Trane Keeps a-Rollin'

The music that makes up John Coltrane: Heavyweight Champion -- The Complete Atlantic Recordings, a six-CD boxed set just released on the Rhino imprint, was cut over the course of a relatively brief period of time. Coltrane, fresh from several years spent as a member of bands led by Miles Davis, was bursting with new ideas when he signed with Atlantic, and these notions flowed out of his horns in a thrilling rush. That he was able to achieve so much in less than two and a half years (the numbers on Heavyweight Champion were cut between January 1959 and May 1961) is nothing short of astonishing. But hearing these songs from a distance of more than three decades is also a melancholy experience, and not only because Coltrane was stilled by liver ailments in 1967 at the tender age of 40, long before his musical journey should have ended. No, what's most depressing is that what passes for modern jazz these days seldom ventures beyond the territory Coltrane traveled during the stage this collection surveys. Players throughout the idiom have found great inspiration in the wonders gathered here, but too many of them fail to emulate what may be Coltrane's most admirable and timeless characteristics A his refusal to rest on his laurels and his insistence upon constantly pushing his music into the realm of the unknown.

In some ways, Rhino has already gone over the ground covered by the new set. The company's two-disc The Last Giant: The John Coltrane Anthology, issued in 1993, supplemented rarities with predictable selections dating from the artist's Atlantic tenure. But the result was a jarringly incomplete glance at an innovator whose work was far too sweeping and brawny to be synopsized in the space the programmers of Anthology allotted.

For Heavyweight Champion, however, producer Joel Dorn has taken the right tack. If ever there was a musician whose endeavors deserve to be viewed in their entirety, it is Coltrane, whose craggy, sprawling career actually was a continuum, a notably linear quest for understanding. The size and scope of his efforts are such that a partial examination of them is nearly as problematic as no examination at all.

Of course the six-CD set is not without its flaws. Foremost among them are the liner notes by Lewis Porter, an associate professor of music at Rutgers University's Newark campus. Porter clearly loves this music -- he's not so dry and distanced an academician that he sucks all of the juice from his prose -- but he would rather dissect the material than discuss its emotional power. To his credit, he illustrates in a cogent manner why Coltrane's stormy solos are as technically impressive as they are startling. Too often, though, he overanalyzes this most spontaneous of styles. In describing the title song to the album My Favorite Things, for example, Porter's jazzspeak ("After the first -- they switch to an E major vamp . . . then it's back to E minor for the second --") reduces a little miracle to alphabet soup. More stirring are remembrances from saxophonist Jimmy Heath and Mary Alexander, for whom the gorgeous "Cousin Mary" was named. These discourses don't rely on the nuts-and-bolts jargon music theorists turn to when trying to explain the inexplicable. Instead they spotlight the deep commitment that infused all of Coltrane's contributions.

Born in High Point, North Carolina, Coltrane was adept at clarinet and alto saxophone by the time he was in his middle teens. As he became more certain about the path he wanted to take, he moved to Philadelphia and enrolled at the city's Ornstein School of Music and its Granoff Studios, but before he could complete his studies, military service called. Following a tour of duty in Hawaii, he returned to the mainland, added the tenor saxophone to his repertoire, and passed through the lineups of several R&B bands before falling in, on a more frequent basis, with the jazz crowd. He made his first recordings with Dizzy Gillespie in 1949, and was a regular in Johnny Hodges's septet between 1953 and 1954. While his tone under these various leaders was always hearty, it initially was not terribly different from that of other young saxophonists awed by the artistry of Charlie Parker. But that changed as Coltrane absorbed the influences of a new breed of sax player that included Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, channeling them through his own world-view. He was a serious person, not a clown, and although he eventually fell victim to the drug and alcohol abuse that proved so damaging to many of his peers, he didn't let his foibles distract him from his mission.

The five sessions Coltrane oversaw as a front man in 1957 and 1958 weren't revelatory, but an association with Thelonious Monk was stunning; Kind of Blue, made with Miles Davis, was even better. The modal structures present on Kind of Blue are what make it a jazz landmark, but the solos of Davis and Coltrane provide it with most of its fire. Coltrane showed that he could manufacture tension even when he wasn't operating at full speed, piling note upon note in an improvisational fever that's rarely been matched since. At last Coltrane had captured the sound he'd sought for so long. It was time to move out on his own and put it to work.

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