The Classic Quartet
The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings
After listening to a 16-disc box set of Trane's Prestige recordings of the 50s, and the 7-disc set of his Atlantic recordings of 1959-61, I have moved on to his recordings with the John Coltrane Quartet from 1961 to 1967 on the Impulse! label.
This 8-disc set captures Trane at the height of his intensity. The music varies from the moving and beautiful "A Love Supreme" to the challenging "Sun Ship." Perhaps fortunately, some of his most difficult music of this period, such as "Ascension" and "Interstellar Space," was recorded with additional personnel beyond the Quartet, and is therefore not included in this set. But while even the most intense and dissonant of his recordings demands one's full attention (it simply cannot function as "background music"), it amply rewards that attention.
All this Coltrane I've been listening to (he's the only musician so far played in my new car) may sound like I've only recently discovered his music. Nothing could be further from the truth. I first started listening to Trane around '74 or '75, and the Quartet - John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones - became my John, Paul, George and Ringo for the decade.
The journey that's chronicled on the 31 CDs of these three sets is remarkable. All the cliches about innovative musicians "expanding the vocabulary of his instrument" and "taking his music into new frontiers" could well have been first coined for Coltrane. After leaving Prestige and the hard- and post-bop music he recorded at that label, he began experimenting more and more at Atlantic, both with the compositions, the modes and the very sounds that he would coax out of his instrument. By the time he got to Impulse!, he was exploring just where the limits of self expression might be, and every time he approached those limits, he found that he was also pushing them further. It would not be correct to say that he was the Jimi Hendrix of the saxophone; Jimi Hendrix was the John Coltrane of the guitar.
By the end of his career, it seemed as if he had succeeded in blowing not only his heart and soul out through his horn, but finally even his mortal existence. Nirvana, literally translated, means to extinguish or blow out, as a candle. Coltrane's intensity got to the point where it seems as if he extinguished his own existence and found nirvana - Coltrane did not die so much as just blow himself out of this mortal realm.
Writing in The New Yorker about British type designer Matthew Carter, Alec Wilkinson recently said, "In the spring of 1960, the John Coltrane Quartet played its first engagement. Carter was in the audience. Over several weeks, he heard them three or four times. 'Sometimes they played the same songs in the second set as they played in the first,' he says. 'Not because they were lazy but because they wanted to surpass themselves, or find something in the music that they hadn't found earlier in the evening. They were that acute.' Listening to them, he decided that he owed it to himself to try and stay in New York. 'Their seriousness of purpose was a lesson,' he says. 'Four great geniuses who would knock themselves out every night when instead they could have coasted. I felt I could have been dishonest enough to return to England and say I hadn't seen great design. But I couldn't somehow pretend that I hadn't heard the John Coltrane Quartet.'"
That's the kind of thing that listening to this music does to one. That's what it does to me . . . and what it can do to you.