A loaf of bread,
a bottle of wine and ... Trane
The renewed interest in jazz spawned by Ken Burns' "Jazz" has brought me a lot
of questions from friends and strangers about some of the giants of our music. The list
comprises the usual suspects, and neophytes who are interested found in Burns' documentary
a pretty good launching pad into the musical stratospheres of the various artists who have
brought jazz along to its current state of maturity.
As might be expected, John Coltrane's name comes up often, especially among younger
listeners who are excited by his later work, the almost pure outpouring of spiritual
transport that characterized Trane's quest and the signpost that marked the end to his
all-too-brief path along life's highway.
Not surprising, either, is the excitement the young listeners find in Trane's wide-ranging
excursions into the nether regions of melody and harmony. One young fellow compared him
with Eddie Van Halen in admiring the "flash of his fingering." My young friend
didn't consider that Trane's technique required the additional cooperation of his lips,
lungs, jaws, teeth and tongue.
It is appropriate, I suppose, that we remember the Coltrane style for its groundbreaking
aspects and admire the experimentalism that ultimately has enabled all of us to hear music
in a way different from the way we hear the standard Tin Pan Alley ditty.
But the reverence accorded Trane's achievement often obscures his firm grounding in the
ballad. And, as I grow older and my appreciation of the standards of my parents' era
deepens, I find myself turning increasingly to the chapters in Coltrane's musical
encyclopedia that soothe and excite at the same time.
In 1975, I got my ears around a piece of vinyl on the Verve label titled "The Gentle
Side Of John Coltrane," and from that day to this, I hear his music with a deepening
appreciation for the road he traveled, the sacrifices he made, and the legacy he left.
Those of my jazz friends who believe the pinnacle of Coltrane's art resides in "A
Love Supreme" should seek out his gentler side. MCA has reissued my old vinyl
collection on compact disk and it amply demonstrates the value of peeking behind the flash
and urgency of Coltrane's spirituality to examine his more contemplative side.
Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes" opens the set and the disc ends with Billy Eckstine's
"I Want To Talk About You," the only live selection included here. This is the
famous performance recorded at New York City's Birdland that will batter your heart with a
three-minute cadenza which pays tribute to the classic "sheets of sound"
signature that always crops up in discussions of Trane.
In between, though, are quite uncharacteristic -- and quite delicate -- treatments of
other evergreens, pleasant surprises that nurture and enlarge the Coltrane body of work in
the listener's estimation. Some were recorded by the artist more than once and in quite
different settings from the performances included in "The Gentle Side."
A careful study of these cuts, however, deepens the respect of listeners, the experienced
and inexperienced alike. It should be noted here that none of the 13 cuts feature Coltrane
on the soprano saxophone. They are strictly reserved for his wider range on the tenor.
Most of the selections are performed by the classic Coltrane quartet -- Trane on tenor,
McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums -- but there are
other pleasant personnel surprises.
For example, Duke Ellington takes over piano duties on Billy Strayhorn's "My Little
Brown Book," supplemented by Aaron Bell on bass and Sam Woodward on the skins in a
haunting treatment of this beautiful tune. Ellington and Bell also appear on Ellington's
own "In A Sentimental Mood." Roy Haynes takes a turn on the drums on Trane's
"After The Rain" and "Dear Lord."
Two absolute diadems on this album, however, feature the inclusion of uncharacteristic
vocals from an earlier album the master had done with the velvety Johnny Hartman.
"Lush Life" and "My One And Only Love" absolutely crackle with the
image of a roaring fireplace on a winter's night and call to mind the more romantic of
Omar Khayyam's rubaiyat. "A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread -- and Thou," according
to the famous FitzGerald translation, fits these performances perfectly.
The range of Coltrane's very active muse is extended rather than restricted by this album,
and its compilers deserve the highest praise for making it something that compilation
albums usually are not. It is an intelligently selected and masterfully programmed piece
of work that shows uncharacteristic performances and in their best light and of a piece.
So grab your gal, a baguette and a fine wine, and stoke up that fireplace.
But don't forget to invite John Coltrane.