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John Coltrane - First Impulse!: The Creed Taylor Collection / Cosmic Music / Infinity

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Artist: John Coltrane

Album: First Impulse!: The Creed Taylor Collection / Cosmic Music / Infinity

Label: Hip-O Select

Review date: Nov. 16, 2011

September 23, 2011, would have been John Coltrane’s 85th birthday. As usual with such important anniversaries, the majors have unleashed a flurry of Coltrane releases, mainly vinyl reissues and the inevitable best-of repackagings. Amidst the nostalgia, a bit of significant new material has also surfaced. It seems like a good time to examine the cream of the anniversary crop and to note a projected release that has not yet come to fruition.

The three issues under discussion all come from the excellent Hip-O Select label. The major part of John Coltrane’s recording career lasted from 1955-1967, during which time, the bulk of his recording activity was documented by Prestige, Atlantic and Impulse!, a subsidiary of ABC. (I’m excludingut the excellent Blue Trane, recorded for Blue Note in 1957, which has already received the deluxe reissue treatment.) Coltrane spent more time with Impulse! than any other label, signing with them in the middle of 1961 and remaining with them until his death in July 1967. Much of his most adventurous work was taped then, under the production supervision of Bob Thiele. However, his first album for the fledgling label, a big-band project titled Africa/Brass, was produced by Creed Taylor; he and his work for Impulse! form the subject of First Impulse!: The Creed Taylor Collection. This four-disc set presents the first six albums the label released, all in 1961, accompanied by a substantial booklet featuring the original liners, boatloads of photos, and new essays by Impulse! expert Ashley Khan. The Coltrane session was the last to be released, following contributions from Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, J.J. Johnson and Kay Winding. The first three discs present the albums in their original form, and the fourth gathers all known bonus tracks.

Africa/Brass was symptomatic of the ensemble experiments in which Coltrane was engaged at the time. The Classic Quartet, his main group for the next four years, was only then being solidified, and Coltrane was already beginning his associations with New York’s burgeoning avant-garde; Eric Dolphy was responsible for at least some of the arrangements on Africa/Brass, and later in 1961, he would play a major part in conceiving Coltrane’s Village Vanguard material that birthed classics like “India.” Though much tamer than Coltrane’s large-ensemble project Ascension, the big-band date mixes fairly standard arrangements with more “experimental” passages that would presage New Things to come, such as the whoops, yips and hollers on the long title track. Apparently Gil Evans was actually supposed to do the arranging, but in the end, Dolphy, pianist McCoy Tyner, and possibly Cal Massey took over.

In addition to the extras and alternate takes from Africa/Brass, which have been available on The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions since 1995, we are presented with three pieces by what is billed as “the Africa/Brass Rehearsal Band, featuring John Coltrane and Cal Massey.” Massey, a trumpeter, composer and long-time friend of Coltrane, did participate in arranging these sessions, but his role is unclear. There is a lush version of the standard “Laura,” which must have been raised as an early possibility for inclusion on Africa/Brass. The only tune from these rehearsals that would actually make it into the Africa/Brass canon is “The Damned Don’t Cry,” a Massey composition that sports a new introduction here, not so far away from Gil Evans’ innovatively mixed brass-and-reeds arrangements of the time. A fragment of “Nakatini Serenade,” originally recorded by Coltrane for Prestige in 1958, demonstrates similar influence, and, unfortunately, substantial problems with the tape. Overall though, the sound on these monaural recordings is remarkably good, as it is on the rest of this excellent set. It’s a well-conceived reissue of these seminal records, allowing them to be heard as the adventurous, yet accessible blending of tradition and innovation they are.

Hip-O Select also jumped into the breech to continue a preexisting series. Four years ago, Verve began issuing Coltrane’s Impulse! albums, unadorned by bonus tracks and with original artwork, in boxed sets of five. Three were issued between 2007 and 2009, covering all of the Impulse! albums released during Coltrane’s life. These were supposed to be presented in the most up-to-date sound possible, but the results ranged from very good to abysmal; the worst offender was Meditations, from Vol. 3, which, to these ears, sounds as if it was re-mastered from vinyl. The album is much better served by the late 1990s reissue, boasting far superior sonics. Indeed, though I suppose there is a contextual advantage in hearing the albums as Coltrane sanctioned them, I have much preferred the way they were treated 10 to 15 years ago, in various single-disc and box set configurations, with insightful liner notes by journalists and Coltrane scholars, bonus tracks where possible and generally excellent sound.

All this changed with the two new boxes, which actually do show improvements, thanks to Kevin Reeves’s fine restoration. They include the first 10 posthumous releases, beginning with Expression, out just after Coltrane’s death, and continuing through Concert in Japan, which was recorded in 1966 but not released until 1973. They document Coltrane’s last group, two notable exceptions being Sun Ship, Live in Seattle and Transition, which constitute some of the Classic Quartet’s final recordings. Expression, in particular, sounds magnificent, and Coltrane’s flutework on “To Be” benefits from new clarity, as does Rashied Ali’s aromatic percussion and Alice Coltrane’s harp-like piano. It should be noted that the Japan tracks, far too long for continuous LP play, are presented without breaks here, as they are on the 1990s GRP Live in Japan reissue. Of prime interest to Coltrane enthusiasts will be the reissue of Cosmic Music (Vol. 4) and Infinity (Vol. 5), neither of which was easily obtainable in the States. The former contains “Reverend King,” one of Coltrane’s late masterpieces, on which he can be heard playing the bass clarinet he inherited from the recently deceased Dolphy. The latter, a controversial set of tracks over which Alice Coltrane dubbed orchestral percussion, strings and harp in the early 1970s, seems unjustly maligned; it’s an interesting listen, the orchestrations never simply conventional, replete with slides and a pleasantly rough edge to the string playing. The question remains: To whom are these boxes being marketed? Completists will want bonus tracks, like the ethereal “1,” which was appended to the early 1990s GRP reissue of Expression, and newcomers may find it daunting to spring for a set of admittedly difficult late Coltrane, preferring to explore individual albums. Equally confusing is the inexplicable absence of the stunning Interstellar Space, the Coltrane/Ali duets released in 1974 and last reissued in 2000. They would benefit from the Hip-O Select re-mastering, so it is to be hoped that a sixth volume is in the offing.

This year’s major disappointment is that a November 1966 Temple University concert, which was to have been released, seems now to be postponed indefinitely. I’m told permissions are pending, whatever that means. It’s a wonderful radio broadcast performance by Coltrane’s last group, with Alice, Pharoah Sanders and either Rashied or his brother Muhammad Ali. (When I interviewed him in 2004, Rashied told me that he wasn’t at the concert.) On the bootleg I heard, there is also a battery of extra percussionists present as Coltrane and Co. tear through versions of “Naima,” “Crescent” and “Leo” in one of the group’s most incendiary performances to be documented. One can hope for the Hip-O Select re-mastering treatment when this concert broadcast is finally given a legitimate issue.

So maybe this current Coltrane crop didn’t bring quite the revelations of other anniversaries. It’s difficult to forget the huge anticipation surrounding the 2001 release of the Olatunji concert, Coltrane’s final recorded appearance. New material always seems to surface, however, and with the 35th anniversary of Coltrane’s death next year, good things could be on the horizon.

By Marc Medwin

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