March 1999

John Coltrane
The Classic Quartet: The Complete Impulse Studio R
Impulse!

John Coltrane's Impulse! years can be likened to a meteor shower, with countless ideas streaking the wide-open jazz skies of the early and mid 1960s; some intersected while others broke away from the pack; some arced beautifully over the course of years, while others quickly flamed out. Nearly all of these ideas found their way into his studio recordings with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones, which is borne out on The Classic Quarter.

For someone in the initial stages of building a basic library, buying this collection is a no-brainer, especially when the sale price in national retail chains dips as low as $62.99, a fine value for any 8-disc set, let alone one of such historical importance. However, the longtime aficionado, who suffered through the miserable initial MCA-mastered CDs, and weathered subsequent re-configurations of materials, may balk. The relegation of seven previously unissued tracks (which clock in at just over 51 minutes) to the collection's final disc—titled "Works in Progress"—suggests a separate package may be in the wings. This glaring exception to producer Michael Cuscuna's rule of maintaining chronological order whenever possible in box set sequencing will cause budget-minded collectors to wait it out.

The newly issued material is a mixed lot. Some tracks—an incomplete "Bessie's Blues," an alternate of "Feelin' Good," and a précis-like early version of "Song of Praise"—are engaging. Others are substantial revelations. In a longer, earlier version of "Crescent," the successive laying out of Tyner and Garrison leaves Coltrane and Jones alone to test the elasticity of the piece's strolling tempo; additionally, Coltrane's solo conveys his questing, experimental voice as palpably as the master take. A rejected take of "Resolution" from A Love Supreme is less exultant than the master, but in some ways is more satisfying: the groove is more sleek; Tyner's solo nimbly summarizes the components of his style; and Coltrane's solo retains the earthy, exclamatory feel of the master take in a more streamlined manner.

Unfortunately, some of the unissued tracks are downright aggravating. The alternate of "Dear Lord" is almost as poignant as the master, but the listener has to first endure more than two and a half minutes of thoroughly unrevealing breakdowns. The breakdown of "Living Space" is a substantial four-minute fragment, which in tandem with the ten-minute alternate take (neither of which has the master's second overdubbed soprano), reinforces the pivotal weight accorded to the June 16, ‘65 session (which immediately precedes the making of Ascension). Coltrane feathered the edges in this rubato-tempo-rubato structure to create a more subtle rhythmic flow, paving the way for the more ambiguous polyrhythms of the late period. However, both the breakdown and the alternate could have fit onto Living Space, issued just months prior to this box set; its absence on the earlier collection and sudden appearance here all but makes the cynic's case.

Originally published in March 1999
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