John Coltrane – “Blue Train” (1957 / 2014)

Dave is probably one of my first “adult” friends, one of the first friends I made post-college and out and about in the real world. We first connected sometime in the mid-1990s due to a common interest in, of all things, Seattle hockey memorabilia, and over the last 20+ years we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. So imagine my surprise when he asked me the other day what I’d been up to, and I told him I’d just gotten back from the record store, and he replied with “did I ever tell you I have a big collection of jazz records?” Um, no Dave, you hadn’t. And how am I just hearing about this now??

Long story short Dave was into jazz as far back as high school (he’s a few years older than me) and used to frequent all the used record shops in Seattle, scouring the jazz sections and used “new arrivals” on the never-ending hunt for first pressings. We chatted about this for a while and I confessed my general ignorance about jazz – the majority of what I have is Miles Davis, which is like saying your entire experience with reggae is Bob Marley. So to help me with my education Dave sent me a list of his 10 favorite jazz albums (excluding the Miles records I already have….) and over the last two weeks I managed to pick up a couple of them. The funny thing is in some ways he’s more excited about this than I am, telling me that he’s jealous that I’m going to get to hear these amazing records for the very first time.

I opted to start with saxophonist John Coltrane’s 1957 Blue Train. Coltrane was already a veteran then, having appeared on well over a dozen recordings, but earlier that year Davis fired the saxophonist from his touring ensemble (and not for the first time), finally growing tired of the impact alcohol and heroin had on his playing. It didn’t take long for him to catch on with someone else, though, and in short order he was playing with Thelonious Monk. By the fall he was ready to record with his own six-piece orchestra, banging out the entire Blue Train album in one day – September 15, 1957. When you think of how long it took to record some rock albums, the ability of jazz musicians to do something like this in a day or two in studio is awe-inspiring. I realize it’s a different style of music and all, arguably more organic, but that’s still impressive.

All but one of Blue Train‘s five compositions are Coltrane originals, while “I’m Old Fashioned” was originally written in 1942 by Johnny Mercer and Jerome Kern. When Coltrane was asked about his favorites of his own albums during a 1960 interview with Carl-Eric Lindgren, he pointed first to Blue Train, specifically complimenting the quality of the musicians who played on the session. These included guys he played with while with Miles Davis, drummer Philly Joe Jones and bassist Paul Chambers, as well as veteran pianist Kenny Drew. The other horn players were a pair of young up-and-comers, 22-year-old trombonist Curtis Fuller and 19-year-old trumpeter Lee Morgan. There’s a hint of sadness about this brilliant ensemble in that three of the six men didn’t live past the age of 40, with Chambers and Morgan both dying at the age of 33 (♠) and Coltrane passing at 40 due to liver cancer. So many jazz greats left us way too early.

I recognized the title track instantly, probably from film scores, though there are only segments of “Blue Train” that sounded familiar – the solos (<- probably the wrong word to use, I know, since the rhythm section keeps playing… but I mean those parts of the song where a specific instrument comes to the forefront to express itself) were completely new to me and impressive. To my ears it breaks down into three sections – the first and third are generally ensemble, while the second middle part is reserved for each instrument to step to the forefront for a bit. Those first and third parts are intriguingly structured. The bass and drums provide a linear path for the song to follow; the piano, trumpet, and trombone give the whole thing shape and keep it more or less contained like a huge malleable soap bubble; and Coltrane’s sax is allowed to run free within, and sometimes pushing the outside edge of, that overall framework. It was fascinating to truly pay attention to the interplay of the musicians.

The thing I came away most impressed with was Kenny Drew’s plano work, which is nothing short of brilliant. Drew understands when he only needs to contribute a quick burst and does so, not feeling compelled to take up space needlessly. And when the emphasis switches to the piano… man, he just kills it, especially when it’s just him and the rest of the rhythm section. I will definitely need to seek out some of his albums.

This was a great way to dip my toe into the pool of classic jazz, and I’m looking forward to working my way through he rest of Dave’s list.

(♠) Chambers died due to an untreated case of tuberculosis, with alcohol and heroin use as possible contributing factors impacting his general health. Morgan struggled with drug abuse for years before getting cleaned up with the help of his common-law wife Helen Morgan. Unfortunately when he was back on his feet he still couldn’t resist his old habits, both with drugs and women. Lee and Helen were talking during a break between sets at a club called slugs when another woman came up to them and said that she thought Lee wasn’t with Helen any more. This led to a verbal altercation between the Morgans that ended with Helen shooting Lee in the chest, killing him.