John Coltrane,
The Classic Quartet:
Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings

(Impulse, 1998)

John Coltrane was a titan of the tenor saxophone, whose influence in the 1960s changed the face of jazz forever. With McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass, what became known as Coltrane's "classic quartet" took the genre into new realms of creativity and improvisation, and it is those amazing journeys that are the subject of this monumental 8-CD set.

Coltrane's career can be roughly divided into three major parts. The first was with the Prestige label, which consisted primarily of loose and swinging blowing sessions, thrown together rather quickly. There's a lot of great music here, but most of it is quite similar to the typical hard bop group of the '50s. The Atlantic era is next, chronicled in full on The Heavyweight Champion, a multi-disc set. Here Coltrane started to stretch out and explore the possibilities of modal music, which he played with Miles Davis. "Giant Steps" comes from this period, as well as Coltrane's more frequent forays on soprano sax.

But it was with the Impulse! label that Coltrane finally found his true voice. These recordings span the years from late 1961 to 1965, and in them we see and hear the varied faces and sounds of John Coltrane, from the melodious versions of "Greensleeves" and 'The Inchworm" to the loose, free jazz of "Suite," "Meditations" and the classic "A Love Supreme." It is remarkable to hear how varied music played by the same four performers can be in the space of only four years. Coltrane, like Davis, was never content to rest on his laurels and go through life playing his "greatest hits." He changed and grew, right up until his premature death, and his music became ever more meaningful -- and more deeply spiritual.

The eight discs are loaded, containing almost ten hours of music, and are housed in sleeves inside a gatefold, faux leather album that also holds a hundred-page booklet with dozens of photos, an interview with Elvin Jones, lengthy commentary by Bob Blumenthal, and a discography by Michael Cuscuna that puts it all into perspective. The 66 tracks include seven alternate takes that are previously unreleased, placing them together on the eighth disc entitled "Works in Progress," rather than putting them with the masters on the other discs -- no doubt a wise bow to folks who don't like to hear two versions of the same song in a row. These alternates, with their studio chatter and breakdowns, allow the listener brief and fascinating glimpses into the creations of these masterpieces.

The album itself is held by a metal outer case, making for an extremely attractive and fairly practical package. It's an economical one too, for the set lists for around $85, which is just a little over $10 a disc, a real buy, especially from some of the clubs, which sell it for $55. At that price it would be a crime for jazz fans to pass this one by, even if they already have the original albums. It's an immense amount of great music to hold in your hand -- music that forever changes the way we listen to jazz.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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