How often, in a pre-meme age, was it possible to track the evolution of a language? There are many possible answers to that rhetorical, and one resides here: in a small cache of footage depicting John Coltrane at three pivotal moments in the first half of the 1960s.
Coltrane — the magnificent tenor and soprano saxophonist, indefatigable bandleader-composer and insatiable creative pathfinder — compressed a lifetime’s worth of artistic development into his tragically brief career. (He led his first recording session in 1957 and died a decade later, at 40.) “Live in ’60, ’61 & ’65” constitutes rare and precious documentation of him in performance, bookended by his inaugural and final European tours. The three dates can also be understood as points on a plotline; to compare Coltrane’s output across each date is to marvel at the rapid mutation and reinvention of his improvising syntax.
He was already in possession of a mature style by the spring of 1960, when he reluctantly embarked on one last tour with the Miles Davis Quintet. Coltrane was technically no longer in the band — Atlantic Records had just released his landmark “Giant Steps,” and there was wind in his sails — but Davis persuaded him to stay on for a package called Norman Granz’s JATP Presents Jazz Winners of 1960. This was Coltrane’s first trip overseas, setting aside his naval service in Hawaii, and it began inauspiciously: at the first concert, in Paris, his note-dense, garrulous outpouring met with jeering whistles from a portion of the crowd. Consult “Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour,” a boxed set issued in 2018, and you’ll hear evidence of a restless mind straining to burst out of a conventional frame. But it doesn’t include the Paris performance on “Live in ’60, ’61 & ‘65,” from March 28, because of the conspicuous absence of Miles Davis.
For whatever reason, Davis refused to take part in this television taping in Düsseldorf, Germany. So Granz offered to pay Coltrane for the broadcast, backed by the quintet’s Cadillac rhythm team: pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb. The first three tunes are pulled from Davis’ setlist, with Coltrane stretching most on the 12-bar blues of “Walkin’” — especially beginning with his sixth chorus, when he brings in the cascading note patterns that critic Ira Gitler had famously termed his “sheets of sound.”
Because of the elegant expression of this performance, it might seem like faint praise (or worse) to describe it with a word like “workmanlike.” But that adjective tracks with Coltrane’s demeanor, and his adherence to a polished mode of presentation. Because the taping also included sets by the Oscar Peterson Trio and the Stan Getz Quartet, we see a trademark Norman Granz jam session toward the end of the segment — kicking off with a ballad medley and Coltrane’s handoff to Getz, a tenor saxophonist whose own language was then still rooted in the coolly lyrical mode of Lester Young. When Peterson takes over at the piano for “Hackensack,” a Thelonious Monk tune, the effect is complete: here’s a friendly, old-fashioned romp on common ground. (Coltrane had apprenticed with Monk, who would have played this tune with more bite; both Peterson and Getz seem to be thinking more about the song that “Hackensack” is built upon, the Gershwin standard “Lady Be Good.”)
If Coltrane appeared to be on the cusp of an important solo career in early 1960, his stature was undeniable by the end of 1961 — the timeframe that yields our next window of footage, from a television studio in Baden-Baden, Germany on December 4. Precisely one month earlier, Coltrane had been playing an engagement at The Village Vanguard that can only be considered a modern-jazz touchstone; it yielded two albums during his lifetime, and later “The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings,” a four-disc set. Coltrane was experimenting with his lineup and his mode of expression, incorporating drones from Indian classical music and an incantatory improvisational style. And he had a striking frontline partner in Eric Dolphy, whose proficiency on alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet cohabited with an often wildly original approach to intervals. In DownBeat, one critic infamously disparaged this band, pronouncing its music “anti-jazz” — a charge that so rattled Coltrane that he felt compelled to answer it in a subsequent article.
When Dolphy enters on alto, his chirpier register is just as bracing a contrast as the contour of his lines, with peaks and lunges like an EKG.
Coltrane and Dolphy work companionably on the broadcast, though hardly as equals. The rhythm section has McCoy Tyner on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Elvin Jones on drums — one step away from Coltrane’s classic lineup, which swapped in Jimmy Garrison for Workman. From the first number, “My Favorite Things,” this band strikes a graceful balance of reflection and turbulence, with Coltrane’s keening soprano delivering the most volatile message. This band’s meditative arrangement of the song, with its oscillations between minor and major keys, owes much of its magic to Tyner, whose brief solo conveys the subtle sparkle of a faceted emerald. Tyner distinguishes himself no less on Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” another album cut from “My Favorite Things.” But it’s the closer of this mini-set, Coltrane’s own “Impressions,” that casts the most powerful spell — with Coltrane on tenor, powerful, prayerful, in constant attunement with Jones’ slashing cymbals and chattering snare. When Dolphy enters on alto, his chirpier register is just as bracing a contrast as the contour of his lines, with peaks and lunges like an EKG.
More of an ending than a beginning for this iteration of Coltrane’s band, the Baden-Baden footage nevertheless points us in the right direction: toward the polyrhythmic pull and beseeching intensity that would characterize the John Coltrane Quartet. Most of that band’s monumental output — albums like “Crescent,” “Ballads” and “A Love Supreme” — falls in the ellipsis between our Baden-Baden footage and the final set in this collection, from a concert in Comblain-la-Tour, Belgium, on August 1, 1965. Fittingly, we’re dropped in medias res, as the quartet is already carving into a gestural piece that seems to fit the dimensions of “Vigil.”
Consider for a moment what Coltrane and Jones are doing here. Their raging tandem is both a conversation and a coordinated attack, ablaze with fervor. (The steam billowing off Jones, a result of the unseasonably cool night air, seems only fitting.) For a good portion of Coltrane’s improvisation, he seems to be reaching not only past a root tonality but also beyond the physical dimensions of his horn. Tyner’s entrance resets the song, but the invocation has cast its spell: the band is on a metaphysical journey, with no option but to push forward. This was true even in the act of reaching back — as with “Naima,” the luminous ballad that Coltrane composed and first recorded late in 1959, beautifully recast in the quartet’s style. The solo that Coltrane takes on the ballad, in a jousting double time, troubles the water with a searching intention; it’s the furthest sound from a soul in repose.
The final 20 minutes of this collection belongs, again, to “My Favorite Things” — but rather than a recapitulation, it’s a fresh expedition. At this moment, Europe still hadn’t seen the release of “A Love Supreme,” though the quartet did perform the suite one month earlier at a festival in France. With the inclusion of “My Favorite Things,” Coltrane is throwing his audience a lifeline, a familiar theme against which to measure his digression. And as it turns out, Tyner is the first to defy gravity in his solo, with a thundering cascade of tone clusters that had become a trademark, but still bore no trace of easy mannerism. (Listen for the dissonant, offbeat, repetitive spike in his right hand from 1:22:57 to 1:23:30 — a wild, compelling move.) When Coltrane enters on soprano, the restatement of the melody serves as a portal, through which he steps with more fiery incantation, as if peering into some form of eternity.
In that article in DownBeat, “John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy Answer the Jazz Critics,” Coltrane gives some hint as to his larger purpose — a purpose discernable in each of these glimpses on film.
“I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe,” he says. “That’s what music is to me — it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we all try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through his music.”