John Coltrane’s tenure at Atlantic Records was a short one – from January 1959 to May 1961 – yielding just four albums in that period, and then another four through mid-1966. One year later, the saxophone great was gone; in the years since, Atlantic continued to mine his recordings for the label including on two posthumously-issued LPs from 1970 and 1975. Of Trane’s original albums for Atlantic, most were first experienced in mono, and it’s those releases that form the basis of Rhino’s recent box set John Coltrane – The Atlantic Years in Mono.
Available on six CDs or vinyl LPs, this set features six Coltrane classics in their original mono mixes as initially released between 1960 and 1970, all taken from the master tapes: Giant Steps, Bags and Trane (with vibraphonist Milt Jackson), Ole Coltrane, Coltrane Plays the Blues, The Avant-Garde (with trumpeter Don Cherry) and The Coltrane Legacy. Three albums for which mono masters no longer exist – My Favorite Things, Coltrane’s Jazz, and Coltrane’s Sound – are not included. So while this is not a complete portrait of Trane’s time at Atlantic (for that, the 1995 box The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings is still indispensable), it’s a worthwhile way to revisit these jazz masterworks in the manner in which they were originally heard.
Coltrane’s 1960 Atlantic debut was entitled Giant Steps, and indeed, that’s what he took with each successive LP for the label. Intense, dark, probing: the color of his saxophone was all his own. An early innovator in bebop and hard bop and later a groundbreaker in modal and free jazz, Coltrane eventually became known for his deeply spiritual, moody, avant-garde explorations at Impulse! Records. But the Atlantic works are among his most accessible – a bridge, if you will, between his Prestige and Impulse! periods. The saxophonist rose up through the ranks of jazz due to his work with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis in the 1950s, and pioneered what came to be known as “Coltrane changes,” or a harmonic progression variation using substitute chords over standard jazz chord progressions. He first explored these changes on the hard-bop Blue Note album Blue Train in 1957, before crystallizing his sound and technique on Giant Steps. This seminal, hard-driving LP still packs a punch today, consisting entirely of Coltrane’s own compositions from the exhilarating title track to the beautifully smoky ballad “Naima” (the latter featuring Trane’s Kind of Blue cohorts Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb on piano and drums, respectively).
The collaboration with Milt Jackson exudes a late-in-the-evening vibe, with fine support from Hank Jones, Paul Chambers, and Jackson’s Modern Jazz Quartet bandmate, Connie Kay. It also allowed the artists to flex their muscles on standards as well as originals. Ole Coltrane has the leader on soprano saxophone rather than tenor (he first explored soprano on My Favorite Things, unfortunately not included here), with pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones now in the mix. (They would go on to join Coltrane in his Classic Quartet once Jimmy Garrison joined on bass in 1962.) The three lengthy pieces on Ole, two written by Coltrane and one by Tyner, also pointed the way towards his future work. Coltrane Plays the Blues was a bit of a misnomer, as the repertoire wasn’t conventional blues at all, but rather original songs with a dark-hued feel. Coltrane played both tenor and soprano on this set, joined by Tyner, Jones, and bassist Steve Davis.
The Avant-Garde was released in 1966 in the wake of the previous year’s groundbreaking A Love Supreme on Impulse! It was culled from 1960 sessions with Don Cherry; Coltrane actually debuted his soprano sax sound on this album’s “The Blessing” (though his work on soprano was, of course, familiar by the time of the shelved track’s release). Inspired by Ornette Coleman, Coltrane and Cherry were joined by Coleman’s collaborators Ed Blackwell on drums and Charlie Haden on bass, with Percy Heath also contributing bass to three tracks. Three Coleman compositions were played, as well as Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and one Cherry original. With no piano, the tracks on The Avant-Garde were among the most unconventional of Coltrane’s Atlantic period. The Coltrane Legacy, the final disc in Rhino’s box, was culled from sessions in 1959, 1960 and 1961 with various groups, and issued in 1970. Its odds-and-ends approach make it a fitting closer to this collection.
As originally recorded in mono by engineers Tom Dowd and Phil Ramone – both to become great producers in their own right – these tracks sound warm, full, and present in mono. Free of the familiar stereo separation that would often find Coltrane and the piano in the left speaker, and the bass and drums in the right, the six albums take on a different, fresh and equally valid sonic quality. The remastering by John Webber at Air Studios is subtle and tasteful, doing justice to these landmark recordings. Each album is housed in a replica mini-LP sleeve with a spine, and original Atlantic labels have been recreated for each disc.
Jazz historian Ashley Kahn has provided an introductory essay in the 30-page squarebound booklet accompanying this collection; the liner notes were penned for the vinyl release and haven’t been altered for the CD version, so the set is described throughout as The John Coltrane Atlantic Mono Vinyl Box. For the late, oft-anthologized legend, the box (either on vinyl or CD) is a new way to immerse oneself once again in this classic music. It’s difficult not to wish that the missing albums hadn’t been included, especially when a talented engineer can produce fine results from a pristine vinyl release. My Favorite Things is the most egregious omission, as the title reinvention of the Rodgers and Hammerstein showtune became a radio hit and a Coltrane standard. (A bonus replica single of the edited, two-part “My Favorite Things” 45 is included in the vinyl set, but not on CD.) But one can’t argue with what is present on this historically significant, collector-oriented release. The giant steps taken by John Coltrane at Atlantic, a crucial part of his own journey to create some of the most experimental, enlightening jazz of all time – continue to resonate and inspire today.