Liner notes from the original release:
Since John Coltrane left the Miles Davis group and began playing the soprano saxophone, his reputation as performer and leader, as well as the controversy surrounding his work, has revolved largely around his status as an experimenter and leader of the jazz avant-garde. This is, of course, legitimate enough, but those who place emphasis on the experimental, particularly Coltrane’s detractors, ignore the point that like another controversial musician, Coltrane’s friend Ornette Coleman, John’s work is quite firmly based in jazz tradition.
When Coltrane plays a club, it is always particularly interesting to hear the last set of the evening. Earlier sets will almost invariably find him playing the two pieces on which his reputation with his most recently converted fans is based, My Favorite Things and Greensleeves. With these, he established himself as the most important jazz soprano saxophonist since Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges, and affected a general renaissance of the instrument. People expect to hear these two tunes, and since the pieces still fascinate Coltrane, he always complies. The last set, however, generally starts at around two in the morning, when the audience is composed of hardcore believers. Coltrane almost always chooses to play tenor that set, and almost always plays the blues. One such blues, which may not even have a theme, sometimes serves as the basis for an entire thirty or forty-minute set. At these times, Coltrane is startling in his affinity to the rhythm-and-blues players in the local clubs across the country – not that he honks or screeches, but in the depth of his intensity and in the similarity of his feeling. To hear him play at such times, and to watch his concentration, can be a nearly shattering experience.
By now, as the avant-garde controversy rages around him, some tend to forget that Coltrane’s great initial reputation was made as a blues player. Almost without exception, the dominant jazzmen of our time – Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, the members of the MJQ – have strikingly personal approaches to the blues. So has Coltrane, who is by now an all-pervasive influence on the jazz scene. One of his early recordings, Blue Train, is a nearly classic example of his style, and a powerful, almost menacing performance. Indelibly impressed on the minds of many listeners are the blues performances of the Miles Davis Quintet and the Thelonious Monk Quartet, when Coltrane’s tumultuous outpouring of notes provided brilliant contrast to the sparse, classic styles of the leaders.
After Coltrane formed his own group, he understandably showed somewhat less preoccupation with blues. In his new position as leader, he wanted variety in his material, and searched for different ways to make his music, in the word he is fond of using, “presentable.” He became more involved with composition, which inevitably led to pieces in different forms. His researches into Indian music and the raga led to concern with the problem of playing pieces which contained as few chords as possible, Again, it was easy to forgot that Coltrane has written several blues in a dark minor style that is a trademark with him and that has been quite widely imitated.
For all these reasons, it is a great pleasure to see the appearance of the present album at this time. I doubt that it was recorded in an attempt to prove any sort of a point. If Coltrane takes any attitude toward his critics, it is one of puzzlement, as he sees himself highly praised for the same reasons which others employ to dismiss him. Further, Coltrane is a quiet, rather shy man, almost the antithesis of his music, who tends to find what he plays far less exceptional than do his listeners.
He is quite certain, though, about what he wants, and this is reflected in his choice of associates. The “lyricism,” as he terms it, is supplied by the heavily chordal pianist, McCoy Tyner. Since he sometimes plays without piano, as on two numbers in this set, it is important that the bassist, Steve Davis, has an acute knowledge of harmony. Perhaps the most remarkable member of the group, aside from Coltrane himself, is the fantastically complex Elvin Jones, probably the most challenging drummer now playing. When someone once remarked that many musicians would be unable to play with Elvin, Coltrane answered, “Sometimes I can’t play with him.” There are several notable examples in modern jazz of unusual empathy between soloist and drummer – Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey; Sonny Rollins and Max Roach; Miles Davis and Philly Joe Jones – and certainly the Coltrane-Elvin Jones combination is as unique as these.
All the pieces on this set are by Coltrane, and the album is unusual in that the feeling of sameness that could have so easily resulted from the same four men playing six blues has been neatly avoided. Quite subjectively, I find the album contains considerably more variety than many sets of standards and originals recorded by five and six-piece groups.
Blues To Elvin opens with a near-gospel piano figure, followed by Coltrane on tenor in one of his most basic blues solos of recent years, similar to the startling work he was doing in the late fifties, with only the occasional use of harmonics to mark it as a more recent performance. This track alone is a more meaningful credential than most blues players can produce.
Blues To Bechet played on soprano saxophone and accompanied only by bass and drums, is, for this listener, the favorite of the set. In his short, simple phrases, Coltrane hauntingly evokes Bechet, gradually leading into a passage which is an accurate definition of the advances he has introduced on the instrument, and then returning briefly to the traditional style shortly before the close.
The furiously paced Blues To You, played on tenor without piano, is strictly contemporary Coltrane. It reflects a performance practice he is fond of in clubs, stretching the basic blues harmonies to the limits of atonality, and then culminating the excitement in exchanges with Elvin Jones.
Mr. Day is the best example on the set of the hypnotic use to which Coltrane puts bass and piano behind his own instant frenzy. The piece itself is in the Eastern-minor vein of such other of his compositions as Dahomey Dance.
Mr. Syms, which again features soprano saxophone, is cast in a form Coltrane has made striking’ use of in the past: the minor blues with a bridge. In this instance, the bridge is quite similar to Summertime, a favorite Coltrane piece. He limits himself here to opening and closing melodic statements which frame a McCoy Tyner solo.
The final track, Mr. Knight, is in its piano figure and rhythmic basis, a synthesis of West Indian and African music, To this, building on a theme employing a bare minimum of notes, Coltrane adds his own Indian-influenced approach, making a unique cultural-musical blend.
Each of these tracks is fascinating in itself, replete with the emotional commitment which is perhaps Coltrane’s single most identifiable quality. When placed together, as they are here, the six pieces not only comprise an unusual and satisfying listening experience, but effectively document the fact that one of the most restless experimenters in jazz has far from exhausted the possibilities of the music’s oldest form. — JOE GOLDBERG