Of the last dozen years of his life, from 1955 through 1967, years during which John Coltrane
changed the shape of modern jazz, 1965 marks the high point of the trajectory, the peak of the curve, the zenith. This is not to suggest that what came before or after is lesser music, but only to note that from about December 1964 through the end of the following year Coltrane was more prolific, recorded in a wider variety of approaches, and produced works of greater impact than at any other point in his career. The year's output includes three major works — A Love Supreme
— a variety of small group studio recordings, and numerous live performances by the quartet and larger ensembles. And, to cop a phrase, it's all good — the quality of those recordings released decades after his death is as high as those recordings released contemporaneously.
Coltrane's ability to produce so much exceptional music rests in no small part on the rhythm section which forms the foundation for all of those recordings — pianist McCoy Tyner
, bassist Jimmy Garrison
and drummer Elvin Jones
. Together they were the Classic John Coltrane Quartet, an aggregation with a full three years of joint playing experience by the beginning of 1965, a group uniquely capable of following the multithreaded directions which Coltrane's music was to take that year. So many of us have written so much about that quartet that it becomes nearly impossible to say anything new. Like Armstrong
's Hot Fives, Benny Goodman's small groups, Bird
, Miles with Coltrane — this was one of the seminal groups in jazz history, one that defined a sound, a style, an approach, with an impact that changed the vocabulary of the music itself. The format, deceptively, was the standard tenor-sax-plus-rhythm combo, but the sum was far greater than its common pieces. As Tyner told this writer in 1979, "The John Coltrane Quartet was actually four elements. We had one guy who led the whole team, but it was really a compounding of personalities, like four personalities contributing."
That Coltrane was given the chance to record so frequently is as remarkable as the variety and quality of what he was able to record. A fortunate combination of circumstances put preservation of Coltrane's music in the hands of producer Bob Thiele
, who seems never to have said no. "I think my contribution with Trane was to let him record whenever he wanted to," Thiele noted in a just-published memoir, "— even when the corporate power structure was opposed to it. I believe his contract called for two albums a year to be recorded and released. Well, hell, we recorded six albums a year. And I was always brought on the carpet because they couldn't understand why I was spending the money to record Coltrane, since we couldn't possibly put out all the records we were making..." That minor fiscal imprudence however paid long-term dividends, balancing the premature cessation of the music at Coltrane's death in 1967 with a rich, complete view of that music at its fullest flowering two years earlier.
Which brings us to Sun Ship
, this package of five performances from late in the summer of 1965. Coltrane had assembled the quartet at an unusual location, the RCA
Victor Studios in New York City, the only one of his later East Coast studio sessions which was not recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder
in New Jersey. (The reason is lost in time, but most probably Van Gelder was booked and Coltrane refused to wait). It's likely the five compositions were sketches rather than full arrangements — Coltrane usually relied on the near-telepathic communicative abilities of the group to flesh out his ideas. "With John we could come in, he would give us two notes and we could play a whole composition on two notes," Tyner recalled. "Sometimes he wouldn't bring in a tune, he'd bring in a scale, and we'd play the scale and everything would be right there. We were familiar with each other, the musicianship was high." That level of creativity is well-documented here, in a set of performances which together act to showcase the abilities of each member of the quartet.
This late summer session is equally late in the summer of the quartet itself. Coltrane's music was ever-changing, but the rate of development seems to have accelerated in the heat of the summer of 1965. The week before these recordings he had added saxophonist Archie Shepp
to the quartet for a performance at the Down Beat Jazz Festival in Chicago, which spread consternation among listeners unprepared for its uncompromising new-music freedom. Sun Ship
and First Meditations
(recorded the following week) are the last studio recordings by the Classic Coltrane Quartet. By the end of September Coltrane was regularly using saxophonist Pharoah Sanders
and other additional musicians, and by January of 1966 both Tyner and Jones had left the group.
The changes in Coltrane's approach that presage the demise of the classic quartet are already evident here, but that is not to suggest that the music is in some way flawed. This was after all a quartet with nearly four years of constant collective creativity to bind them together, and if the leader's changing vision had introduced some creative tension, that tension simply added to the fire of an already trail-blazing group. In fact, one of the most fascinating things to hear here is how much of that change comes from the organic growth of the quartet itself. In these performances Coltrane's exploration of sonic freedom and expanded tonality relies heavily on the rhythmic and tonal freedom of Tyner, Garrison and Jones. The changes that probably contributed to the breakup of the quartet ironically could not have occurred without the remarkable adaptive abilities of the members of that same quartet.
The title track drops us into the maelstrom without preliminary niceties. « Sun Ship »'s theme is a sharp-edged four-note fragment from an augmented scale, which Coltrane repeats and rephrases eight or ten times over Garrison's pizzicato counterpoint, before giving way to a short drum solo. After a second exposition of theme and drum solo Tyner takes flight. The tempo is unrelentingly up, but it is immediately evident that change is also afoot. Jones, typically a powerhouse of linear swing, here floats around the rhythm, inserting kicks and fills, outlining the rhythm only occasionally, suggesting a half-time feel, layering rhythms in a manner that propels by indirection and inference. Coltrane follows Tyner at full-throttle, screaming into the tenor's altissimo register, diving into the horn's basement, burning and energy-rich. The choppy theme returns with a reprise of the short solos, and, with an abrupt crash of cymbals, the ride ends.
« Dearly Beloved » begins with conversation — Coltrane telling the band how he wanted the composition to develop — and then, after a casual "ready?," performance. Coltrane had by now developed a personal extension of the jazz ballad, one in which strict tempo is stretched into oceanic waves of rhythm, in which melody and solo blend in an incantatory plainsong, in which the typical ballad's saccharine smoothness is replaced by sharp-edged saxophony and massive, ritualistic drumming. After Coltrane briefly explores the minor scale which underpins the melody, Tyner solos, moving around and through several tonalities as he builds towards Coltrane's re-entrance. Here as elsewhere the seamless transition from one soloist to the next underscores how tightly linked these four musicians were. Coltrane beseeches, raising up intense lines from the rhythmic sea-scape, before ending with repeated notes and a final pedal point from Garrison.
« Amen » returns to medium-up tempo 4/4 swing, but again with the freedom and multiple layers that characterize the group at this moment in time. The theme is spare, almost minimal, three notes that outline a suspended tonality. McCoy is first again, fleet and precise. Elvin Jones plays time more overtly, but Garrison rarely walks, tantalizingly hinting at the groove more than stating it with a walking bass line. The effect is not so much ambiguity as it is multiplicity — the group developing a many-layered rhythmic conception to complement Coltrane's explorations of sound. Coltrane returns with a phrase, worries it over and over, bends and overblows notes. After he repeats the fleeting melody, the rhythm section winds down to a typically massive Jones ending.
« Attaining » is similar to « Dearly Beloved » in tempo (free) and minor cast, but it hews closer to the blues, with a feeling of the folk-tradition spirituals (like « Spiritual ») which Coltrane had previously reworked. The dirge-like C minor theme establishes a tone of pious solemnity, a supplicant facing religious immensity, giving way to rolling waves of percussion. Coltrane returns with a second theme, similar but a third lower. Suddenly time emerges, Tyner dancing on top of the waves, Jones propelling, Garrison open and light. It fades to Garrison strumming double and triple stops, before Coltrane's return with the two themes. With a series of explosions from Elvin, it ends, waves crashing on the shore, Garrison paralleling Coltrane's ascending lines with bowed bass, the thunder of rhythm.
« Ascent » is a marvelous group exercise, a fitting close to this documentation of the classic quartet. We start with the heart of the group, Jimmy Garrison, stating a two-part melody, an ascending scale followed by a minor third which outlines a major triad. He gradually expands the line, working into a solo, playing with different tempos, single lines alternating with double and triple-stops. Throughout, that chromatic ascending scale keeps poking through, animating and unifying the solo. Eventually Elvin joins to build a tempo out of Garrison's double-stops, but they slow to a stop. Now Coltrane picks up the theme, much faster, repeating the scale, setting the tempo, probing tonality, spitting harmonics and soaring into the saxophone's thin upper atmosphere. The theme returns, freely, Garrison ritards the tempo, repeating the ascending phrase, slowing to end with a strummed triple stop.Sun Ship
, then, a quintet of compositions, five multifaceted performances, four close-knit partners assembling to follow one member's restless explorations. A meeting of minds, a collaboration of master musicians, expanding, stretching, probing the furthest reaches, the ultimate possibilities of the time-tested "tenor plus rhythm" format. Classic recordings by the Classic John Coltrane Quartet, an unforgettable, forever-fresh, essential past of the art of jazz.
David A. Wild, June 1995