Still chasin’ the Trane
There’s something about John Coltrane that makes obsessives of us all, from the people who set up a religion in his name 40 years ago (still flourishing as the St John Will.I.Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, and here is one of their icons) to fellow musicians: I remember visiting the great saxophonist Evan Parker’s house many years ago and looking enviously at the shelf containing what appeared to be the complete works, including a row of immaculate orange Impulse album spines.
Forty five years after his death, every time I walk into a record shop I still head to the Coltrane section in the hope that I’ll discover he’s done something new — and if that’s too much to ask, then maybe someone will have unearthed a previously unknown session or concert tape, like the fascinating 1960 audience recording from the Jazz Gallery in New York which made its appearance a couple of years ago. It featured a hitherto unheard (at least by me) prototype version of what would become Coltrane’s classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass and Pete LaRoca on drums, the last two eventually to be replaced by Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.
One day the well will run dry, and every note Coltrane played during his two decades of professional activity will be available in some form or other. But that may take a while, to judge from the entries in The John Coltrane Reference, an 800-page large-format soft back volume just published by Routledge in the UK. It will set you back around £40, but the depth of scholarship exhibited by the four authors — Chris DeVito, Yasuhiro Fujioka, Wolf Schmaler and David Wild — and their editor, Lewis Porter, makes the outlay seem a bit of a bargain.
A sort of catalogue raisonee of his career, the book is divided into two halves. The first is a chronology, listing all known public appearances, with as many details of location and personnel as possible, sometimes enhanced by extracts from relevant newspaper and magazine articles. The second is a discography, which appears to list every known reissue: a formidable undertaking. The first section begins with his stint with the band of the trumpeter King Kolax in 1947 and ends with his final concert, at Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom for the Left Bank Jazz Society in May 1967, two months before his death. The second opens in 1946, when Coltrane was still in the services, with an informal session recorded by a US Navy band on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and ends with an unreleased session for Impulse at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio 10 days after the Baltimore date.
There is a section of photographs, some of them previously unknown to me, along with reproductions of early record labels (including 78s under the leadership of Dizzy Gillespie, Gay Crosse, Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges) and concert and club advertisements. There is also a page of his original contract with Prestige Records, containing a reminder that musicians were once paid their royalties on only 90 per cent of the records sent out from the pressing plants, because it was assumed, in the days of brittle shellac, that one in 10 would be broken before the shipment reached the stores (an arrangement that, to the industry’s great discredit, was maintained well into the 1970s).
All this might seem like a version of stamp-collecting, were Coltrane’s legacy not so rich in meaning and beauty. What this apparently dry work of reference does is send the listener back to the music, hungry for more.