The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings
By Peter Margasak
Jazz musicians have frequently been a divisive group, forever arguing about what is and isn’t legitimate music. Perhaps today’s most vocal arbiter of taste is Wynton Marsalis, whose unyielding devotion to tradition has led him to dismiss dozens of more adventurous, forward-looking practitioners. The trumpeter’s emphasis on understanding jazz’s rich history inside and out as a prerequisite for progression is not without merit, but his uncompromising take also runs the risk of slowing progress by overlooking innovation. After all, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker all drew fire and condemnation from their fellow musicians before eventually being lionized as geniuses.
We count on true innovators to ignore the naysayers. In the hefty book that accompanies The Heavyweight Champion, a recent box set of John Coltrane’s groundbreaking recordings for the Atlantic label, saxophonist Charles Lloyd recalls a brief exchange between trumpet legend Roy Eldridge and bassist Richard Davis as they watched Coltrane perform a lengthy solo at New York’s Birdland. “Roy leans over to Richard and says, ‘I know Trane is playing, but I just can’t get with him.’ Richard says, ‘Well, you know Roy, Trane ain’t waitin’.'” As this seven-CD set of music recorded within the short period between January 1959 and May 1961 vividly demonstrates, Coltrane was defined by a restless need to transform himself, and his music was the product of an inner urge to reach out further. Even Marsalis cites the innovative Giant Steps, Coltrane’s Atlantic debut and an enduring classic, as the record that got him into jazz.
With the possible exception of Miles Davis, it’s tough to think of another jazz musician, especially one as widely revered and sublimely influential, who changed his own music as much as Coltrane did. The Rhino set serves as a colorful and dramatic microcosm of Trane’s never-ending development. His Atlantic sessions yielded ten albums’ worth of material, most of which was released after he moved to Impulse!, the label that released his most revolutionary work, including A Love Supreme and Ascension. The stylistic shift from his first Atlantic session (a date with Modern Jazz Quartet vibes player Milt Jackson) to his final recording for the label (the prophetically probing Ole Coltrane with Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard) is staggering. Coltrane had previously worked in bands led by Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Johnny Hodges, and when his Atlantic work began he was still a part of the Miles Davis Quintet. Considering the freedom-pushing modal classic he recorded with Davis in 1959, Kind of Blue, the date with Jackson sounds somewhat conservative. Yet many of Coltrane’s later trademarks–the distinctive melodies, his rhythmic acumen and sophisticated harmonies–are already clearly evident.
The Heavyweight Champion presents Coltrane’s music in strict chronological order–something the original albums ignored–so one can trace the careful, deliberate development of much of the music. Many of Coltrane’s best-known compositions were first recorded during his stint at the label, and listening to the process of transformation they underwent is fascinating. The official versions of Coltrane standards “Giant Steps” and “Naima” were recorded in May 1959 with pianist Tommy Flanagan and in December of the same year with pianist Wynton Kelly, yet versions of both tunes were first recorded in March 1959 with Cedar Walton. This early take of “Giant Steps” employs a slower tempo, and Walton’s tentative performance seems to hold Coltrane back. Two months later the pace was lightning quick. While the exceedingly talented Flanagan seems to barely keep his head above water–his solo tends to wheeze and gasp along–Coltrane by contrast plays with so much fire, velocity, melodic invention, and rhythmic derring-do that the group appears mismatched. The seventh CD of the set, cleverly packaged in a faux Scotch 206 Magnetic Tape box, contains all previously unreleased alternates, rehearsals, and incomplete performances of “Giant Steps,” “Naima,” “Like Sonny,” “Blues to Elvin,” and “Blues to You.” While certainly not very appealing for casual Coltrane fans, it nevertheless offers a striking glimpse of the saxophonist’s concentration and discipline, offering an opportunity to hear how he meticulously worked on a given tune until the performance satisfied him. Old Philadelphia cohort Jimmy Heath writes in the CD booklet, “He was the hardest-working musician I’ve ever met.”
Apart from allowing the listener to learn how Coltrane labored over specific tunes, The Heavyweight Champion also provides an exciting window to understanding his more sweeping stylistic shifts. There are mind-blowing technical feats–the use of harmonic trickery, which would characterize so much of his extended soloing, first arises with the multiphonics on “Harmonique,” recorded in March 1959 and released on Coltrane Jazz in 1961–and his first forays into the soprano saxophone. The soprano sax was a freak instrument back then; its best-known practitioner was the great Sidney Bechet, who died in 1959, and at the time only the young, largely unknown outsider Steve Lacy played it. Since Coltrane usually pushed into his tenor saxophone’s alto range, the higher-pitched soprano was a logical choice, and in addition it sounds more sympathetic to the Indian music he became interested in around this time. His first recorded soprano performance occurred in a daring June 1960 session with Ornette Coleman’s group–trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Ed Blackwell–on Coleman’s “The Invisible.” His solo is adequate, but he palpably lacks mastery over the instrument. This lackluster performance comes as a surprise when one considers that a mere three months later he played soprano sax on the landmark “My Favorite Things,” one of the most famous, transcendent, and technically stunning performances in all of jazz.
The early work on The Heavyweight Champion was recorded with hard-bop mainstays like Hank Jones, Paul Chambers, Percy Heath, Art Taylor, and Jimmy Cobb, but by the December 1960 session that produced “My Favorite Things” pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, musicians who’d remain with Coltrane for the next five years, had joined the fray. Tyner’s brooding chordal vamps and romantic lyricism as well as Jones’s highly propulsive, African-influenced drumming became prodding, simpatico forces for Coltrane, providing the support he needed to push his music onward. While previous musicians worked with Coltrane, Tyner and Jones fully understood him.
Coltrane’s final days at Atlantic find him really getting down to business. The change from his earthy, full-bodied solo on 1957’s “Stairway to the Stars” to the sensuous, snakelike lines he delivers on “Original Untitled Ballad (To Her Ladyship)” from the Ole session is nothing short of mind-blowing. On the other hand, the soul-searching of later works like “Om” and “Ascension” make this shift seem paltry by comparison. Until his untimely death in 1967 Coltrane never stopped growing. In an interview published by Melody Maker in 1965 he said, “I don’t know if you can ever be a complete musician. I’m not. But I don’t think I’ll know what’s missing from my playing until I find it.” While he knew jazz’s tradition intimately, Coltrane always looked forward as he studied classical music, African music, and Indian music in addition to the jazz basics. His search had no end; his music was the search.