Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Blue Train - John Coltrane Keeps His Promise

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

JOHN COLTRANE has often been called a "searching" musician. His literally wailing sound—spearing, sharp and resonant that seems to suggest (from a purely emotional standpoint) a kind of intense probing into things far off, unknown and mysterious. Admittedly such a description is valid only in a personal way but "searching" remains applicable to Trane in view of actual fact. He is constantly seeking out new ways to extend his form of expression — practicing continually, listening to what other people are doing, adding, rejecting, assimilating — molding a voice that is already one of the most important in modern jazz.

John's "sound" as mentioned in the lead is rather unique. It is certainly his most obvious trademark (similar to Dexter Gordon, his earliest and strongest influence) but has meaning apart from just a "different sound." His way of thinking is at one with his tonal approach. His ideas often seem to run in veering, inconsistent lines appearing at first to lack discipline but, like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk (two of his closest musical associates, both of whom have been labeled by some as "eccentric" and/or "poorly equipped" instrumentalists) John is aware and in control of what he is doing. What may appear to be suddenly rejected is used, rather, as a basis for further exploration.

Trane feels that working with Miles and Monk have been "invaluable musical experiences." His employment with each of these giants has provided him with an education

Miles, and now Monk (being of this school themselves) have never inhibited John's musical sense of freedom. He is able to experiment while on the stand with no fear of being called down and with a good chance of being congratulated.

John, though highly self-critical, has broad and varied tastes when it comes to others. His favorites are many [but especially Miles and Monk]; Miles ("His style of playing is very interesting to me. He has a very good knowledge of harmonics and chord structure. I used to talk with him quite often."), and Monk ("He plays with a whole range of chords. I had never heard anything like it before and I've learned a lot from him.").

- Robert Levin, liner notes to Blue Train [BN LP 1577] 

As developments outlined in the following pieces indicate, the title of this feature could just as easily have been “the accidental making of Blue Train, one of the greatest albums in Jazz history,” or something to that effect.

Along with Giant Steps, which John would record for Atlantic two years later in 1959, Blue Train recorded in 1957 for Blue Note - Coltrane’s only album for that legendary Jazz label - came about so casually that it could have just as easily not come about at all.

Here’s the back story from Richard Cook’s The Biography of Blue Note Records [2001] with a more technical analysis of the music to follow from Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music [1999].

The year 1957 was the one that saw Blue Note's recording activity really explode. No less than forty-seven sessions were recorded for release during the course of the year. Considering that the company was still basically being overseen -including all matters pertaining to A&R, recording, packaging and distribution - by the original two-man team, the pace was extraordinary. It was not, though, the label's finest year in terms of quality: if anything, a look through the session book for the year suggests that a sense of routine was already starting to set into the company's activities. But the strongest Blue Notes of the year were good enough to rank with the greatest jazz albums of the era.

A few players who'd already recorded as sidemen were offered their first Blue Note dates as leaders: Curtis Fuller, Sonny Clark, Clifford Jordan, John Jenkins. But the most important 'debut' of Blue Note's year was the sole record to be issued on the label under John Coltrane's leadership, Blue Train.

The existence of the album offers one of the most tantalising might-have-beens in jazz. At the beginning of the year, Coltrane, already attracting great attention through his work with the Miles Davis Quintet, paid an informal visit to the Blue Note offices around seven o'clock one evening, ostensibly to ask Alfred Lion for some of his Sidney Bechet records (Coltrane had not yet recorded on the soprano saxophone, an instrument which had been all but outlawed in modern jazz). Lion was there on his own, Wolff having left for the day. The two men talked about the possibility of a record deal, but with Wolff - the man who looked after the contractual side - absent, there was not much more than talk. Still, Lion sensed that he was on the verge of a deal with the saxophonist.

The chronology here is a little difficult to figure out. The meeting took place either late in 1956 or early in 1957, but Coltrane signed a deal with Prestige early in 1957 and made his first date for them as a leader on 31 May. On 6 April, though, he participated in the Johnny Griffin Blue Note date A Blowing Session. Did he discuss the earlier proposition with Lion once again at that session? Either way, the first office meeting concluded in somewhat bizarre circumstances. Lion offered Coltrane a small advance for the making of at least one record, which Coltrane took and agreed to. Just as things were about to be even further formalised, the cat which resided in Blue Note's office leaped out of the window and into the street (they were not very high up). Concerned for its welfare, Lion ran to the window, looked out, and saw the animal being shepherded into a taxi by a woman who'd just opened the door of the cab. Alarmed that someone was trying to steal his cat (the second time a feline had played a part in Blue Note history, after the incident with Bud Powell!), he ran down into the street, and apparently managed to recover the animal. But on his return, Coltrane had disappeared. The contract remained as no more than a handshake agreement.

However, even though he had a new deal with Blue Note's great rival, Prestige, Coltrane didn't forget his promise. On 15 September he led a top-drawer Blue Note line-up through five compositions at the Van Gelder Hackensack studios. Blue Train has acquired an enormous reputation through the years, and after A Love Supreme and Giant Steps it is surely Coltrane's most renowned and frequently encountered record. It sits in collections which otherwise have none of Coltrane's Prestige or later Impulse! recordings, the most convenient and tolerable example of the first period of a difficult musician.

It's not hard to see why the album has been so successful. As the sole Blue Note by one of the most famous musicians in jazz, it has always staked a comfortable place in browser bins. For once, Reid Miles did little messing around with Frank Wolff's cover shot, cropping closely in on Coltrane's head and shoulders: he looks down, apparently lost in thought, saxophone hanging off his sports shirt, his left hand caught in the crook of his neck, his right raised to his lips as if he is musing on an imminent question. The title, Blue Train, almost suggests a kind of mood music, bolstered by the warm blue tint which Miles put on the photograph.

The music is beautifully delivered. Bob Porter's adage about Blue Note having two days of rehearsal where Prestige had none is borne out better by Blue Train than by any other session. As big and powerful as many of Coltrane's Prestige recordings are, none has quite the precision and polish of his Blue Note offering. Even so, the album is, in many ways, a high-craft, functional hard-bop record. Coltrane brought four original compositions to the date, of which at least two - A Moment's Notice and Lazy Bird - became frequently used parts of the jazz repertory. But there's a sense of impeccable routine about the music, which perhaps prophesies the way hard bop would go. In the notes to the latest reissue of the record, Curtis Fuller, who plays trombone on the record, says that 'I've been with younger musicians trying to work out that tune ["A Moment's Notice"]. And I tell them that that's just how we did it ... on a moment's notice.' That prosaic summary says much about the occasion.

The opening four minutes of the record are still electrifying. The stark, sombre blues theme of the title piece is elaborated through Coltrane's opening solo, beginning with long notes but quickly departing into a characteristic labyrinth where the chords are ransacked for many-headed motifs and trails of melody. It's a quite magisterial statement which Van Gelder captured in a sound more handsome than Coltrane had hitherto been blessed with. Yet from there, the performance becomes almost a matter of playing the blues until its end. Lee Morgan and Curtis Fuller were plausible choices for the front-line roles, and ones which the leader was responsible for, yet neither does anything other than, well, play the blues. Morgan, still finding his way, could be excused (what might Kenny Dorham have made of the role?), and the dyspeptic Fuller sounds far better as an ensemble colourist than as a soloist. It is always Coltrane himself one waits to hear. Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones are men he knew well, and they play with exemplary attention, although pianist Kenny Drew is again perhaps too bland a presence. All that seems forgotten once one hears the proud beauty of the tenorman's interpretation of I’m Old Fashioned and the fast, controlled excitement of Lazy Bird.

In the currently available CD edition of Blue Train, the originally issued version of the title track, take nine, is placed alongside take eight - with the added complexity that Drew's solo on take eight was the one featured on the familiar version, thanks to some tape splicing at the time of the first LP release. Some may be shocked that Lion's Blue Note would do such a

thing, but as Tony Hall remembers Alfred telling him, it was not an uncommon practice for them to adopt, particularly where an ensemble head was much cleaner than on a take where the solos were hotter. Since the advent of tape mastering, jazz had become no more immune to post-production than any other kind of recorded music, and while such matters are often thought to have grown up in the sixties and seventies, it was a convention that started early. One of the more famous examples in fifties' jazz was Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners date for Riverside, where a finished version of the title piece had to be spliced from three different takes.”

Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music [1999]:

“Just a few months after Coltrane [1957 Prestige – PRLP 7105, Prestige – 7105, Prestige – LP 7105], the Blue Note label got special permission from Prestige to produce the second album under John's leadership. According to Orrin Keepnews and Michael Cuscuna, Coltrane had agreed to do this album before signing with Prestige. Blue Train was recorded during his stint at the Five Spot, on September 15, 1957, and released that December. It quickly gained status as the best display of Coltrane's talents as a player and composer to date — all but one of the five tunes were his, and Blue Note paid for rehearsals.

The title piece is a haunting blues, basically a riff. The barrage of notes in his extended solo helps to create the urgency of a man spilling out his innermost feelings. (The first take, issued in 1997, has a much shorter, but still effective solo.) Locomotion is another blues riff, this time in AABA form— twelve-bar blues, blues again, eight-bar bridge, and blues again. Lester Young had used this structure in 1947 on D. B. Blues, which Coltrane probably knew. Coltrane was to reprise this structure on Trancing In.

On Moment's Notice, Coltrane is preoccupied with placing changing harmonies under a repeated note in the melody. That's interesting, because Dizzy Gillespie had done something like it on Con Alma, which had been in his repertory since 1954, when he recorded it with Latin percussionists. This exercise of finding different chords to harmonize the same note forces one to find some unusual chord connections, and I would suggest that sequences like these led partly to the unusual chord sequence of Giant Steps. In Con Alma the first two chords under each note are a major third apart, paving the way for Coltrane's exploration of roots moving by thirds in "Giant Steps." 

The chords to Coltrane's Lazy Bird, have the composer's cryptic comment "Heavy Dipper" under the bridge. The title of this piece is evidently a play on Lady Bird by Tadd Dameron, the much admired composer with whom Coltrane had in fact recorded in November 1956. This leads one to look for connections, but Dameron's piece is a sixteen-bar form without repeats and Coltrane's is a thirty-two-bar AABA. I suggest the following relationship: Take Dameron's sixteen-bar chord progression, transposed from C to Coltrane's key of G, but make each chord last half as long, so the whole progression takes eight measures. Now you basically have the A section of Lazy Bird—it becomes exact if you make the substitutions shown in parentheses:

For the bridge, Coltrane used a variation of the bridge of the standard tune Lover Man, which he had arranged for Jimmy Heath's band nine years earlier.

The coda may be seen as a very extended version of Dameron's original "turnaround" (which brings the piece back to the beginning). Coltrane's fresh and bubbling solo here is particularly full of what Barry Harris calls "[dominant] seventh scales."

On Blue Train Coltrane impresses as a player and as a writer. When Davis took Coltrane back into his group at the end of the Five Spot engagement, he was getting a powerhouse of a saxophonist who played with charisma and authority. And he was getting a powerhouse of a person, with a renewed vision of what he could accomplish in life.”

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