John Coltrane is my foremost influence and musical hero. I have spent this semester teaching a graduate course at Wesleyan on the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and have thus been going on ad nauseum (hopefully with minimal actual nausea for the students) about him for the last couple months. I’ll surely write more about Coltrane on this blog another time, but for now, here is my 10-track “Coltrane desert island mix.” I did not allow myself to cheat by using long suites as a single “track,” and I made my choices with some attention to diversity – that is, making sure that a variety of time periods and stylistic directions are represented to at least attempt to capture something approaching the full scope of his artistry. It is important to note that, as with all of my Top 10 lists, these are personal favorites and not necessarily the “most important.”
I’ll admit that I was kind of surprised how difficult it was to select individual tracks for this! It was even harder to choose an order of preference among them, so I’m copping out and offering this Top 10 in chronological order – a ‘Trane-Through-Time Sampler Platter, if you will.
1 ) “‘Round Midnight” (from ‘Round About Midnight by Miles Davis, 1956)
Of the approximately 50 zillion possibilities to represent the Miles-and-Coltrane partnership, I chose this one to represent Coltrane partly because I love his passionate solo here and partly because of the remarkable contrast between these two lead voices.
2 ) “Monk’s Mood” (from Thelonious Himself by Thelonious Monk, 1957)
I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember the precise circumstances of first hearing this performance, a solo-to-duo-to-trio performance with Monk, Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware. I do know, however, that it blew my mind. As with Coltrane’s recording of his own “Naima” two years later, he does not solo here, so his contribution rests entirely on the spirit with which he imbues the melody. When I was a freshman in college, I used to put this track on endless repeat to absorb the warmth and beauty of Coltrane’s playing, and I still find it remarkable that someone so renowned for improvisational brilliance could have such an impact through the interpretation of a melody.
3 ) “Time Was” (from Coltrane, 1957)
Though I’m a devotee of Coltrane’s work for the Impulse! label, I have a real fondness for his early work as a bandleader on Prestige. This track is from ‘Trane’s first session as a leader, and I pick it among many possibilities due to my fond memories of Kenny Barron (who, if I’m not mistaken, had been brought to this session by his brother, Bill) teaching this tune to me and, in the process, turning me on to this particular recording.
4 ) “Moment’s Notice” (from Blue Train, 1957)
2 years before “Giant Steps,” Coltrane was well on his way to establishing his mastery over difficult and fast-moving chord progressions. And boy does he tear this one apart! Bonus points for the great band, including Coltrane’s hard-swinging fellow Miles Davis employees, Paul Chambers and “Philly” Joe Jones, as well as still-teenaged Lee Morgan, contributing a brilliant trumpet solo.
5 ) “My Favorite Things” (from My Favorite Things, 1960)
When I first heard about this Coltrane fellow as a high school sophomore with a vague interest in jazz, I went out and got an Atlantic Records 2-LP compilation, and listened first to the 2 songs I’d heard about. The first was “Giant Steps,” which I didn’t initially get or particularly like. The next was “My Favorite Things,” and that was one of the distinct moments in my life when my ears opened in unprecedented ways. McCoy Tyner’s chords, Elvin Jones’ fiery drumming and Coltrane’s passionate soprano immediately entered a deep place in my consciousness and never left.
6 ) “Chasin’ the Trane” (from Coltrane Live at the Village Vanguard, 1961)
It took a while after my first listen to develop the attention span to hear 16 minutes of ‘Trane blowing the blues away at a bright tempo in a pianoless trio with Reggie Workman and Elvin Jones. This is one case where I credit the critics – they said this was important stuff, so I kept trying and now love this as an example of his authoritative and inventive work on up-tempo tunes during this pivotal period of development.
7 ) “After the Rain” (from Impressions, 1963)
The Coltrane “spiritual ballad,” a characteristic facet of his oeuvre, took a little while to grow on me. You know, being young and energetic and all. In any case, it was actually Kate (not yet my girlfriend, much less wife) who turned me on to this stellar example and once I got into it I could hear all the stuff that moved me in “Monk’s Mood” and then some. This song also features the drumming of Elvin’s “suber-sub,” Roy Haynes (although as a rubato tune, this is not as dramatic as other examples could be). Likewise, Jimmy Garrison’s sonic contributions to Coltrane’s work are on good display here.
8 ) “Your Lady” (from Live at Birdland, 1963)
This is the song that displaced “Monk’s Mood” on mega-repeat when I was 19. Nearly 20 years later, I still can’t entirely put my finger on what it is that is so moving about this song (a modal waltz with ‘Trane on soprano), but there is something in Coltrane’s passion and melodicism that hits me in the deepest part of my soul, something I’ve spent this whole time trying to figure out how to evoke on the piano. On a more mundane level, note that this song wasn’t actually recorded live nor at Birdland (nor was “Alabama” from the same album). Let’s not split hairs, just dig the music.
9 ) “Resolution” (from A Love Supreme, 1964)
As I told my students (and as I’ve written before in this blog post), my first experience with Coltrane’s A Love Supreme album left me bewildered and repelled. Time passed and when I was ready, there it was, the most emotionally and spiritual intense recorded album I have ever heard. If I had to pick one track, the 2nd movement (of 4) would probably be the one, but hopefully I never have to pick just one.
10 ) “Naima” (from At the Village Vanguard Again, 1966)
It took me longer to get into the Rasheid Ali/Pharoah Sanders/Alice Coltrane era of Coltrane’s band, but I am officially a convert. Compared to the “classic quartet,” the soloing is raunchier and the pulse is much more fluid. This track was my first exposure to this incarnation of the group – for various reasons (including the scorn of some people I quite respected), I thought I wasn’t supposed to like it. But in spite of my preconceptions the sweeping intensity drew me in. Much of this probably can be attributed to Coltrane’s ability, even as the music got further “out,” to inject spirituality and lyricism into his playing.