Monday, September 16, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #240 - John Coltrane - Blue Train (1957)

Blue Train, the only record by John Coltrane on Blue Note records, came out in 1958. The personnel is an all-star lineup, with members from Miles Davis’s and Art Blakey’s bands. John Coltrane was a creative force, having just working with Miles Davis, and being in the process of working with Thelonious Monk while Blue Train was being recorded. He would go on to put out some of his most influential music, including the landmark record Giant Steps on the Atlantic label, shortly after recording Blue Train. This album consists of all original material with the exception of one standard, "I’m Old Fashioned." John’s Coltrane’s creative energy was on full display for this session, not only as a composer but as an improviser.
One of my favorite things about this record is the arrangements. The band is big enough to function as a multi-timbral ensemble, smaller than a big band and larger than a traditional trio or quartet. It displays a fullness and lushness in the arrangements, yet it is lean enough to let each of the members shine as soloists. Curtis Fuller adds not only sonic dimension on the trombone but crystal clear solo lines. Handling trumpet duties is Lee Morgan. He was propelled to fame with a series of hit records for Blue Note after this session. Both He and Fuller were playing with Art Blakey at the time. The rhythm section consists of Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones, both of whom had played with Miles. Finally, on the keyboards Kenny Drew harmonically glues this talented band together.
"Blue Train" is the first track, and the opening melody is one of the things that will keep you coming back to this record. It is simple, catchy, and bluesy. After the melody is stated a couple of times Trane takes the first solo on the 12 bar blues. His impressive technique allows him to surprise us with unexpected turns of phrase. The choices he makes are inventive and innovative, and the energy he brings to each solo is impressive. As Trane ends his solo it provides a perfect simmering point for Morgan to come in a play it cool for a little bit. The sax has been playing super energetic jam-packed lines, so in contrast Lee Morgan starts his solo by playing some cool repeated note motifs. The ensemble supports in various ways. Philly Joe Jones energizes the soloists at times by switching to a double time feel, drawing them into denser rhythmic activity. In other places the horn ensemble unites to provide background textures as support for the soloists.
"Moment's Notice" is a cool midtempo swing tune. It starts out featuring the quartet of Coltrane, Chambers, Drew, and Philly Joe in a broken down version of the ensemble playing the initial statement of the melody. Philly Joe Jones’s hi-hat work is amazing - he compliments and punctuates the melody. The melody is eventually supported with the full ensemble using the horns as rhythmic and melodic thickeners. This tune could work as a quartet arrangement but this elaborate architecture is a treat for the ears. Eventually a harmonic pedal point is established and Trane begins his solo. Trane’s three choruses are packed full of ideas, already showing glimpses of how he would further develop his approach to harmony. He is incorporating massive amounts of material, working on developing his own language. Curtis Fuller’s choruses, perhaps some of his best on this record, are precise and technical, a model of post-bebop. Lee Morgan plays technical ideas but utilizes more repeated note motifs, bluesy bends, and wide interval leaps. It's more of a showy style, while still being hard bop.
"Locomotion" is a blistering call and answer between the trumpet and trombone with Coltrane playing shorter solo response phrases. It is a great example of how Coltrane’s musical energy can propel a rhythm section. With Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, the rhythm can have a laid back feel at times, but with Coltrane taking a solo at this tempo listeners can definitely feel him leading this band with a musical dexterity and intensity that lives up to his legend as a larger than life performer. As Trane works his way through the first chorus you can feel the groove settle in. Curtis Fuller is next up, and I love the way his solo is introduced over an 8-bar drop out by everybody else. His use of sequence or recurring ideas similar ideas, such as the chord change, is a highlight of the solo. Lee Morgan once again dazzles with his proficiency. This solo highlights one of the great things about Lee Morgan's playing. Even in an uptempo tune while playing fast lines he can make certain notes pop and stand out. It really is a cool aspect of his playing, not only are the lines melodically working their way around the harmony but at the same time he is adding another dimension to the dynamics by attacking and easing off certain notes.
The ballad "I’m Old Fashioned" is next. In this thinner texture where Trane plays the melody, Paul Chambers' excellent bass work can be appreciated. As Curtis Fuller takes the first solo Philly Joe moves from ½ time to straight quarter notes on the ride cymbal providing a perfect solo bed for Fuller to work in. For Kenny Drew’s understated piano solo Philly Joe switches to just brushes on the snare. It is here that you can hear the synergy between the piano, bass, and drums, as they just relax in the groove. Morgan follows with a sultry solo, eventually resolving to the melody to end the tune. "Lazy Bird" finds Morgan introducing the melody after a brief introduction by Drew on piano. At the bridge horns play harmony hits before Morgan restates the melody. Morgan takes the first solo, navigating the song with his typical fleet-footedness. He is followed by Fuller, whose brief solo gives way to John Coltrane’s solo. Trane has a way of using variation within his improvisation that avoids direct repetition. He might use something close to a motif, but it will rarely be the exact thing twice. He also uses unexpected starting and stopping places along with dense phrases that make it hard to predict what he might attempt to play. His choice of using harmony that exists within the chord structures or incorporating outside harmonic tones belonging to his developing vocabulary was another factor in his growing sound. One of the joys of listening to him play is the unexpected nature of his performances.
I think this record is a must have for a Coltrane fan. It sits firmly as a marker between the Prestige recordings and the Impulse recordings. It has iconic cover art - a contemplative Coltrane with that classic blue filter over it - all the sidemen are playing out of their minds, and the songs are all very catchy. As far as Coltrane’s playing he is giving it everything he has. His tone is balanced and even, his ideas are focused and evolving, and his energy as a band leader produces a true classic.
-         Doug Anderson

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