The early 1960's were a time of change in the Jazz world. People like Miles Davis were beginning to investigate and incorporate other musical styles and formats and broadening the definition of what constituted Jazz. There were the experiments with the music of other cultures and their integration into compositions, and this was followed by fusing Jazz with elements of pop music, specifically Funk.
Soloists were starting to lean toward more and more complex improvisations in their performances as they looked for newer and different ways to express the themes of a piece of music. Taking their cue from the postwar generation of players, like Charlie Parker, and the rest of the Be-bop players, their playing became increasingly elaborate as the years went on.
At one point Jazz was the preserve of orchestras that would sometimes approach symphony orchestras in size and make-up. But in the post World War two era more and more often you'd find smaller combinations of instruments ("combos"). These smaller groups were ideally suited for improvisation and solo work as fewer people meant easier communication between members while playing.
It's interesting to note that the groups today who are still experimenting with improvisation and solos are those with the smaller number of players. The Chicago Underground Trio, El' Zabar Kahil's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and his Ritual Trio continue to break new ground in improvisation techniques with specific focuses on rhythm and the use of electronics.
You can't talk about Jazz and improvisation without talking about the influence of John Coltrane. Arguably, he was one of the most inspired and inspiring saxophone players in Jazz if not ever than at least during his lifetime. His recording career lasted only twelve years, and when he died in 1967, he was still at the peak of his skill level.
For some reason very little film of John Coltrane exists, although I'd say part of the reason would have been his unwillingness to tailor a performance to the needs of a television show. How many North American variety shows are going to have as guests a Jazz band whose average song length was in the fifteen-minute range? Thankfully European television didn't seem to have the same hesitation and it's to recordings in Germany and Belgium that the Jazz Icons Series produced by Reelin' In The Years have turned for their wonderful DVD John Coltrane Live In '60, '61 & '65.
In 1960, John was still part of the Miles Davis Band, and was part of their European tour that Norman Granz had arranged with two other combos, The Stan Getz Quartet and the Oscar Peterson Trio. Part of the tour was to have been three broadcasts for a Dusseldorf television station, with each band recording a session. When Miles Davis, for whatever reason, refused to perform, John Coltrane stepped into the breach to lead his band. Granz also persuaded both Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson to play with Coltrane on a couple of numbers.
This early performance in his career shows Coletrane's potential as both a soloist and an improviser. What's especially revealing are his duets with fellow tenor saxophone player Stan Getz on two numbers, "Moonlight In Vermont" and "Hackensack". While Getz is a gifted Be-bop player and shows it in his solos, Coletrane is already starting to move beyond that style.
In his solos, he has more layers and textures of sound then you hear in Getz's work. He's not deliberately trying to show Getz up, and what he does isn't jarring or out of place with the other performer. There's just more to his solos then what Getz plays. Note after note piles up in a cascading waterfall of sound that will soon become his trademark.
In the following year when Coltrane returned to Europe, it was as the leader of his own band. Most notably this early version of his band included the incomparable Eric Dolphy contributing on flute and complimentary saxophone. Elvin Jones on Drums and McCoy Tyner of piano would end up being members of his permanent band for years to come and in a couple of year down the line when Jimmy Garrison joined them on bass they would become one of the best and most popular bands during their time together.
But to get back to the '61 concert for a moment with Eric Dolphy; since his previous visit to Europe, Coltrane had developed his own repertoire of songs including his magnificent reworking of "My Favourite Things". For this song he switches to playing the soprano saxophone, one of the most temperamental reed instruments this side of an oboe. However, Coltrane made that instrument sing and plays it with the same confidence that he brought to all his endeavours.
With Dolphy taking the second lead on "My Favourite Things" on flute the song is given an added dimension that doesn't exist on another recording. Seeing and hearing that performance is worth the price of the DVD on its own. However, it doesn't end with that, in fact one could almost say that's only the beginning, because the final recording from 1965 is Coltrane backed up by the band mentioned above where we see him at the peak of his playing prowess.
John Coltrane Live In '60, '61 & '65 is an amazing record of not only an incredible musician, but it also shows us some the development and changes he went through as a performer in the space of five years. With sound and visual quality that's amazing for the time, you are able to hear all the nuances and subtleties that Coltrane includes in his solos and appreciate their evolution.
The booklet that accompanies the DVD provides a great analysis of all three concerts and provides pertinent details about the professional career of John Coltrane. It was very refreshing to only read about his music and learn more about this man who still remains something of an enigma for most of us. The combination of the booklet and the DVD make for a great presentation that is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest Jazz saxophone players that ever lived.
(Originally posted September 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.