While the lineup is intriguing -- joining Trane with musicians associated with Ornette Coleman (Percy Heath also makes an appearance) -- and some of the music compelling, "The Avant-Garde" is, for me, the least successful release in the saxophonist's Atlantic discography. In fact, it's a rare example -- one of the few I can think of -- of a session that might have been strengthened had another saxophonist taken his place.
That's not to say that "The Avant-Garde" is anywhere near being a bad album. On "Focus on Sanity," for example, Coltrane's tenor finds a groove with the bent lyricism of Cherry's horn and Ed Blackwell's remarkable juggling rhythms. Monk's "Bemsha Swing" is another highlight: a truly fresh treatment of one of the pianist's infrequently recorded tunes.
But the recording, to these ears anyway, often exhibits a strained quality, most of which comes from Trane trying to adapt his sound to the jagged, angular rhythms that Cherry and company were more comfortable with from playing with Coleman. "The Blessing," for example, Coltrane's first recorded effort on soprano, suffers badly in comparison with the later "My Favorite Things" and "Ole Coltrane," to name two examples. On "The Blessing" he sounds, for one of the few times in his post-1958 career, uncertain. The result lacks the lyricism of "My Favorite Things" or the fury of "Ole." He seems to be fighting the tune rather than finding its contours, as Cherry does.
An interesting comparison with this release is "Bags and Trane," recorded the same year, for the same label. In that effort, Coltrane, the "radical" often excoriated by the press of the day for his "undisciplined" and wild attacks, fits his sound with "mainstream" vibist Milt Jackson like a hand in a glove. Surprisingly, on the "The Avant-Garde," paired with other "radicals," Coltrane never quite finds his stride. It's another good reason, I suppose, to ignore conventional wisdom about musicians, ignore labels, and just listen for yourself.
I'd actually recommend "The Avant-Garde" more to listeners who are after really good Don Cherry performances. This is one of Cherry's best efforts; his sound is commanding on every tune, and he clearly benefits from his familiarity with Blackwell and Charlie Haden.