Graded on a Curve:
John Coltrane,
The Atlantic Years
in Mono

Remembering John Coltrane in advance of his birthdate tomorrow.Ed.

John Coltrane’s Atlantic period presents an arresting convergence of circumstances. It was a time of raised profile and of considerable transition, the artist’s confidence audibly growing as he united jazz tradition and experimentation; most of all it was an era of major breakthroughs establishing the saxophonist as a leader in his field. The Atlantic Years in Mono doesn’t include the entirety of his work for the label, but it does ably document a thrilling era that brought Coltrane to a mainstream audience. 

By the time John Coltrane hooked up with the Ertegun brothers he’d already chalked up a significant list of achievements, serving as a powerful voice in post-bop’s development via the bands of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, guesting for a track on Sonny Rollins’ Tenor Madness, teaming with Hank Mobley, Al Cohn, and Zoot Simms for Tenor Conclave, and leading bands for Prestige and for one LP Blue Note.

Top billing came with Coltrane in 1957, and next was Blue Train for Blue Note, which many consider to be his first great album. John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio followed in ’58 (aka Traneing In for its ’61 reissue), and Soultrane retained the services of the Garland band. As Coltrane’s fame grew Prestige would later release nearly a dozen albums under his name from unissued sessions and elevated sideman dates, in turn possibly lending a false impression of the saxophonist as unusually prolific during ’57-’58.

Coltrane was constantly playing but was nowhere near popular enough to have that many albums produced in such a short span; indeed, his two ’58 records with Wilber Harden as co-leader, Jazz Way Out and Tanganyika Strut, are rarely discussed in spite of their being positioned directly before Coltrane’s move to Atlantic. Well, not quite; the closest correspondent recording to his ’59 Atlantic debut Giant Steps is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

Captured just weeks apart, those cornerstone albums combine with Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come as ammunition for those positing 1959 as Jazz’s Greatest Year. It’s a tempting but ultimately spurious argument; one thing The Atlantic Years in Mono argues against is Giant Steps’ unquestioned supremacy as his finest recording for the label.

But don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves; the fittingly named album is a remarkable accomplishment, the title track immediately bursting forth with verve and ideas, Coltrane delivering the opening melody energetically and with a sense of weariness over the formulaic, a condition that’s only amplified as he quickly shifts into his solo. What follows demands attention and yet soars with logical progressions that have only helped reinforce the record’s canonical status; having pianist Tommy Flanagan on board, carried over with drummer Art Taylor from the Savoy LPs, is also a huge factor toward lasting appeal.

Pianos are frequently expressive anchors in jazz terms and Coltrane largely utilized the instrument as such; Flanagan is a quintessential inside guy in strong form throughout “Cousin Mary,” particularly as his solo gives way to a spotlight for bassist Paul Chambers. Like Miles, Mingus and even free jazz sparkplug Coleman, Coltrane was reinvigorating norms and integrating fresh concepts rather than tearing up the rulebook, but he was still controversial; “Countdown” begins with Taylor alone followed by a torrent of improvised sax as Flanagan enters at the halfway point and Chambers doesn’t arrive until near the end.

Next to its succinct 2:25, the lengthier “Spiral” registers as a more conventional experience enlivened with the saxophonist’s “sheets of sound” technique, a hard-edged, denser, more aggressive approach to soloing that inspired a fair amount of debate at the time; his playing on “Syeeda’s Song Flute” remains as fibrously voluminous as his rumination on “Naima” is tender, and what’s shared is sharpness of tone and focus.

Balladry at its most exquisite and non-clichéd, “Naima” substitutes Wynton Kelly for Flanagan and Jimmy Cobb for Taylor, effectively corralling Davis’ support quartet for Kind of Blue, and alongside “Giant Steps” and the closing Chambers tribute “Mr. P.C.” is one of the disc’s most celebrated numbers, in part due to the series of blitzkrieg run-throughs it received during Trane’s European tours of ’61-’63. Next to those, the original version can sound a bit tame, but that’s only on the surface; this is the bedrock of those live blasts, and it’s the perfect ending to a flawless, eternally modern LP.

The chronology of Coltrane’s sessions can sometimes register as calculated to satisfy traditionalists and progressive-minded listeners in roughly equal measure, but the actual release dates tell a different story; of the records collected here only two were issued by Atlantic while the saxophonist was under contract and they lack premeditation in this regard.

Bags & Trane was cut in ’59 but didn’t hit shelves until ’61 and is technically a Milt Jackson album, teaming the Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist with Coltrane, Chambers, pianist Hank Jones and the MJQ’s drummer Connie Kay. Combining a bookending pair of Jackson compositions, the title track and “The Late Late Blues,” with three standards, the whole unites the loose, bluesy vigor of the best Prestige dates with Atlantic’s organizational acumen; nothing especially mindblowing happens but the results cohere into an absolute treat.

Due to its sometimes brittle but more often overly affable nature, the vibraphone reliably risks an atmosphere of insubstantiality, but Jackson was a major player on the instrument and the contrast with Coltrane’s largeness on tenor certainly helps matters. So does Jones (Elvin and Thad’s bro), a pianist as sturdy as Flanagan but with a distinct personality; Kay and Chambers offer superlative rhythms, with the latter delivering a swell arco bass solo to boot.

Jackson’s tunes dish the blues while “Three Little Words” and particularly Dizzy’s “Be-Bop” exude fleet modernity; “The Night We Called It a Day” is the required excursion into down-tempo romanticism but with an unusual and engaging prelude and strong playing throughout. Altogether, Bags & Trane stands as a classic that’s stature only pales in relation to the sessions that surround it.

Maybe it’s because it overlapped with the grander scaled Africa/Brass recordings for Impulse or is perceived as a stepping stone to the Classic Quartet, but Olé Coltrane seems a tad bit underrated today, taking an undeserved backseat to Miles’ similarly geographically themed Sketches of Spain. Drafting pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and dual bassists Reggie Workman and Art Davis with Eric Dolphy on flute and alto and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Coltrane produced a record that’s still captivating today; in this writer’s estimation it ranks amongst his very best.

As his tenure with the saxophonist developed Tyner could occasionally connect like he was gliding in modal autopilot, but his extended solo in the side-long title track here is amongst his very best. Furthermore, Coltrane provides edginess and subtlety on the soprano, an axe that like the clarinet defeats many players as they devolve into goose-like bluster.

Highly appreciated is the simultaneous bowing and plucking from Workman and Davis, but the real wildcard is the added tonal color from Dolphy, whose searching alto is instantly recognizable on “Dahomey Dance” and “Aisha” (he also lends flute to “Olé”). Hubbard isn’t as distinctive but his solos are no less magnificent, easily supporting his inclusion on the shortlist of important (and undersung) jazz instrumentalists having emerged from the post-bop era.

Had the mono masters for Coltrane Jazz, Coltrane’s Sound, and My Favorite Things not been lost in a fire, The Atlantic Years in Mono would be a much heftier set. Coltrane Plays the Blues was recorded in the autumn of 1960 during the sessions for My Favorite Things but didn’t make the retail scene until the summer of ’62, and its title is truth in advertising. Tightening to a quartet, Steve Davis is the bassist with Tyner and Elvin rounding out the band as Trane plays tenor on four tracks and soprano for two.

Although the post-bop approach to the blues is an expansive one, this is still the most stylistically restrictive album in this collection, though this isn’t really a fault as the contents are broader than most musicians’ best days. Plus, these selections form a highly cohesive statement, unsurprisingly more so than does the closeout compilation The Coltrane Legacy.

While the tenor brings necessary weight, the secondary horn adds range and sounds appropriately terrific on the soprano master tribute “Blues to Bechet.” Elvin is outstanding from start (“Blues to Elvin”) to the slightly Latin-ish finish (“Mr. Knight”), and Tyner’s playing, which can bring Bud Powell to mind, isn’t far behind (he does lay out for two tracks).

Recorded in 1960 by not released until six years later, The Avant-Garde finds Coltrane co-billed with trumpeter Don Cherry for a fascinating delve into the titular style and more specifically the music of Ornette Coleman. “Focus on Sanity,” “The Blessing” (which marked the chronological debut of Trane on soprano), and “The Invisible” are all Coleman compositions, while the spirited opener “Cherryco” belongs to Cherry; a swell reading of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” closes the album.

The drummer for the LP is the inimitable New Orleanian Ed Blackwell, who alongside bassist Charlie Haden on “Cherryco” and “The Blessing” greatly deepens the connection to Coleman; Percy Heath of the MJQ slaps the bass for the remainder, and like Coleman’s sublime run of quartet platters for Atlantic, the whole is far more accessible than the avant-garde tag insinuates.

This has probably led many desirous of a skronk-fest to be disappointed, but if the quest is for inspired interplay The Avant-Garde is a truly rewarding experience; even after prolonged exposure it’s still striking how deftly the saxophonist integrates into a markedly different milieu from his norm. Intriguing but never disruptive, this tidy LP might not be in either leader’s top-tier, but it doesn’t miss by much. And “Bemsha Swing” really is a gas.

The Coltrane Legacy is the least unified of the records here, but as the tracks it compiles are drawn from the sessions for Olé, Plays the Blues, Bags & Trane, and Coltrane’s Sound, the contents are quite pertinent to the thematic thrust of this set. Frankly they go down better on a separate album (originally released in 1970) than tacked onto the end of CDs; this is particularly so with “Original Untitled Ballad (To Her Ladyship),” a perfectly okay tune that’s never really worked (for me) as the revised finale to Olé.

It’s doubtful that a reproduction of the two-part 1961 “My Favorite Things” 7-inch will be the deciding factor in many consumers choosing the 6LP The Atlantic Years in Mono over the 6CD, but the 45 is a worthwhile addendum highlighting Coltrane’s (and jazz music’s) commercial potential during this wildly productive period, and like everything else here, it sounds great. For anyone looking to add some prime Coltrane vinyl to their shelves, this release is an extremely smart investment that will pay inexhaustible rewards.

Giant Steps

Bags and Trane


Coltrane Plays the Blues

The Avant-Garde

The Coltrane Legacy

“My Favorite Things (Part I)” b/w “My Favorite Things (Part II)”


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