March 19, 2011

Coltrane’s Poor Cousin

Coltrane Plays the BluesJohn Coltrane’s 1960 Album Coltrane Plays the Blues is often overshadowed by its more famous companion LP, Coltrane’s Sound. This is unfortunate, because Plays the Blues is a consistently strong album from Coltrane and even contains a few surprises for listeners.

All the songs on the original releases were recorded over two days, October 24 and 26, 1960. The tunes used on Coltrane’s Sound have a darker hue to them, particularly “Liberia” and “Equinox,” with its dirge-like rhythmic underpinning beneath Coltrane’s soaring solo. This was probably intentional as this album followed hard on the heels of My Favorite Things, which was all standards. (Even the artwork for the album was dark, a painting of Coltrane’s face in which the smears of paint make it appear that he is melting. Apparently, even Coltrane was upset by the image.)

Coltrane Plays the Blues is of a different order. The playing is more approachable, and Coltrane plays both the soprano and tenor sax, accompanied by McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. It opens with the terrific “Blues to Elvin,” in which we hear Coltrane dig into the tune with a kind of simplicity of approach that is often lacking elsewhere. Yet, he is exploring harmonically with as much creativity and interest as ever. In two of the tunes, “Mr. Day” and the slowly swinging “Mr. Syms,” one hears premonitions of “Equinox” (recorded two days later) from both Coltrane and Tyner, as if both were taking the opportunity to explore motifs and variations for the later tune.

The surprises I mentioned earlier are two tunes without Tyner, the first time that Coltrane had recorded with a trio since his Prestige Records days. On “Blues to Bechet,” he plays soprano sax in tribute to its master, Sidney Bechet, and on “Blues to You,” he plays tenor. This is a refreshing, uncluttered format for Coltrane, and one wishes he had returned to it more often in his career.

While no Coltrane recording can be said to be lost in obscurity at this point, I recommend that you take a listen (or re-listen) to Coltrane Plays the Blues - it deserves to come out of the shadows.

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