Neglected classic or curate's egg? Atlantic reissue Coltrane's brush with the music of...
Peter Marsh 2004
Though Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane were two of the prime forces in what came to be known as free jazz, their approaches couldn't have been more different. While Coleman's music dispensed with chords and rejected instrumental virtuosity in favour of unbroken horizontal development of melodic line, Coltrane's music for the most part relied on stacking up chords in blocks and exploring the results with fearsomely complex, passionate harmonic interrogations.
However Coltrane was evidently sympathetic to Coleman's innovations, hence this album, recorded with Ornette's righthand man Don Cherry in 1960 and consisting for the most part of Coleman originals. This was a bit of a transitional period for Coltrane; after the tour de force that was Giant Steps and prior to the formation of the classic quartet, there's a sense that he was on the lookout for the next step, and maybe Coleman's approach suggested a new avenue to explore. That the album remained unreleased for four years suggests that Atlantic weren't entirely sure about the results, and maybe they were right. This is one of the few Coltrane sessions recorded entirely without piano (the only other I can think of is Interstellar Space), and the huge,majestic tenortone sounds a little odd in these airy, nimble surroundings.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Coltrane sounds lost here, but he's not entirely at home with Coleman or Cherry's vision. The trumpeter is predictably mercurial, firing off staccato bursts of melody that change horses in midstream; his solos are kept short, while the saxophonist was (later at least) famed for his marathon improvisations. Still, Coltrane goes for brevity in keeping with the spirit of the music, and on soprano manages the kind of conversational playing that Cherry demonstrates so well. However, it's telling that Coltrane's best work is reserved for the closing "Bemsha Swing" (an album of Monk tunes may have been a better bet for this band).
Bass duties are handled by Charlie Haden on a couple of tunes and by Percy Heath on the rest. The MJQ bassist had worked with Ornette before, and his unshakeable swing seems to suit the tenorist more than Haden's twisty chordal implications. Ed Blackwell plays it straight for the most part, with only occasional flashes of the quicksilver rhythmic trickery he excelled at.
Tellingly, there are no alternate takes or lost treasures on this re-issue and, while it's an undoubted necessity for the Coltrane collector, it may not be essential for the rest of us.