. He meant “dark” literally as well as figuratively — at the time, Portland, where I live, had the worst air quality in the world because of fires all over the state. My answer was “John Coltrane.” A born-to-rock high school kid beginning to educate myself about serious jazz, I discovered Coltrane shortly after he died in 1967, and he has remained my North Star for navigating through all the ways of playing this music that have come after him. Although his recording career lasted only 15 years, he never stopped growing creatively during his lifetime, and he developed the tenor and soprano saxophone chops to play anything he could think of. But Coltrane’s inspiration is not just musical. Born into the Jim Crow South nearly a century ago, he overcame oppression far beyond anything I or most of us living today have ever known to become a beacon of light for those in search of liberation — personal, political, cultural and spiritual. As Wayne Shorter put it, Coltrane’s later music imagined not only a new way of playing, it imagined a new way of living.

In September, Rhino Records celebrated the 60th anniversary of Giant Steps, Coltrane’s debut album for Atlantic Records, with a deluxe set of two CDs or two LPs including a remastered version of the original album and eight outtakes. (A similar package was reissued by Rhino in 1998.) Recorded less than two weeks after Coltrane took part in the sessions for Miles Davis’ masterpiece Kind of Blue, Giant Steps serves as an ideal introduction to Coltrane’s genius; challenging yet accessible, harmonically complex, melodically entrancing, rhythmically compelling. As Ashley Kahn observes in his new liner notes, “It never trips over its own intricacies, never loses sight that it is indeed music.”

giant steps copyGiant Steps can be seen as the launching pad for the second half of Coltrane’s career, when he set a new standard for improvisation over harmonic changes and then broke loose from all previous structural boundaries to imagine what complete and total liberation might sound like. What follows is a personal discography of definitive cuts from throughout Coltrane’s recorded catalogue, encompassing both classic tracks and historical rarities. There are multiple ways of tracking down these recordings, from the original vinyl albums (though some tracks were never released at the time) to various reissued CD compilations, to purchasing the individual tracks on iTunes. For consistency, I have cited CDs by title and label from my own collection, though I also own many of the original albums on vinyl. 

last giant copy“Good Groove,” Dizzy Gillespie Sextet; private recording of a radio broadcast from Birdland, NYC, June 13, 1951, previously unissued. (The Last Giant: The John Coltrane Anthology, Rhino/Atlantic, 1993): Coltrane’s introduction to the big leagues, with Diz on trumpet, Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Billy Taylor (who wrote the tune) on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Trane holds his own in this company, though his stylistic debt to Charlie Parker is obvious.

“Tune Up,” Miles Davis Quintet; recorded at the Blue Note, Philadelphia, December 8, 1956; previously unissued.  (The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions, Concord/Prestige, 2006): Miles’ first great quintet, with Miles on trumpet, Trane on tenor, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. The first indication that Coltrane was developing into something truly special, on the level of his only real peer, Sonny Rollins, though he was still encumbered by drugs and alcohol addiction.

Prestige Recordings copy“While My Lady Sleeps,” John Coltrane; May 31, 1957, originally issued on the LP Coltrane. (The Prestige Recordings, 16-disc boxed set, Prestige/Fantasy, 1991): Coltrane’s debut as a leader did not arrive until he was 30 years old. While he later was idolized for his relentless extended solos, Trane remained a superb ballad player throughout his career. He is joined on this Gus Kahn/Bronislau Kaper standard by Mal Waldron on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.

58 Miles copy“Epistrophy,” Thelonious Monk Quartet; recorded by Juanita Coltrane on a portable tape recorder, late summer 1957, previously unreleased. (Live at the Five Spot Discovery!, Blue Note, 1993): Coltrane played with Monk for only a short time, but he  was as much a mentor to him as Miles Davis. This recording demonstrates a dramatic improvement in his playing, with Coltrane experimenting with what became known as “sheets of sound,” playing irregular clumps of notes at double and triple-time over each chord. Monk’s piano solos are marvelous, showing him at the peak of his power. It sounds like Ahmad Abdul-Malik on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, although there is no documentation.

“Straight No Chaser,” Miles Davis Sextet; recorded at the Plaza Hotel, July 28, 1958, first released on the LP Jazz at the Plaza Vol. 1 in 1973. (’58 Miles Featuring Stella by Starlight, Columbia, 1991):  Trane was invited back into Miles’ band at the end of 1957. The fact that he had kicked heroin during his tenure with Monk may have been a factor. At any rate, his playing here on Monk’s tune is joyously high-energy, and he is matched note-for-note by alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Perhaps responding to the challenge, Miles delivers some of his most dazzlingly up-tempo blowing. The next year, this band with Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, went into the studio to record Kind of Blue

“Naima,” from the album Giant Steps, recorded December 2, 1959, originally released in 1960 on Atlantic Records.  (John Coltrane, Giant Steps, Rhino, 1998): Naima was the middle name of Coltrane’s first wife, Juanita. He continued to play this tender ballad, built on suspended chords over contrasting pedal tones, for the remainder of his life. But the original version, with Wynton Kelley on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, remains definitive.

my favorite things copy“My Favorite Things,” recorded live in Stockholm, Nov. 23, 1961, previously unreleased. (The Last Giant: The John Coltrane Anthology, Rhino/Atlantic, 1993): Coltrane introduced this waltz from the hit musical The Sound of Music into his repertoire with the album My Favorite Things in March, 1961. That version, featuring Coltrane on soprano sax, an instrument that had been virtually forgotten in modern jazz, was stately to the point of perfection, exquisitely lyrical, and at 13:41, uncommonly long. This version, recorded eight months later, is looser, twice as long at 25:12, and revelatory of the outward direction in which Trane’s music was headed. The quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Elvin Jones on drums is joined by Eric Dolphy on flute. 

“India,” recorded live at the Village Vanguard, November 1, 1961, previously unreleased. (Coltrane The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings, 4-disc boxed set, Impulse/GRP, 1997): Coltrane’s interest in Eastern spirituality is for the first time explicitly expressed in this composition. This version — not the same as the version originally released on the LP Impressions — features Ahmad Abdul-Malik adding a droning pitch on oud, Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison both on basses, and Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet. Jones provides a churning, free-wheeling pulse while Coltrane’s sharp-edged soprano echoes the sound of the Indian shehnai, a metallic reed instrument.

both directions copy“Impressions (Take 3),” from Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, recorded March 6, 1963, previously unreleased. (Impulse/Verve, 2018): This album, which sat in the can for 55 years, has Coltrane’s classic quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums straddling the fence between the accessible and the adventurous. There are four relatively concise versions of “Impressions” — another of Trane’s favorite vehicles for extended jamming — here. Take 3 is unique because Tyner lays out, leaving just a tenor trio in which Elvin cuts loose behind Trane’s white-hot .  Interestingly, when Coltrane released an album called Impressions later in 1963, he used a live take from 1961 rather than any of these.

live at birdland copy“Alabama,” from the album Live at Birdland, recorded November 18, 1963. (MCA/Impulse, originally released in 1964): This dirge was Coltrane’s response to the Ku Klux Klan bombing of a black church in which four little girls were killed. Coltrane’s tenor contains boundless sorrow, while Jones’ drums roll like thunder, or war clouds, in the background. Although it appeared on the album titled Live at the Birdland, “Alabama” was actually recorded in a studio a month later. There were two takes, which are spliced together on the Birdland album. The compilation album The Gentle Side of John Coltrane, released on vinyl in 1974, has the original Take 1, which at 2:22 says everything that needs to be said.

a love supreme copy“Part 1 – Acknowledgment,” from the album A Love Supreme, recorded December 9, 1964 (MCA/Impulse, originally released in January, 1965): The first movement of Coltrane’s magnum opus is best-known for the chanted refrain of the title, A Love Supreme, a prologue to the rest of the suite. But the track stands on its own on the strength of the hypnotic groove and Coltrane’s soaring solo. The album is perhaps the penultimate statement of Coltrane’s spiritual aspiration; as Wayne Shorter said, his attempt to imagine a new way of living through music. Often praised as one of the greatest albums of all time,  it also became Trane’s best-selling album, with sales of more than 500,000, enough to be certified gold.

one up copy“One Down, One Up,” from the album One Down, One Up Live at the Half Note, recorded March 26, 1965, previously unreleased. (Verve, 2005): This is the Holy Grail for a generation of tenor players. Bootleg radio broadcast tapes of this performance circulated for decades, until Coltrane’s son Ravi discovered the reel-to-reel master in a family closet and eventually figured a way to give it a proper release. Coltrane’s quartet with Tyner, Garrison and Jones had been together for four years, and they are locked in, as Trane’s tenor solo comes in wave after wave of increasing intensity for more than 27 minutes.

ascension,jpg copy“Ascension (Part 1),” from the album Ascension, recorded June 28, 1965. (Impulse, original-ly released 1966): Recorded three months after One Down, One Up, Ascension is Coltrane’s declaration of independence from any previously recognizable definition of jazz, much less any record label pressure for commercial accessibility. The core quartet is augmented by five additional sax players and two trumpet players. The extended piece — divided into two parts only because of the time limitations on LP sides — opens with a repeated six note riff that opens up into cacophonous free blowing. But when Coltrane emerges from the crowd as a soloist the rhythm section kicks into free-wheeling propulsion similar to One Down, One Up. Pharoah Sanders and Freddie Hubbard also take strong solos on Part 1.

Ascension was the first John Coltrane album I heard back when I was in high school. I checked it out from the Anaheim Public Library in 1968. I did not understand it at all, and did not give it a second listen. It was not until I heard “Giant Steps” and “My Favorite Things” that I began to understand what makes John Coltrane one of the giants of this music, and I should add one of my spiritual guides. But when I listened to Ascension again for the first time in years before writing this article, it made perfect sense to me, and it seems of a piece with his earlier work. It is a culmination of the giant steps Coltrane took throughout his life and career.    

Rick Mitchell is the author of Jazz in the New Millennium: Live and Well (Dharma Moon Press, 2014) and the producer/host of Jazz in the New Millennium, a weekly radio program syndicated by the African American Public Radio Consortium.


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