This is a magnificent document of a magical week of music making in November 1961. Of the many boxed sets of Coltrane's work on the Atlantic and Impulse labels, this cannot be bettered overall for focus of output, coherence, performance, sound, aesthetics, liner notes and value for money. While other collections might win on one or more of these criteria, nothing matches this boxed set across the board.
For the uninitiated, this is the record of a 4 night-residency in the legendary Village Vanguard club in New York, six months after Coltrane's last sessions for Atlantic and one month before his first studio recordings for Impulse. The initial Village Vanguard release featured only three of the tracks and while all but 23 of the tracks here have previously been included over the span of five releases, this recording provides the perfect summary of the variety of the music captured by producer Bob Thiele and engineer Rudy van Gelder in contrast to the ballad-dominated recordings of 1962 which commenced Coltrane's time with Impulse.
This was the first occasion that Jimmy Garrison, the last member of the aptly-named "Classic Quartet", played with Coltrane, Tyner and Jones (although always with other players and never as a quartet per se) and indeed, the Village Vanguard Recordings provide a rare if not unique occasion when this quartet's output was enhanced by the addition of other musicians (compare the Quartet and Sextet versions of Meditations and the Quartet and Sextet versions of a Love Supreme). Rather like Stop Making Sense-era Talking Headings, the group swells from one performance of "Chasin' The Trane" (to all intents and purposes a trio of Coltrane, Garrison and Jones to the octet ensembles performing two of the versions of "India".
While, all but two of the tracks here appear at least twice and both "India" and "Spiritual" appear four times, the variations in the personnel and length of these ("Spiritual" stretches from 12-20 minutes) and the sheer magnificence of the music, coupled with the opportunity to map the evolution over the nights, should quash any concern of over-kill or repetition.
Highlights are too many to pick but the concluding and lengthiest versions of "India" and "Spiritual" win for me. The perfect culmination of swing, richness of texture, oriental influence and, yes, spirituality, they command interest for their full duration The sole recordings from Sunday 5 November, they beg the question what else was played that night unrecorded and lost to the mists of time.
Liner notes are clear and informative and (unusually although perhaps understandably given that Coltrane was so productive and so wide-ranging that it is difficult to keep tabs on his recording and releases, which did not necessarily follow in tandem) give historical context of Coltrane's career and guide the listener through the individual tracks in turn in their various guises. The packaging bears the instantly recognisable Impulse livery and begs the question why the "Classic Quartet, Complete impulse! Studio Recordings" is so ugly and looks so different (especially given that that release openly acknowledges the "Village Vanguard Recordings" as a companion piece).
Even to anyone who has all the previously-released recordings, this is a compulsory purchase. To newcomers, this is that rarity - a live recording which transcends its status as a historical document and stands as a good as introduction as any to some of the greatest music of all time. Seminal.
Yes it is a big claim to actually pick one from all those great live performances Coltrane recorded during his career but this has it all: a fantastic lineup (including Eric Dolphy as well as Trane's standard quartet members McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrrison, Elvin Jones as well as some other guest musicians on percussion etc), great sound (cheers for Rudy Van Gelder and Michael Cuscuna) with the remastering of these sets being so great the listener can actually imagine he/she is in the Village Vanguard just by closing his eyes and concentrating on the sounds captured here, the players are all in great shape and improvise superbly, and finally the set even if it lacks some of the masterpieces Coltrane recorded later (and some earlier standards) gives us the opportunity to listen to different approaches of the same song. The price is definitely reasonable for 4CDs containing music of this quality, so what are you waiting for? if you are a fan of John Coltrane and of Jazz music this will most certainly be one of the best records in your collection.