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The John Coltrane Quintet Featuring Eric Dolphy: So Many Things: The European Tour 1961

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Eric Dolphy’s bolstering of the Classic Quartet into a titan-heavy quintet has long split the Coltrane camp. The naysayers cite an ensemble sound that had become too busy, with Dolphy, as master colorist, providing too many bright and distracting rays. The Dolphy booster club touts a more progressive mode of thinking, pointing to a flexibility in Trane’s sound that fed back into his compositional thinking and led to his avant-garde apex.

The Village Vanguard recordings from early November 1961 feature a smattering of Dolphy, but this four-disc set, culled from Paris, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm in the later portions of the same month, is a veritable Dolphy marathon. This stuff is rare: air shots and field recordings in varying quality but all of it listenable-and all of it headstrong, manful and galvanizing.

The “Blue Train” from the first show on Nov. 18 at L’Olympia is unlike any other surviving cut of the song, and in this instance some of the rougher sound-it puts one in mind of a cleaned-up version of Alan Lomax’s 1941 Son House recordings-adds propulsion and intensity. So does Elvin Jones, who sounds like he’s channeling Tony Williams by way of Chano Pozo. He is, incredibly, louder than Coltrane, and Coltrane is plenty loud. The cymbals and snare carry much of the load, which makes for an intriguing contrast with his approach on “Delilah” from Copenhagen on the 20th, the percussive textures coming principally from the bass drum, with Reggie Workman’s bass thuds sounding like they’re emanating from inside the hollow of a swamp log.

Trane had his controversial Parisian debut just the year before with Miles Davis, and while he drew ire back then, no such deal this time: He has this audience, and you can sense its appreciation during one of the collection’s six versions of “My Favorite Things.” This one is almost pastoral, all sweet melody that lends an Ellingtonian vibe, whereas the version from the second show is downright draconian-that is, until Dolphy enters and provides respite on flute. The radio hit of “Things” had a lot to do with Coltrane’s gift for melody, a quality often underappreciated in his output; having said that, Dolphy could surpass him, and to hear him voice the central phrase is to bask in something any of the great melodists-Mozart, Schubert, Porter, McCartney-would swoon before.

In Copenhagen, we get a rocked-up “Blue Train” with hints of rhythm-and-blues and hard bop, and an extra helping of soul in Coltrane’s solos that have the energy of a Hendrix or Parker. Speaking of Bird: For all of his avant-garde leanings, Dolphy absorbed the vocabulary of Parker and Gillespie like perhaps no other jazz musician. When he takes a blues chorus, and does so deftly at the tempo of a “Ko-Ko,” you realize he could paint a representative sonic picture just as capably as he could spin out some musical cubist art.

McCoy Tyner picks up on all of that attendant fire and blasts off some of his own, particularly on the Helsinki version of “I Want to Talk About You.” It’s intriguing to hear a piano solo, in the center of all this smoke, harken back to 1930s pianistic approaches, but the stride playing is a mere centering of the ear before a departure to the postmodern realms. In a few years, Tyner would complain that he was being drowned out by his bandmates-if this was what he was remembering as the salad days, no surprise then.

The Stockholm set boasts the best sound; it’s not consistent, really, but at the best of times it’s on par with the Vanguard recordings. The best “Things” is here-maybe the best version anywhere-as well as a Dolphy bass clarinet solo on “Naima” that feels like his famous “God Bless the Child” effort set to accompaniment. This is one ripped-open world, jazz like jazz had never really been, core heat advancing upon the surface.

Originally Published