The music that makes up John Coltrane: Heavyweight Champion--The Complete Atlantic Recordings, a six-CD boxed set due for release in mid-August on the Rhino imprint, was cut over the course of a relatively brief period of time. Coltrane, fresh from several years spent as a member of bands led by Miles Davis, was bursting with new ideas when he signed with Atlantic, and these notions flowed out of his horns in a thrilling rush. That he was able to achieve so much in less than two and a half years (the numbers on Champion were cut between January 1959 and May 1961) is nothing less than astonishing. But hearing these songs from a distance of more than three decades is also a melancholy experience, and not only because Coltrane was stilled by liver ailments in 1967 at the tender age of forty, long before his musical journey should have ended. No, what's most depressing is that what passes for modern jazz these days seldom ventures beyond the territory Coltrane traveled during the stage this collection surveys. Players throughout the idiom have found great inspiration in the wonders gathered here, but too many of them fail to emulate what may be Coltrane's most admirable and timeless characteristics--his refusal to rest on his laurels and his insistence upon constantly pushing his music into the realm of the unknown.
In some ways, Rhino has already gone over the ground covered by Champion. The company's two-disc The Last Giant: The John Coltrane Anthology, issued in 1993, supplemented rarities with predictable selections dating from the artist's Atlantic tenure. But the result was a jarringly incomplete glance at an innovator whose work was far too sweeping and brawny to be synopsized in the space the programmers of Anthology allotted.
For Champion, however, producer Joel Dorn has taken the right tack. If ever there was a musician whose endeavors deserve to be viewed in their entirety, it is Coltrane, whose craggy, sprawling career actually was a continuum, a notably linear quest for understanding. The size and scope of his efforts are such that a partial examination of them is nearly as problematic as no examination at all.
Of course, Champion is not without its flaws. Foremost among them are the liner notes by Lewis Porter, an associate professor of music at Rutgers University's Newark campus. Porter clearly loves this music--he's not so dry and distanced an academician that he sucks all of the juice from his prose--but he would rather dissect the material than discuss its emotional power. To his credit, he illustrates in a cogent and well-considered manner why Coltrane's stormy solos are as technically impressive as they are startling. Too often, though, he overanalyzes this most spontaneous of styles. In describing the title song of Things, for example, his jazzspeak ("After the first A they switch to an E major vamp...then it's back to E minor for the second A") reduces a little miracle to alphabet soup. More stirring are remembrances from saxophonist Jimmy Heath and Mary Alexander, for whom the gorgeous "Cousin Mary" was named. These discourses don't rely on the nuts-and-bolts jargon music theorists turn to when trying to explain the inexplicable. Instead they spotlight the deep commitment that infused all of Coltrane's contributions.
Born in High Point, North Carolina, Coltrane was adept at alto horn, clarinet and alto saxophone by the time he was in his middle teens. As he became more certain about the path he wanted to take, he moved to Philadelphia and enrolled at the city's Ornstein School of Music and the Granoff Studios, but before he could complete his studies, military service called. Following a tour of duty in Hawaii, he returned to the mainland, added the tenor saxophone to his repertoire and passed through the lineups of several R&B bands before falling in on a more permanent basis with the jazz crowd. He made his first recordings with Dizzy Gillespie in 1949 and was a regular in Johnny Hodges's septet between 1953 and 1954. Although his tone under these various leaders was always hearty, it initially was not terribly different from that of other young saxophonists awed by the artistry of Charlie Parker. But that changed as Coltrane absorbed the influences of a new breed of sax player, including Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, and channeled them through his own worldview. He was a serious person, not a clown, and while he eventually fell victim to the drug and alcohol abuse that proved so damaging to many of his peers, he didn't let his foibles distract him from his mission.
The five sessions Coltrane oversaw as a frontman in 1957 and 1958 weren't revelatory, but an association with Thelonious Monk was stunning, and Kind of Blue, made with Miles Davis, was even better. The modal structures present on Blue are what make it a jazz landmark, but the solos of Davis and Coltrane provide it with most of its fire. Coltrane showed that he could manufacture tension even when he wasn't operating at full speed, piling note upon note in an improvisational fever that's rarely been matched since. At last Coltrane had captured the sound he'd sought for so long. It was time to move out on his own and put it to work.
For his first visit to the studio under Atlantic's auspices (documented on disc one of Champion), Coltrane wasn't yet ready to take giant steps. His accompanists included vibist Milt Jackson and drummer Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet, a unit whose chamber jazz was deep and tasteful but hardly revolutionary. Moreover, the tracks he chose to survey didn't come from his pen (three were Jackson compositions). Still, Coltrane's confidence is marvelous to behold; saddled with a comparatively commercial format, he still managed to distend the pieces with solos that were simultaneously startling and logical.
These same qualities marked Coltrane's own writing, which came to dominate many of the discs that followed. "Giant Steps, "Naima," "Cousin Mary" and "Like Sonny" (the last a tip of the hat to saxophonist Rollins) are among the most familiar volumes in the jazz canon, and Champion invites us to watch them germinate. The set supplements the widely available versions of the works with numerous alternate takes and false starts--enough to fill the package's penultimate CD. To someone who truly appreciates Coltrane, eavesdropping on the creation of these treasures is akin to seeing Michelangelo pull the statue of David from a slab of stone.
The Rhino compilation is jammed with such moments, and its chronological layout also deepens one's fondness for oft-heard songs. Coltrane's restlessness compelled him to collaborate with many of the finest talents of the era, including pianist McCoy Tyner and (especially) drummer Elvin Jones. Likewise, he found himself drawn to the groundbreaking recordings of Ornette Coleman, whose radical musical concepts alienated as many listeners as they entranced. But Coltrane was not cowed--far from it. He learned Coleman's oeuvre from the inside out, playing standards such as "The Blessing" in the company of sidemen who played on the originals, including bassist Charlie Haden (see Critic's Choice, page 80). The knowledge he gleaned would serve him well the further he ventured onto the cutting edge of jazz.
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The last batch of tunes Coltrane recorded for Atlantic are exciting: The eighteen-minute "Ole" displays a performer totally in control of his musical destiny. Subsequent albums on other labels (most often MCA and Impulse!) find him constantly poking and prodding at himself and his accompanists to unearth what they had not yet found. The peak is 1964's A Love Supreme, widely seen as a celebration of Coltrane's victory over heroin and liquor. Prayerful and eloquent, it is an aural account of a man at the instant he sees the truth.
Where Coltrane went next continues to baffle and upset many jazz scholars. Platters such as Ascension and Om maintain links to the spirituality and Afrocentrism of Supreme, but in his crusade for freedom, he tossed aside accessibility like the inconvenience it was. It's not true that Coltrane was unlistenable in his final years, but there's no question that he stumbled more frequently as his level of risk increased. How could he not? In his autobiography, Miles, trumpeter Davis summed up Coltrane's dilemma neatly: "[Coltrane] once told me that even he liked some of the music he did earlier better than what he was doing now. But Trane was on a search, and his course kept taking him farther and farther out; he couldn't turn back..."
Today's young jazz lions haven't been defeated by the conundrums in which Coltrane was mired at the time of his passing because, for the most part, they've steered clear of them. Neo-traditionalists aren't trying to reshape the music; they're satisfied with the way it is. Hence, acoustic players continue to crank out bop and post-bop that differs from its models mainly because of its Nineties digital-studio sheen. The closest thing to a principled artistic stand we've seen of late among jazz stars was saxophonist Branford Marsalis's decision to stop leading the band on the Tonight Show--hardly a tough call when you take into consideration the brief amount of space Marsalis was given each night and the metaphysical lameness of host Jay Leno's attempts at topical humor.
Coltrane may have made mistakes when he entered unexplored quadrants, and perhaps he might be just as revered had he stopped his pursuit of ineffable jazz nirvana when he had the chance. But if he had, we probably wouldn't have the glory encapsulated on Heavyweight Champion.