Trane Keeps a-Rollin'

For his first visit to the studio under Atlantic's auspices (documented on disc one of Heavyweight Champion), Coltrane wasn't yet ready to take giant steps. His accompanists included vibist Milt Jackson and drummer Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet, a unit whose chamber jazz was deep and tasteful but hardly revolutionary. Moreover the tracks he chose to survey didn't come from his pen (three were Jackson compositions). Still, Coltrane's confidence is marvelous to behold; saddled with a comparatively commercial format, he still managed to distend the pieces with solos that were simultaneously startling and logical.

These same qualities marked Coltrane's own writing, which came to dominate many of the discs that followed. "Giant Steps," "Naima," "Cousin Mary," and "Like Sonny" (the last a tip of the hat to saxophonist Rollins) are among the most familiar volumes in the jazz canon, and Heavyweight Champion invites us to watch them germinate. The set supplements the widely available versions of the works with numerous alternate takes and false starts -- enough to fill the package's penultimate CD. To someone who truly appreciates Coltrane, eavesdropping on the creation of these treasures is akin to seeing Michelangelo pull the statue of David from a slab of stone.

The Rhino compilation is jammed with such moments, and its chronological layout also deepens one's fondness for oft-heard songs. Coltrane's restlessness compelled him to collaborate with many of the finest talents of the era, including pianist McCoy Tyner and (especially) drummer Elvin Jones. Likewise he found himself drawn to the groundbreaking recordings of Ornette Coleman, whose radical musical concepts alienated as many listeners as they entranced. But Coltrane was not cowed -- far from it. He learned Coleman's oeuvre from the inside out, playing standards such as "The Blessing" in the company of sidemen who played on the originals, including bassist Charlie Haden. The knowledge he gleaned would serve him well the further he ventured onto the cutting edge of jazz.

The last batch of tunes Coltrane recorded for Atlantic are exciting: The eighteen-minute "Ole" displays a performer totally in control of his musical destiny. Subsequent albums on other labels (most often MCA and Impulse!) find him constantly poking and prodding at himself and his accompanists to unearth what they had not yet found. The peak is 1964's A Love Supreme, widely seen as a celebration of Coltrane's victory over heroin and liquor. Prayerful and eloquent, it is an aural account of a man at the instant he sees the truth.

Where Coltrane went next continues to baffle and upset many jazz scholars. Platters such as Ascension and Om maintain links to the spirituality and Afrocentrism of A Love Supreme, but in his crusade for freedom, he tossed aside accessibility like the inconvenience it was. It's not true that Coltrane was unlistenable in his final years, but there's no question that he stumbled more frequently as his level of risk increased. How could he not? In his autobiography, Miles, trumpeter Davis summed up Coltrane's dilemma neatly: "[Coltrane] once told me that even he liked some of the music he did earlier better than what he was doing now. But Trane was on a search, and his course kept taking him farther and farther out; he couldn't turn back. . . ."

Today's young jazz lions haven't been defeated by the conundrums in which Coltrane was mired at the time of his passing because, for the most part, they've steered clear of them. Neotraditionalists aren't trying to reshape the music; they're satisfied with the way it is. Hence acoustic players continue to crank out bop and postbop that differs from its models mainly because of its Nineties digital-studio sheen. The closest thing to a principled artistic stand we've seen of late among jazz stars was saxophonist Branford Marsalis's decision to stop leading the band on The Tonight Show -- hardly a tough call when you take into consideration the brief amount of space Marsalis was given each night and the lameness of host Jay Leno's attempts at topical humor.

Coltrane may have made mistakes when he entered unexplored quadrants, and perhaps he might be just as revered had he stopped his pursuit of ineffable jazz nirvana when he had the chance. But if he had, we probably wouldn't have the glory encapsulated on Heavyweight Champion.

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