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John Coltrane: Coltrane (Deluxe Edition)

Coltrane, Ballads and A Love Supreme succinctly trace the arc of John Coltrane’s early ’60s ascendancy as an artist and as a market force, which still shapes jazz today. In the span of three years, the saxophonist went from an artist requiring a makeover for acceptance by a broader audience to one that created an immediate-now perennial-best-selling album with what was to date his most visionary music. The real benefit of these two-CD deluxe editions is that they substantially flesh out this transformation with rare and newly discovered material, including such long-lost treasures as the sextet versions of “Acknowledgement” from A Love Supreme, featuring tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp and bass player Art Davis.

Though not as headline grabbing, the rarities comprising the second CD of both the Coltrane and Ballads packages reveal much about the evolution of Coltrane’s relationship with Impulse and producer Bob Thiele. Coltrane features seven previously unissued tracks, including a Bobby Timmons-tinged McCoy Tyner composition, “Not Yet.” Closer to the gritty sound of Timmons than the expansive compositional voice Tyner later developed, “Not Yet” possesses a palatable if generic hard-bop quality that could presumably offset more far-reaching pieces like “Miles’ Mode” and the undervalued blues “Tunji,” which provided a continuity of edge and concept with Coltrane’s first Impulse title, Africa/Brass.

By the end of ’62, in an obvious attempt to reprise the commercial success of “My Favorite Things,” Coltrane was recording “Greensleeves” for release as a 45-rpm single, with his ultralilting soprano and Tyner’s rapt octaves making this the most precious item in the saxophonist’s discography. Its effervescence makes “Greensleeves” the odd man out on the Ballads Deluxe Edition, but it’s historically instructive filler, as the alternates account for four of the 13 newly unearthed tracks. The four unused takes provide a fascinating glimpse inside the ill-fated star-making process, as each has a disqualifying errant spark that upsets the delicately balanced formula. Equally revealing are seven alternates of “It’s Easy to Remember,” an excellent example of the fastidious honing often ascribed as characteristic of Coltrane’s Impulse studio sessions. Since the Rodgers and Hart tune was the B side of the “Greensleeves” single, it makes some sense that the alternates of both would surface at the same time, even if they were recorded at different sessions (it was thought until the late 1990s that Reggie Workman, and not Jimmy Garrison, played on “It’s Easy to Remember”). That they have only surfaced at this late date is maddening.

Engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s note on the remastering of Ballads and Coltrane identifies the source of the newly issued materials as a second set of masters, which he gave to producer Bob Thiele shortly after Coltrane’s death. Given the obsession with all things Coltrane by scholars and insider critics, it’s amazing that the “Greensleeves” alternates and the second version of “All or Nothing at All” were not discovered in time to be included on The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings, a collection that would have benefited from the inclusion of Coltrane and Tyner’s gemlike duet reading of “They Say It’s Wonderful.” Yet the improbable is the rule in such matters, and the sextet “Acknowledgement” session is no exception.

The surviving 7 1/2-inch audition tape with the sextet versions of “Acknowledgement” went missing in the ’70s, and by the time it recently resurfaced it was badly deteriorated in spots. Still, the contrasts between Coltrane and Shepp in terms of sound and bearing, as well as the rhythmic interplay between the two, are wonderful, despite being not fully jelled. So, too, are the tandem basses of Davis and Garrison; their track-ending duets were also a take or two from being fully polished, but are bracing, nonetheless. Add the long available ’65 Antibes Jazz Festival performance of “A Love Supreme”-Coltrane’s only public performance of the piece successfully tested its elasticity-and you have a definitive collection. That is, until they find more.

Originally Published