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John Coltrane: The Complete Sun Ship Session

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It stands to reason that almost any box set of an album’s “complete sessions” is primarily for completists. That’s doubly true for one that (a) contains no unreleased tunes, and (b) is vinyl only. The Complete Sun Ship Session, a three-LP collection of every take from the 1965 date (posthumously released in 1971) for John Coltrane’s classic quartet, fits all these conditions. For listeners who aren’t of the Coltrane-obsessives-with-audiophile-turntables class-say, those who might buy Verve’s CD version of this set-the question is: What do breakdowns, inserts and a scattered few complete alternates of Sun Ship’s five released tracks have to offer?

In inventory terms, the answer is a bit disappointing. David Wild’s liners promise “all of the takes as they evolved, as well as the surrounding conversations.” That’s a technically correct manifest, but sounds more bountiful than it is. Four out of the five tunes are given exactly one complete alternate take, and in three of those cases that alternate is appreciably inferior to the master; Take 1 of “Attaining,” for example, has a lackluster, often redundant McCoy Tyner solo. (Take 1 of “Amen” is equal to the released Take 2, but with a more cohesive ensemble on the theme-a subtle change.) The incomplete takes for these are all false starts, not presenting enough development for any real insight.

The inserts for “Attaining” and “Sun Ship” are throwaways, and the conversations are underwhelming, usually incomprehensible exchanges between the band (one of which made the original album) or light joshing from producer Bob Thiele (e.g., pretending to confuse Jimmy Garrison’s feature “Ascent” with Ascension). We do learn that the working title of “Sun Ship” was “Yeah,” but that only raises new questions, and one of the conversations is downright infuriating: Coltrane stops the band less than a minute into “Attaining” and says, “Excuse me, excuse me! I’m sorry. I got a point, I wanna make a point here: I forgot to tell you-.” Cut tape.

In the end, there is some information to be gleaned here. Given the high quality of “Amen” in its first take, for example, Trane’s wanting a second try-with such a slight difference-reveals much about his ear for detail. Then there’s “Ascent,” the one tune with no complete second take. Instead, there are several alternate attempts at the lengthy bass solo with which Garrison opens the tune-de facto inserts-and a few more inserts of Coltrane’s entry and the band’s comp. None were used when Thiele assembled the album. The existence of these segments provides interesting perspectives on the quartet’s working methods but also opens fresh cans of worms: What was their intent here? What made the first take unsatisfactory for Garrison and Coltrane, and why did Thiele ultimately decide it was definitive? The questions are unanswerable, yet interesting.

“Interesting” is probably an appropriate descriptor for what The Complete Sun Ship Session has to offer the non-fanatic: nothing essential but much that is interesting. Depending on one’s level of Coltrane fandom, that might be enough.

Originally Published