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Eavesdropping on John Coltrane in the Summer of 1961
Reviewing Evenings at the Village Gate
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions’! Hello as well to those who have recently subscribed as a result of my latest essay on Elvis Presley (thank you to Kees of Elvis Day by Day and Piers of the Elvis Information Network for sharing my piece). I’m so glad to have you here and while I only write about Elvis occasionally, I hope you will find something of interest in my other writings about music.
My hope is to one day cobble together some sort of living out of the work I am doing here and part of my plan to get there is to move my Substack URL to a custom domain so that it’s easier to share my work on social media. Just a few days ago, I did just that (Substack made the process super easy) and now www.listeningsessions.ca houses all my work. The move to a custom domain should be seamless but if you do encounter any difficulties accessing my essays or commenting on them, just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll look into it.
This time around, my essay is a review of Evenings at the Village Gate, a new release in an ongoing series of previously unreleased John Coltrane being issued on the Impulse! label. The release presents an interesting opportunity to drop in to hear Coltrane and his group during the summer of 1961—the middle of a very fertile period for the tenor saxophonist. I hope you enjoy the essay and let me know what you think of the album too.
Coming up in August will be a tribute to Tony Bennett as well to drummer “Philly” Joe Jones, whose centenary was celebrated earlier this month, focusing on two of his many great sideman dates: Kenny Dorham’s Whistle Stop and Hank Mobley’s No Room for Squares. As well, I am excited to be working on my first collaboration with another music writer here on Substack. More details on that project coming soon!
Until next time, may good listening be with all!
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At one point, as the music from the bandstand of the Village Vanguard churned and roiled, seeking to wring all the possibilities of whatever was being played, a waitress at the New York jazz club put her hands up to her ears saying, “I can’t stand it any more. I can’t stand it any more.” So went a recollection, 36 years later, by engineer Rudy Van Gelder of recording John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard during the first days of November 1961. For four nights of a two-week run from October 24 to November 5, Van Gelder was there to capture portions of the music for Coltrane’s second release on Impulse! Records.
The seeming futility of wait staff trying to serve patrons while the tenor saxophonist was, for example, deep in a lengthy abstraction of his modal showpiece ‘Impressions’ may have been simply the impossibility of trying to do a job under adverse conditions but it does seem to touch on the reaction from some of the jazz world to the dramatic turn Coltrane’s music was taking at the time. The most famous (or, more accurately, infamous) was DownBeat writer John Tynan’s essay published in the magazine just over two weeks after Coltrane’s Village Vanguard engagement concluded. Of what he heard of Coltrane and his frontline mate, the multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, in Hollywood, he was unsparing in his excoriation: “They [Coltrane and Dolphy] seem bent on pursuing an anarchistic course in their music that can best be termed anti-jazz.” As if his feelings weren’t clear, in addition to being “anti-jazz,” Tynan branded their music “horrifying” and “nihilistic.”
Tynan’s jeremiad occasioned the opportunity for Coltrane and Dolphy to explain both the mechanics of as well as the philosophy underpinning their music through an interview with writer Don DeMichael in the April 12, 1962 issue of DownBeat. Beyond accounting for the growing length of the group’s performances (a writer for the Washington Post noted a rendition of Kenny Dorham’s ‘Shifting Sands’ from the spring of 1961 at 50 minutes) and explaining why Dolphy was added to the first classic lineup of Coltrane's quartet: pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones, they expound on the spiritual impetus of their sometimes intense, sometimes hypnotic and always involving music.
At one point, Coltrane stated to DeMichael: “That’s what music is to me—it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is.” Dolphy elaborated: “Music is a reflection of everything. And it’s universal. Like, you can hear somebody from across the world, another country. You don’t even know them, but they’re in your backyard, you know.”
Far from nihilism, the two musicians elaborated a view related to oneness. Music as a uniting force. While Coltrane and Dolphy had known each other since 1954—long before either becomes torchbearers of the jazz avant-garde, 1961 was the year of their sustained musical collaboration.
In the span of six years starting in 1955, Coltrane had transformed not once but twice. The first was an evolution to a harmonically complex style dedicated to exploring all the possibilities of a composition's chord structure. It was a probing, searching style that Coltrane often expressed in unending cascades of notes that critic Ira Gitler memorably termed as “sheets of sound.” Just as he reached a breakthrough with the recording of most of Giant Steps in early 1959, he began to move in the opposite direction through Miles Davis’ (in whose band Coltrane served as foil from mid-1955 to early 1957 and then again from early 1958 to the spring of 1960) growing fascination with modes and their static simplicity, prioritizing lyrical over harmonic improvisation and then, after leaving Davis’ group for good to start a group of his own, through his deconstruction of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘My Favourite Things.’
It was both adventurous—taking a light show tune (when Coltrane recorded it in October 1960, it was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is now) and stripping away the harmony in favour of two scales; in effect, swapping out Broadway for Bombay in which the soloist could improvise at length on both—and accessible—the melodic line of the song became a signal for the switch from one scale to another, telegraphing in advance what is about to happen. It was also a hit upon its release in March 1961.
Two months later, with his record contract expiring with Atlantic, Coltrane signed with Creed Taylor’s jazz subsidiary with ABC-Paramount, Impulse! His first project for the label was the orchestral Africa/Brass. Tasked with the arrangements, centered primarily on the voicings of Tyner, was Dolphy. By then, he had moved from the rather staid environ of drummer Chico Hamilton’s band for the revolutionary air of bassist Charles Mingus’ group. Proficient on alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute and clarinet, Dolphy was an extravagant and profoundly inventive musician—arguably the boldest and brightest of the insurgent avant-garde.
Africa/Brass codified the principles underlying ‘My Favourite Things,’ especially in the modal recasting of ‘Greensleeves’ and the title track, even as, with additional material from the album’s two sessions released after Coltrane’s passing, my preferred running order would have been the second take of ‘Africa,’ followed by the alternate take of ‘Greensleeves’ and capped by the controlled steel and drive of ‘Song of the Underground Railroad,’ adapted from the spiritual ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd.’
Twinned with Olé, recorded in between the two dates for Africa/Brass and Coltrane’s final album for Atlantic, they capture a moment in time. Both are rooted in modal improvisation eliciting hypnotic and often leisurely performances. Coltrane’s solos, in particular, have a building quality. Each thought, often comprising of lines of long notes, related to the last, the rush of a few years earlier replaced by the calm of meditative prayer, as on the second take of ‘Africa’ or the title track of Olé, itself also fascinating as it would be the last time Coltrane recorded with a trumpeter—Freddie Hubbard, in this case—in a small-group setting.
Five months later at the Vanguard, this approach of rooting jazz in mindfulness, was still evident, if less earnestly, on ‘Spiritual,’ the lush and lovely ‘Naima’ and ‘Miles’ Mode’ (also known as ‘The Red Planet’). But it was being eclipsed by something far more fervid and something far less earthbound and also something far beyond the rigour of the framework of a theme being followed by a cycle of improvisations and capped off with a recapitulation of the theme.
‘Chasin’ the Trane,’ with its epic Coltrane solo that could have gone on ad infinium remains startling in its disregard of resolution or even progression. It is a test of Coltrane’s will, and by extension, Jones’ and Jimmy Garrison’s—soon to replace Workman as the group's bassist—endurance in addition to the listener’s. Heard today, it still retains its ability to enrapture or befuddle—music like this precludes any sense of neutrality. I confess I am more in the latter camp even after living with this performance for over a quarter-century now.
One’s own feelings aside, it represents a clear break, a new frontier, in Coltrane’s music; the implications of which he would explore initially tentatively and then with profound spiritual conviction for the remainder of his life.
A clearer sense of the journey from ‘My Favourite Things’ to ‘Chasin’ the Trane’ has recently been released, part of what is happily shaping up to be an ongoing series of previously unreleased Coltrane releases from his years on Impulse! We are now up to four and each widens the canvas and the context of Coltrane’s career. Are they all major releases? Undoubtedly. Would we have been just fine without them? Very likely, save for 2021’s release of a full performance of A Love Supreme from October 1965, a recording that goes far beyond any assumption as to how the suite could be played and could have sounded.
The question then is, what about the just-released Evenings at the Village Gate, an unearthing of live performances from August 1961 at the Greenwich Village club, almost equidistant from the Africa/Brass sessions and the Village Vanguard recordings? Perhaps the answer partly lies in that it opens on ‘My Favourite Things’ mid-performance with Dolphy at the beginning of his solo on flute simulating, if you will, the experience of wandering into the club at the corner of Bleeker and Thompson in Greenwich Village. The recording’s fidelity, with Jones’ drums front and centre and everyone else slightly off mic, is also helpful. Here, through the album’s 80 minutes or so of music, is a chance to eavesdrop on the work-a-day life of Coltrane and crew.
Such a point-of-view puts Evenings at the Village Gate in its proper place—not as a definitive artistic statement but as a snapshot of a particular point in time previously lost except for those lucky enough to have been there in the room. That alone makes it worthy of attention and relieves it of the need to be anything less than revelatory.
There’s the thrill of hearing an almost complete ‘Greensleeves’ (like ‘My Favourite Things,’ we drop in after the music has started). Unlike the two truncated performances of the song captured during the November Village Vanguard run, all the signposts of the Africa/Brass arrangement are included with the added bonus of hearing Dolphy improvise on bass clarinet in between Tyner and Coltrane’s solos. It reminds of the glorious contrast between the three: Tyner’s lightness as he skirts single-line runs up and down the keyboard and the thrust of his comping, Dolphy’s ecstatic embrace of everything but convention (dig, though, how reverently he plays the ‘Greensleeves’ melody) and Coltrane’s whirling, swirling soprano saxophone. It is, to my ears—admittedly partial to Coltrane’s recasting of ‘Greensleeves’—the most indispensable performance on Evenings at the Village Gate.
‘Africa’ is a close second. Just the opportunity to hear the centrepiece of Africa/Brass live—something that even a few months ago had never even been known to have been played live by Coltrane—is somewhat astonishing. Hearing it here, though, makes it fairly clear why it did not become a staple of his live repertoire. The rigidity of its structure is thrilling when realized at Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. It is constricting when attempted at the Village Gate though Coltrane is particularly inspired during his solo after Jones’ improvisation. What is most illuminating is the extended dialogue between Workman and Art Davis—at the time, on call as the band’s second bassist when needed—which, in the studio, was extremely brief.
‘When Lights Are Low’ is too. In 1961, the Benny Carter standard was part of Dolphy’s book when he performed with pick-up groups. Here, he stretches out for chorus after chorus on bass clarinet, never once playing the expected. Coltrane than takes over on soprano—a pleasant surprise—for a solo as equally original. Tyner’s is the perfect chaser for a performance that captures the group as it has rarely been heard: working out on a song that every jazz musician was, and probably still is, expected to know.
The version here of ‘Impressions’ is also a novelty. Coltrane and Dolphy solo on soprano saxophone and bass clarinet respectively instead of tenor and alto saxophone. Coltrane’s recasting of Davis’ ‘So What’ was new to the group’s book in the summer of 1961, and Coltrane, Dolphy and Tyner’s solos explode with ideas, the quantity of which makes them seem even longer than they are.
The portion of ‘My Favourite Things’ released is also riveting. Dolphy’s flute, sounding so much like bird song, accentuates the ambient mood of so many of the innumerable live recordings by Coltrane now available. Coltrane's own solo repeats some of the bitonal motifs of the studio recording.
What is unmistakable about Evenings at the Village Gate is its relation to Coltrane’s quest to reach some truth or resolution in how he is often seized with a phrase, playing it over and over, sometimes more intently, sometimes ending it with striving to reach a note just out of reach.
In talking with DeMichael, Coltrane elaborated as to what his music was trying to communicate: “It’s more than beauty that I feel in music—that I think musicians feel in much. What we know we feel we’d like to convey to the listener. We hope this can be shared by all.”
Evenings at the Village Gate shows that Coltrane was able to do so not by accident but by, as they say, doing the work.