John Coltrane

John Coltrane's most spiritual period was while he was an artist recording on the Impulse! record label. Transcending at times the limits of melody, his Impulse! work was bravely experimental and hugely influential. His landmark work of the period is of course "A Love Supreme."

Coltrane was one of the foremost of the 1960s jazz revolutionaries. But if he and such fellow innovators as Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman led jazz away from its comfortable foundations together, they did so in distinctly different ways. If Davis and Coleman led jazz off in brave new sensual and intellectual directions, it was Coltrane who pursued its spiritual dimension. One might contrast, for instance, Coltrane's spiritual awakening with Miles's drug addiction: both otherworldly experiences--both quests for the experience of ecstasy--reframed the artists' creative expressions, but in profoundly different ways. And these differences are readily apparent in the music itself.

That the impetus for his revolutionizing of jazz was his spiritual awakening is plainly evident in his music. What doubtful critics at the time characterized as "angry" sounding can be reunderstood as communicating the intensity of spiritual experiences not easily otherwise communicated by speech or lyric. Many non-European religions share an understanding of music being a spiritual tool to induce trance or ecstatic religious experience. And Coltrane was doubtless highly influenced by the many non-Western religions being explored by the African-American and artistic communities in the United States from the mid-'50s on. Several jazz writers have commented, for instance, on how Yoruba drummer Baba Olatunji's landmark 1959 album Drums of Passion fascinated Coltrane and dramatically effected his thinking about music.

John Coltrane's work is the subject of tremendous study and research: frankly I'm no expert on it. The following discography consists only of highlights: it lists only those of his works fitting in the general scope of his 1960s spiritual explorations.

Recordings as a Leader

Impulse! Records 1964. AS-77. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: December 1964 session with his classic quartet; this is John Coltrane's masterwork of spiritual feeling. From John Coltrane's liner notes: "This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say 'THANK YOU GOD' through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues."

Impulse! Records 1965. Produced by Bob Thiele and John Coltrane.

Capsule Info: Very spiritually focused album from Coltrane featuring, on one song, Pharoah and singer/percussionist Juno Lewis sounding very much ahead of their time. Also featuring the serene "Welcome." (*In the US these tracks are scattered across different CDs; Japanese Impulse! released a brilliant sounding version of the whole album in 1998.)

Impulse! Records 1965?. Produced by Bob Thiele and John Coltrane.

Capsule Info: SELFLESSNESS is a patched-together album containing two brilliant live performances from the pre-Pharoah Coltrane group and one extended tune, the title track, recorded at the same time as KULU SE MAMA. It's a fiery but accessible work, with a larger, more percussion heavy group than John Coltrane--though not Pharoah--usually recorded with. (*In the US this tune appears on the oddly-titled two-CD set THE MAJOR WORKS OF JOHN COLTRANE.)

Impulse! Records 1966. AS-9110. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: November 1965 sessions. These meditations are soul-searching and fierce.

Impulse! Records 1966. AS-9124. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: Recorded live in May of 1966, this album shows how far John Coltrane travelled since his legendary 1961 sessions at the same venue.

Impulse! Records 1967. AS-9120. Produced by John Coltrane and Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: The last album John Coltrane worked on before his death in July of 1967, and the first of many to be released by his heirs posthumously. Having reached a free and frenetic plateau earlier, this album pulls back to earth and is full of haunting tranquility and introspection. Surprising and wonderful are Pharoah Sanders & John Coltrane on flutes in "To Be".

Impulse! Records 1968. AS-9148. Produced by Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: A posthumous tribute to John Coltrane and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Two tracks feature the late John, and two the Alice Coltrane/Pharoah Sanders grouping only.

Impulse! Records 1970. AS-9195. Produced by Bob Thiele and John Coltrane.

Capsule Info: June 1965 sessions with his classic quartet; 1993 CD reissue reconfigures things slightly adding tracks from KULU SE MAMA (*) and sending another elsewhere (**, to DEAR OLD STOCKHOLM).

Impulse! Records. AS-9211. Produced by Bob Thiele and John Coltrane.

Capsule Info: August 1965 session with his classic quartet.

Impulse! Records 1972. AS-9225. Produced by Alice Coltrane and Ed Michel.

Capsule Info: Nominally a posthumously released John Coltrane album, this wonderful disc is actually John completely presented through Alice's early 1970s mystical vision. Only John Coltrane's and portions of his quartet members' parts are original dating from previously unreleased mid-1960s performances: the bass solos, the harp and organ parts, the percussion parts, and sweeping Stravinsky-like string arrangements were overdubbed in 1972. This is not "John Coltrane with Strings," but a re-envisioned opus entirely. Some might call it heresy: I call it brilliant. Not to be missed is the psychedlic kaleidoscope cover.

Impulse! Records 1973/1991. AS-0000. Reissue produced by Michael Cuscuna.

Capsule Info: Recorded in July of 1966 in Tokyo for broadcast to Japanese radio. One disc's worth was originally released on vinyl in 1973, with further sessions released in Japan only in the 1980s. The CD brings all sessions to a four-CD set.

Impulse! Records 197_/1994. AS-0000. Produced by John Coltrane; prepared for release by Ed Michel, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.

Capsule Info: Recorded live in September 1965, much of these sessions were released in the 1970s on two LP-set, eventually released in full on a 2-disc CD set in 1994. "Experimentation" is the watchword here.

Impulse! Records 1974. AS-0000. Produced by John Coltrane.

Capsule Info: February 1967 duets. The album's title sums it up.

Impulse! Records 1977. Produced by Bob Thiele and John Coltrane.

Capsule Info: September 1965 sessions, the first versions of the songs later recorded but earlier released with a larger ensemble as MEDITATIONS.

Impulse! Records 1978. Produced by Bob Thiele and John Coltrane.

Capsule Info: varied 1963 and 1965 sessions featuring Roy Haynes sitting in on drums.

Impulse! Records 1992. Produced by Bob Thiele and John Coltrane.

Capsule Info: CD reconfiguration of several 1965 sessions: ASCENSION (#) in two takes, plus cuts from OM(*) and KULU SE MAMA(**). OM was allegedly recorded while the participants dropped acid. "Kulu Se Mama" with its percussion and chanting is a glimpse of Pharoah Sanders' path to come.

Impulse! Records/GRP 1992. Produced by Bob Thiele and John Coltrane; produced for reissue by Michael Cuscuna.

Capsule Info: Nice and varied overview of Coltrane's Impulse! period, with a focus on much of his spiritual work. Includes the (until 1998) hard to find piece "Living Space."

Rhino/Atlantic Jazz 1993. Compilation produced by Joel Dorn.

Capsule Info: A year or two before Atlantic and Rhino reissued all of Coltrane's Atlantic sides on a massive boxed set entitled HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION, it released this overview of Coltrane's non-Impulse recordings from the late 1940s on. Tantalizing, included nowhere else, and relevant here is the brief, under two-minute snippet "Ogunde" from Coltrane's last live performance, at the opening of Babatunde Olatunji's Center For African Culture, in New York City's Harlem, May 23, 1967. Maddeningly the collection offers no clue as to the rest of this recording: how long it is, will it ever be fully released, etcetera. Coltrane playing a tune titled in Yoruba with multiple percussionists? Damn what's the rest of the song like!

Impulse! Records 1995. Produced by John Coltrane and Bob Thiele.

Capsule Info: Recorded in February of 1967, these are some of Coltrane's last recordings, most of which went unreleased until rediscovered by his widow Alice in the 1990s.

Impulse! Records, 1978/1998. Produced by Bob Thiele and John Coltrane.

Capsule Info: Sessions from June, 1965, including one only recently discovered. Four-fifths of this album was issued in the 1970s under the title FEELIN' GOOD. The highlight of this album is "Living Space" which also appears on INFINITY with additional music added by Alice Coltrane: the version here is more clearly John's vision and not hers.

Also of Interest

Astor Place Recordings, 1996. Produced by Bob Belden and Conrad Herwig.

Capsule Info: The musicians aren't implying with this tribute album that his work is really grounded in the Afro-Cuban vein, but they are revealing an important truth about his music. The arrangements of these tunes associated with Coltrane are all in various Latin modes, and played by heavyweights in the world of Latin jazz. They've also added chanted invocations and blessings to the Orishas, and, voila, something is revealed we always knew: jazz is an invocation for ourselves to be touched by God.

Island Records 1988. Produced by Arthur Baker & Will Downing.

Capsule Info: Yes this includes the disco version of "A Love Supreme," with lyrics added by Will Downing, England's answer to Luther Vandross. It's catchy. Of course if you're a purist you'll faint.

Elvin Jones: VERY RARE
Evidence Music 1993. Produced by Elvin Jones and Jerry Gordon.

Capsule Info: Nice set from Coltrane alum Elvin Jones. This is actually a compilation of two albums: VERY RARE plus, of relevance here, LIVE IN JAPAN featuring a 1978 recording of the first two movements of "A Love Supreme." Revelatory is how nicely Roland Prince's guitar contributes to the reinterpretation of Coltrane's signature work.


A Jazz Supreme