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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.

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