There have been many Coltrane compilations and box sets over the years since the saxophonist's passing in 1967, but this eight-CD complete collection of his quartet's studio recordings between 1961 and 1965 is the must-have. Jazz may be a music blessed with dazzling soloists, but few groups in its history seem up to perfectly matching the intentions of their leaders: Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven, Bill Evans's trio of 1960-61, and Miles Davis's mid-60s quintet are among the few that immediately come to mind. Coltrane's quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison was another, a group so perfectly matched to his playing that it seems difficult to imagine him without them. Tyner, for example, immerses the group in restless chords and showers of single notes; Jones plays with stentorian power, yet tempers his playing with well-etched detail and a strong sense of melody; and Garrison anchors the quartet with drones and deeply rooted vamps. So powerful was the quartet's conception that even when ringers like Art Davis and Roy Haynes turn up on a couple of tracks, they, too, carry out Coltrane's aims, their individual differences worked into the scheme. On the 66 tracks included in this set (all now remastered) it's possible to follow the evolution of this extraordinary band from Coltrane's very ascetic approach on relatively straightforward albums such as Ballads
and The John Coltrane Quartet Plays
, through devotional efforts such as A Love Supreme
and First Meditations
and on to Living Space
and Sun Ship
, those last moments before his leap of faith into the unknown in his last few years.
This quartet's music is marked with a seriousness of purpose that burst the boundaries of jazz, and with a display of authority rare for any music. Yet despite its exploratory passion, it was a music grounded in the blues and the distant memory of swing. Coltrane, always the seeker, had found his kindred spirits and poured himself and all he knew into these performances; and even those who never shared an enthusiasm for his music at least always recognised this much.
The final disc of the set contains seven unreleased tracks, including significantly different versions of "Bessie's Blues" and "Resolution" from A Love Supreme, and others discovered by Ravi Coltrane on his father's original reference records. (For those interested in the culture of the studio, it is fascinating to see that despite its apparent simplicity and the inevitability of its melody, a gem like "Dear Lord" began with the plague of several false starts.) Music spread across 18 albums has been collated and reassembled chronologically here, much of it not always easy to find: examples are the scattered gems "Vilia", "Dear Old Stockholm", and "Big Nick", as well as a version of "Greensleeves", originally issued as an Impulse 45 single. An essential set for understanding jazz at its highest level of achievement. --John Szwed