Are you one of the many fortunate readers who has reason to visit a barber or hairdresser? If you are and they are any good, take a moment to salute them. Maria at The Clipper keeps her scissors as sharp as how I think my hairstyle looks when I walk out through her salon door. Why start with this you may wonder? Well, the reason will become clear as you read on.
John Coltrane’s life was eventful though his star burned brightly and briefly, as he passed away at the age of 41. 1960 was a particularly busy and momentous year for him though. Giant Steps was released in late January and he spent March and April touring Europe with Miles Davis. During this tour he spent hours practising soprano saxophone (some accounts say that Miles Davis bought one for him in a Paris antique store although Coltrane also said that he has bought his own instrument earlier in the year after first starting to play on one that belonged to a fellow musician).
By May 1960 he had handed his notice in to Miles Davis and his own quartet opened a 9 week residence at the Jazz Gallery in New York’s Jazz Gallery (housed in a Greenwich Village building in which Leon Trotsky had briefly lived). On the first night, Thelonious Monk and a man dressed only in a loincloth and shouting ‘Coltrane, Coltrane!’ rushed towards the stage in salutation.
He recruited McCoy Tyner in the summer and later, in September he hired Elvin Jones, who he first met in 1957. On 21 and 24 October they went into the studios to record sessions which were to yield tracks for no less than four major albums (not including compilations and retrospectives).
Amongst them was Coltrane Plays The Blues. It is often overlooked by people exploring Coltrane’s discography, perhaps because the title may make it appear to be a generic career-spanning compilation rather than as a discrete work, recorded at one particularly important time in Coltrane’s development as a leader.
Blues To Elvin is as straightforward a blues as they come, except that we are in the company of masters, with solos from Coltrane and McCoy Tyner.
Coltrane plays his soprano saxophone on Blues To Bechet, opting for a pianoless trio with Tyner sitting out. Coltrane had been working towards mastery of his soprano saxophone, a horn previously seldom heard in a modern jazz context since the late 1950s. During that period he had visited the Blue Note offices to obtain copies of Sidney Bechet recordings (you can read about this, how Blue Train came to be recorded and the strange tale of the Blue Note office cat here).
Blues To You harks back to Giant Steps with busy Coltrane solo in which he is running through the chord changes.
Delivered at a brisk tempo, Coltrane leads out on Mr Day over a piano theme tastefully played by Tyner.
The identities of the three men that Coltrane honoured in the titles of the songs on side 2 of the original vinyl release are obscured. Messrs Day and Knight may be self-explanatory (probably relating to different times of day, although if you know anything more, please let us know). Mr Syms, however, could only be linked to an actual individual and my quest to uncover who this was resulted in a long unfruitful and frustrating internet trawl. It was only when I managed to consult Porter’s excellent book that I discovered that the Mr Syms that Coltrane had in mind was his barber in Philadelphia (although Sims was also the middle name of drummer Pete La Roca). So that explains the dedication of this review to my hairdresser. The solos from Coltrane echo elements of Summertime, version of which was recorded on the same day, in the same session, and appeared on My Favorite Things.
The highlight of the set, for me, is Mr Knight, a brilliant composition on which Elvin Jones’ drumming is of particular note. It can be enjoyed on YouTube courtesy of monomotapa15
To listen touch or click on the arrow.
The CD reissue delivers five extra tracks with two alternative versions of both Blues For Elvin and Blues To You with a further number known as Untitled Original which sits in contrast to the rest of the album with its modal feel.
Coltrane Plays The Blues is a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying recording which repays repeated listening and which deserves a place in any modern jazz collection. If you haven’t sought it out, you should. Of course, if you can prove to us that Mr Day and Mr Knight were people, rather than conceptual titles, please let us know without delay.
The band etc: John Coltrane (soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone); McCoy Tyner (piano); Elvin Jones (drums); Steve Davis (bass). Produced: Nesuhi Ertegun. Engineer: Tom Dowd. Recorded: Rudy Atlantic Studios, New York City. 24 October 1960. Cover Design: Marty Norman- Bob Slutzky Graphics. Released: 1962. Original release: Atlantic Records 1382.
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