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Still Searching, Still Chasin’: John Coltrane’s Village Vanguard Recordings

Nate Chinen on the saxophonist’s Village Vanguard Recordings as a life-altering experience

Nate Chinen
John Coltrane

Fifty years ago this November, as you may recall, John Coltrane set up for a weeklong engagement at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. He brought his tenor and soprano saxophones, his working rhythm section and a frontline partner, multireedist Eric Dolphy. He also brought the awareness that tape was rolling for an album. Live at the Village Vanguard, released on Impulse! the following year, would feature just three long tracks culled from four nights of recording; most of the rest would be scattered across several subsequent LPs. Then, in 1997, the year marking the 30th anniversary of Coltrane’s death, Impulse! finally put out The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings, a four-disc box set with all the available tracks, their chronology painstakingly pieced together. It was an important release, a clarifying burst of context, and I was one among many critics to greet it with favorable coverage. What I didn’t say then-couldn’t have realized then-was what that music would mean to me. This might sound trite and overblown, but on some level it changed my life.

Some background may be needed here, and Coltrane’s is by far the more compelling. Interesting things were happening for him in 1961. Just one year after leaving his secure perch in the Miles Davis Quintet, he had his own unimpeachable band and a successful record in “My Favorite Things.” But that had been his swan song on Atlantic; he was at Impulse! now, with one album on the ledger, the large-group odyssey Africa/Brass. Partly through the experience of those sessions, he had cultivated a close allegiance with Dolphy, whose plangent sound and angular melodic logic proposed a companionable contrast to his own style. Dolphy appears all over the Vanguard recordings, though his presence would seem muted when Live at the Village Vanguard was later released.

That decision was made by Bob Thiele, Coltrane’s producer at Impulse!, and it seems implausible that he wasn’t swayed in part by the professional venom directed at the Coltrane-Dolphy frontline at the time. You know, all that stuff about “an anarchistic course in their music that can but be termed anti-jazz.” Those were the words of John Tynan, an associate editor at DownBeat, reviewing the expanded Coltrane cohort in California one month before the Vanguard gig. His was apparently not a minority opinion. The tide of criticism was strong enough to prompt Coltrane-not the sort of person usually given to public expression of personal umbrage-to participate in a follow-up article headlined “John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy Answer the Jazz Critics.” Not that that resolved the issue, or prevented Dolphy and the band from parting ways, under a faint gray cloud of defeat. The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings represents a thwarted experiment, the stirrings of something that never fully came to be.

And yet-what stirrings! I can still recall the sensation of first hearing Dolphy’s solo on “India,” the previously unreleased opening track on Disc 1. The song begins in a droning hum, like a beehive but given forward thrust by the rolling triplets of Elvin Jones. Coltrane plays a soprano solo full of vertiginous flurries, incantatory and untethered. And then, four and a half minutes in, Dolphy enters on bass clarinet, harrumphing two long tones: B-flat and B-natural. His solo then moves fairly quickly into heated polytonality, but this here was pure sense, the equivalent of taking two careful steps into the swimming pool. “India” is set in the key of G, which means that Dolphy was moving neatly from a minor third to a major third-a pretty efficient distillation of the mood fluctuation within the song. Later, on Disc 3, some other previously unreleased Dolphy also turned my head around: his poetic and deeply lyrical improvisation on “Naima,” again on bass clarinet. Anti-jazz this was not.

My turn for background. I was beginning my undergraduate senior year in late summer of 1997, when a review copy of The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings made its way to me via the Philadelphia City Paper. During the month leading up to the set’s release, I listened to it nightly. I was living alone in a Center City studio, and I’d sit on the hardwood floor in front of my speakers, sometimes for hours. Man, did I get to know that music.

And the close study was priceless. I was a fresh 21, just beginning to enter into a profession whose stalwarts were a full generation or two ahead of me. I knew Coltrane’s available work well-Dolphy’s too. I had met McCoy Tyner, and been encased in a bear hug by Elvin Jones. But I’d never set foot in the Village Vanguard or been alive to hear this music in its prime. The recordings were what I had in place of firsthand experience, and I wasn’t about to take them lightly. In addition to the brave ecstasies of Dolphy and the heroic exertions of Coltrane-as on “Chasin’ the Trane,” still the apex of this set-I was fascinated by the transition in the band’s bass chair. Reggie Workman was on his way out, Jimmy Garrison was on his way in, and they both appeared on the Vanguard stage. This was intriguing, but so was the thought that on a few tracks it’s just Garrison, meaning that the classic Coltrane rhythm section was locking into place.

A few other things obsessed me, the more time I spent with the set. There was the sound of Jones’ drums, and how it compared to his sound four years earlier on A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note), the Sonny Rollins album. And the fact that jazz history as it’s lived can be so misleadingly represented by, say, a discography. (Was Coltrane really this wild, pushing this hard, three full years before A Love Supreme?) Finally, I realized the sobering responsibility of the critic, whose ideas can come to define him or her. John Tynan had been among the early champions of Ornette Coleman; he wasn’t a moldy fig. But “anti-jazz” was a lapse, a litmus test disguised as a judgment, too reactionary to address the music on its terms.

I resolved to learn from that example. In the meantime, I kept that four-CD set within easy reach for most of my senior year. I wish I still had it, but one night, while I was out on a date, someone managed to climb through my eighth-story window and steal whatever he could grab. My date and I got back to my place and found the door agape, stuff strewn about. The box set wasn’t a finished copy, and couldn’t have fetched much at a record store. I’m thinking maybe the burglar kept it, in which case I hope he got half as enlightened as I did.

Originally Published