The Art of the Small Group:
Two jazz classics, gloriously reissued

by Paul Hofmann

Part One:

John Coltrane, “The Ultimate ‘Blue Train’”

Personnel: John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Lee Morgan, trumpet; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Kenny Drew, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums.

Compositions: Blue Train, Moment’s Notice, Locomotion, I’m Old Fashioned, Lazy Bird, Blue Train (alternate take), Lazy Bird (alternate take)

Recorded September 15, 1957 by Rudy Van Gelder (Hackensack, NJ)
Produced by Alfred Lion; reissue produced by Michael Cuscuna
Capitol/Blue Note CDP 7243 8 53428 0 6

John Coltrane was one of the very few modern jazz musicians whose dynamic innovations rivaled those of earlier greats Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. Like those two immortals, his legacy is a force to be forever reckoned with. Not only has Trane’s saxophone style proven to be the most influential of the post-bop era (outdoing even Sonny Rollins in this regard), he also penned a series of wonderful compositions that continue to be frequently performed.

Although his time on the scene was relatively brief (he died in 1967 at age 40, of liver cancer), Coltrane was very well recorded on various labels, both as sideman (most famously in Miles Davis’s great 1950s quintet/sextet) and then as leader of his own seminal quartet. 1957’s “Blue Train” is one of Coltrane’s unequivocal masterpieces, as important as its swinging contemporary, “Soultrane” (recorded by Coltrane for Prestige), and perhaps even as significant as the best of his subsequent projects for Atlantic (commencing with 1959’s “Giant Steps”) and for Impulse! (notably “A Love Supreme” and “Meditations”, recorded in 1964-65).

Reissued in 1997 by Capitol/Blue Note, the comprehensive compact disc edition of “Blue Train” includes two alternate takes heard for the first time, a handsome slipcase featuring a larger image of the classic original cover photo by Francis Wolff, the original liner notes by Robert Levin, some historic photos taken at the recording session, and new notes by reissue producer Michael Cuscuna. These features alone warrant the moniker ‘ultimate,’ yet still another bonus awaits: several additional hours of multimedia computer enhancements.

If you’re properly wired up, a few clicks on your hard drive (either a PC or a Mac will do) and you’ll be treated to a Coltrane movie of sorts – hours of interviews, photos, video clips of live performances, etc. “The Ultimate ‘Blue Train’” indeed! Of course, the music itself is well worth the price of admission, particularly since “Blue Train”, Coltrane’s sole date as leader for Alfred Lion’s Blue Note label, is arguably the most superlative Blue Note production of them all...

The caliber of the musicians, the consistency of their performances, the interesting arrangements, the stylistic unity between the musicians and the material chosen, the superb sound quality, and even the striking cover art all combine to produce a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts, impressive as each part is. By 1957, Blue Note had established itself as the one jazz label regularly incorporating these elements into each new release, yet Lion may have reached the pinnacle with this album (honorable mentions: Kenny Dorham’s “Whistle Stop;” Sonny Clark’s “Cool Struttin’;” Wayne Shorter’s “Juju”).

As great as Coltrane plays throughout, perhaps the highlight is the work of the nineteen-year old trumpeter Lee Morgan; his lines are so self-assured and brash. To me, his unrivaled artistry both here and on many subsequent Blue Note recordings suggests the spirit of Louis Armstrong playing the vocabulary of hard bop.

While the strength of the front line is exceptional, “Blue Train” also features a perfect rhythm section for this brand of small group jazz. Propelled by Philly Joe Jones’s electrifying rhythms, the horn soloists are really able to assert themselves. And yet for all the excitement, each solo (Coltrane’s and trombonist Curtis Fuller’s in particular) retains a wonderful melodic sense.

A special mention must go to Kenny Drew, who plays some fantastic piano throughout. Drew is also heard to advantage on several other important sessions of the period, notably Jackie McLean’s “Bluesnik,” uniquely combining bebop and blues lines into an important keyboard voice. In this he was similar stylistically to his friend and colleague, pianist Sonny Clark.

“Blue Train” commences with the outstanding title track – a funky, medium blues. Coltrane’s original melody is stated twice, sans drums (first played by two horns, then by all three). Coltrane takes a dandy first solo, a statement which effectively sets the inspired tone for all that follows. Lee Morgan succeeds Trane with an astounding proclamation of his own. Considering this was one of the first LPs he appeared on, what a powerful impression this brassy, confident solo must have made! Curtis Fuller plays some melodic and soulful lines, followed by infectious blues variations from Kenny Drew. The great Paul Chambers gets in a couple of bass choruses (accompanied only by Jones) before the returning melody brings Blue Train to its conclusion.

The Blue Train alternate features Trane playing a bit more aggressively. Although Morgan misses a few notes, he still sounds tremendous (so vital), and Fuller seems more confident here than on the master. As explained in the new booklet’s text, Drew’s piano solo was grafted into what became the released version ... yet I wonder if this information is correct, as there’s a more noticeable splice after this take’s solo (perhaps the new explanation has it backwards? Hard to doubt the esteemed Michael Cuscuna, however...). Whatever the case, this is a very valuable performance to have.

Moment’s Notice is up second, a buoyant tune that has become a jazz standard. After the melody is stated twice (in two different arrangements!), Trane takes a brilliant solo as he deftly wends his way through his piece’s intricate harmonies. Fuller’s relaxed, mid-register playing, in which he quotes Miles Davis’s Solar, is wonderful – it’s remarkable to hear a trombonist negotiate changes like this so well (especially at twenty-two years old). Morgan’s engaging brashness (“I’m BAD!”) leads fluently into supple statements from Chambers and Drew. After the restatement of the theme’s second arrangement, the tune manages to end on the same chord as did Blue Train.

An eight-bar drum prelude serves to introduce the speedy Locomotion, Coltrane’s twelve-bar blues with an eight-bar chromatic twist. The solos again are fabulous, starting with Trane’s and working through Fuller’s, Morgan’s, Drew’s, and finally Jones’s (exhibiting Philly’s typically clear, inventive phrasing). The artful arrangement of the coda clearly suggests a train slowing down. Indeed, a careful listen to the entirety of “Blue Train” suggests the musical equivalent of traveling by train. Jazz musicians had long been taken with the idea of ‘train sounds,’ from Duke Ellington’s arrangement of Five O’Clock Whistle to Clifford Brown & Max Roach’s version of Billy Strayhorn’s Take The ‘A’ Train. “Blue Train” represents the culmination of this trend.

I’m Old Fashioned (the one tune not written by Coltrane) is taken at an attractively slow tempo, featuring the leader playing Jerome Kern’s beautiful melody. Fuller follows suit, followed by a nice solo from Drew; Morgan then plays the final version of the theme. Trane joins him on the last chord – the only time the instrumentation of this performance exceeds a quartet.

“Blue Train” closes with Coltrane’s uptempo bebop line Lazy Bird, its opening measures introduced by Drew (by way of Bud Powell) and Jones. Morgan plays the entire exciting thirty-two-bar melody, the other horns joining him at the bridge. After an exhilarating trumpet solo, Fuller’s rich trombone statement highlights his unique ‘buttery’ sound. Trane’s three articulate choruses feature eighth notes expressed a bit more calmly than on the other tunes. Another beautifully constructed solo.

Drew’s single chorus has him pulling out some more Bud stops! Chambers then takes a short bowed solo, followed by one great chorus from Jones. In closing, Morgan again plays the tune, as the proceedings conclude with another extended coda whose arrangement suggests a train pulling into a station. As the Lazy Bird alternate is strikingly similar to the master both in format and performance, this could easily have been considered an alternate master (as were so many other alternates Blue Note released during this period).

“Blue Train” is a landmark session indeed; its crisp, intelligent approach to hard bop represents the culmination of the style. Coltrane’s earlier tenure with trumpeter Miles Davis surely had a deep and positive impact on his musical development, and when Trane rejoined Davis a few months after his great date for Blue Note, he found himself again at the center of jazz’s universe. Miles was at the peak of his considerable powers, and in little over a year was to make a recording every bit as imposing as “Blue Train.”

Part Two:

Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue”

Personnel: Miles Davis, trumpet; Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, alto saxophone; John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums.

Compositions: So What, Freddie Freeloader, Blue in Green, All Blues, Flamenco Sketches, Flamenco Sketches (alternate take)

Recorded March 2 and April 22, 1959 at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio, New York, NY
Columbia/Legacy CK 64935

So many words have been written about “Kind of Blue” that any further comments might seem superfluous! This timeless, trend-setting music, featuring Miles Davis and his great sextet, has been justifiably praised as one of the great accomplishments in jazz. In 1997, Sony reissued these sessions as part of their Columbia/Legacy line. And this is the one edition not to be missed.

For starters, it’s the first released version of this music where the initial three performances, those that were always pressed a quarter-tone sharp, have finally been corrected to the ‘real’ pitches (as played in the studio). What a genuine relief. Also enjoyable is Sony’s art direction/design: the original cover is restored; Bill Evans’s original essay is reproduced (his classic “Improvisation in Jazz”); the CD itself is a facsimile of the old Columbia LPs with the solid red sheen; and, for the first time, many historic photographs of the musicians are incorporated. Also included is an interesting commentary by critic Robert Palmer. A very attractive package.

Sonically, Mark Wilder (the remix engineer) did a marvelous job enhancing the recording quality. Paul Chambers’s bass lines sound much clearer than ever before, for instance. And in spite of the late-1950s penchant to record with too much reverb, Wilder and his team managed to mitigate even this, making the group sound more ‘true.’ One hears the difference immediately.

Naturally, these enhancements clarify the bad as well as the good, most strikingly the out of tune piano. It seems amazing that Davis and Evans tolerated this; it’s usually bad enough dealing with this sort of thing in clubs! Throughout most of his fabled career, Miles was in command of his world as few artists were, or even are today. Surely he could have demanded the strings be tuned? Examples of this abound in jazz; for some reason, many sessions that pianist Bobby Timmons contributed to featured horribly maintained keyboards. How remarkable then, that here Evans in particular remained able to create such great music.

About forty years ago, a new phrase entered the jazz lexicon: Modal Music. Briefly, this referred to playing and writing whose emphasis was scalar (horizontal) as opposed to chordal (vertical). “Kind of Blue” has often been referred to as the first modal jazz record. Yet this is a misconception. Not only are there prior examples of modal jazz, by Miles and others, in this case musicians and listeners alike have consistently misapplied the term. Scalar improvisations do dominate this project, yet traditional Western harmonies undergird much of it as well.

The opener, So What, certainly IS a modal tune, and soon became the basis for Coltrane’s Impressions first performed a year later. After a complex, all-notated impressionistic introduction from Evans and Chambers, there are but two harmonies in this entire piece – and no standard harmonic progressions. Notable is Evans’s uniformly sparse, scalar playing.

Freddie Freeloader follows: an infectious, straight-ahead blues with a twist – an unresolved chord heard during the final two measures of alternate choruses. At the very end, the expected harmony (only heard intermittently) resolves things nicely. Adderley turns in a stellar solo, drenched in the funky vocabulary of the blues. His playing throughout “Kind of Blue” represents, like Wynton Kelly’s here, the epitome of this school of playing.

For those of us who recall the vinyl era (!), Side 1 concludes sans Cannonball as Bill Evans returns for his magnificent Blue in Green – an uncommonly gorgeous ballad. The arrangement features ideas Evans employed frequently throughout his career; the tune is played “in various augmentation and diminution of time values” (these words from Evans’s essay). The rubato restatement of the closing theme is another such device. Again we hear a mixture of modal and harmonic music, featuring a descending scalar melody over harmonies entirely derived from traditional V-I progressions. Miles and Coltrane play particularly beautifully here.

All Blues, a cool 6/8 swinger, features the sextet again playing the blues. For some reason, it has became fashionable to consider this an example of ‘playing in a mixolydian mode.’ One wonders why; All Blues is a prototypical blues performance. And the groove is strictly from the hard bop manual. Miles takes charge on the memorable ending, repeating notes one wishes might last forever (the ending fade seems too sudden...).

“Kind of Blue” closes with the exotic Flamenco Sketches, its opening measures lifted verbatim from Evans’s then-recent composition Peace Piece. Scalar playing is again featured prominently, and again over well-placed V-I chord progressions. The title notwithstanding (strangely, there’s little overtly ‘Spanish’ about this piece), the tone Miles elicits from his trumpet does prefigure his haunting performances on “Sketches of Spain,” the orchestral masterpiece he was to record with Gil Evans within a year.

One of the more impressive achievements throughout “Kind of Blue” is the sensitive playing from the rhythm section, in particular their not interfering with the front line soloists. This helps the project’s overall cohesion immensely, and is an important lesson that could stand revisiting today. What’s more, the relaxed tempos of every tune (two unhurried mood pieces; three medium-tempo swingers) contrast favorably with what was to come. In subsequent years Miles was to perform many pieces, including So What, at frenetic paces, foregoing the calm sophistication achieved here. To me, Davis’s later versions evokes images of forests ablaze, whereas these original interpretations suggest the sonic equivalents of less frantic musicians maintaining a steady, blue flame.

Some might think it odd that Chambers, one of the premier soloists in the history of jazz, is limited to a single bass solo on this record (on Freddie Freeloader). But there are no drum features either, not even any trading of four- or eight-measure segments. On every track, Chambers and Cobb stick to jazz’s traditional role of keeping solid, steady time. And this is no doubt by design; the record certainly doesn’t sound like it ‘lacks’ anything!

As a bonus, Sony’s 1997 reissue includes a stunning alternate take of Flamenco Sketches. Simply put, this is a unique and valuable performance, even considering its minor flaws (the bad piano tuning is particularly noticeable, and Adderley is heard playing a few notes that appear to clash with the harmonies). Also, for some reason the recording level is noticeably higher here than on the other tracks. Perhaps these factors led Producer Irving Townsend to dismiss it.

But in other ways, this interpretation is possibly better than the master. Dig the marvelous group cohesion and the special poignancy of the solos. Dig Miles playing at his absolute peak. And Coltrane’s solo is so well constructed; his notes are unpretentious yet profound. He’s obviously listening very carefully, letting the music unfold and taking great care not to overplay. What an artistic achievement!

Along with John Coltrane’s “The Ultimate ‘Blue Train’”, this edition of “Kind of Blue” belongs in every serious music lover’s collection.