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John Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings

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The domestic release of The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings is a testament to the image-shaping power of establishment record labels and producers. Only five of the 22 performances recorded by the variously configured John Coltrane ensembles during four nights at the venerable nightclub that November were released-split between two albums-in the leader’s lifetime. While they comprised a reasonable cross-section of the main strains of Coltrane’s early ’60s music-the extension of his Davis-era modal explorations (“Impressions”), his penchant for using simple patterns (“Spiritual”), blues (“Chasin’ the Trane”), and stripped-down standards (“Softly as in a Morning Sunrise”) for blowing vehicles, and his interest in Indian music (“India”)-they conveyed about the most establishment-friendly composite picture of Coltrane’s music that could be culled from the material. Granted, producer Bob Thiele had to contend with the wanton and potentially career-disabling hacking of Coltrane and Eric Dolphy by John Tynan in the pages of Downbeat just weeks after the Vanguard stand, the opening volley of the “anti-jazz” controversy; this drove Thiele’s pragmatic, strategic planning of Coltrane’s historic tenure with Impulse! through the early ’60s.

The complete recordings, presented on disc in the sequence they were originally performed, allow us to experience the free flow of personnel to and from the bandstand and the permutation of interpretations from night to night, rendering a picture of Coltrane that alters our sense of his “middle period” as much as “Stellar Regions” reshaped our image of his late music. Hyperbole?: after all, only three tracks are previously unreleased-the “India” that led off the first night, as well as the “Miles’ Mode” and “Naima” from the third night; 12 of the remaining 14 tracks were issued in the ’70s; so, what do we know now that we haven’t known for years? Well, for starters, we can now identify all the pieces: “Brasilia” was originally issued as “Untitled Original” on The Other Village Vanguard Tapes, a ’77 Impulse! two-LP set. It only takes a fairly cursory comparison of this version and the version included on ’65’s The John Coltrane Quartet Plays to make the connection. The exercise, however, yields a larger point than the detailing of the distinctions between the two pieces (starting with Coltrane and Dolphy’s unison introduction, the ’61 version has a more fervent, formal bearing than Coltrane’s seemingly off-the-cuff delivery on the latter): it debunks the idea that the pieces Coltrane continued to play into the mid-’60s became progressively more abstract and strident (typified by “My Favorite Things” and “Naima” on Live at the Village Vanguard Again!). If anything, the intensity of the ’61 version-with gripping solos by the horns and an adventurous Reggie Workman statement-substantially surpasses the ’65 performance.

There were some amazing performances passed over for immediate release, particularly the two versions of both “Chasin’ the Trane” and “Impressions” featuring Dolphy’s incendiary alto. There are two schools of thought on Thiele’s decisions concerning tracks featuring Dolphy-Dolphy biographers Berry Tepperman and Vladimir Simosko’s astonishment stops short of conspiracy theories, while Wild has a tempered view of Thiele’s packaging of Coltrane. Whereas Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s oud and Garvin Bushell’s oboe were enlisted for added color to two takes of “India” (Bushell’s contrabassoon lends the last night’s version of “Spiritual” extra texture), Dolphy was an integral part of Coltrane’s group, and as such his initial exposure on the original Impulse! albums plainly misrepresented the fact. This is compounded by the two versions of both “Miles’ Mode” and “Naima” (the third night’s rendering of both are previously unreleased), any of which could have been used to create a less threatening, yet faithful, contemporary picture of the Coltrane-Dolphy collaboration (“collaboration” because in all likelihood it was Dolphy not Coltrane that composed the 12-tone “Miles’ Mode”). Dolphy’s ardent voicings on the heart-wrenching “Naima” may have slowed the hyperventilation of the likes of Tynan, while, if nothing else, the two-horn readings of “Miles’ Mode”-which have a crisper, in-the-pocket focus than the Coltrane version-would have reinforced the consumer’s association of Coltrane with Davis.

In all probability, the contemporary release of any of this material would have not prevented either Coltrane’s ascent to greatness or the permanent marketability of his legacy. It’s senseless to second-guess Thiele; his subsequent work with Coltrane validates his decisions. Still, over 36 years have passed for the record to be completed, two years longer than Dolphy’s entire life. You don’t have to be an industry apologist to argue that late is better than never; but, you don’t have to be a muckraker to wonder about the inertia in corporate America that keeps treasures like The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings in the vaults for so long.