Jazz. The word alone is enough to set some listeners on edge. Honking, squawking, screeching horrors. Well, that’s one assessment, at least, and sometimes accurate enough. Yet its essence is incredibly powerful - and artists that best channel this lifeblood, allowing it to flow through their mind, body and songs, produce astonishing material. ‘Blue Train’ is astonishing.
“Dance music, from its earliest beginnings, to where it is now.” This is how Gil Scott-Heron can be heard describing jazz on ‘We’re New Here’, the late musician-cum-poet’s 2011 collaboration/remix full-length with Jamie xx. And ‘Blue Train’, the second solo long-player from North Carolina saxophonist John Coltrane, is just that: dance music. This hard-bop collection can’t fail to set an extremity or two twitching, keeping the beat as instinctively on a first listen as a four-hundredth.
Let it wash over you, and every sense becomes intoxicated. Coltrane - born in North Carolina in 1926, and turned onto jazz after seeing Charlie Parker in 1945 - had earned a fine reputation for himself long before striking out alone. And this experience comes to the fore from the very outset of ‘Blue Train’, its opening title-cut a contagious, sprawling adventure that spreads itself across ten entrancing minutes.
Coltrane - regularly referred to as ‘Trane’ - had played alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis before recording his (eponymous) solo debut in 1957. But although he’d committed to the Prestige label for three records, Coltrane recorded ‘Blue Train’ for the Blue Note label, and Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion served as its producer. It proved to be his sole solo LP for the celebrated jazz stable.
Of Coltrane’s 1950s output, it’s ‘Blue Train’ that has best stood the test of time - today, its songs, just like those of 1960’s ‘Giant Steps’ (his first complete collection of originals, and a ground-breaker for Coltrane’s compositional creativity), have become cornerstones of many a jazz musician’s development. In addition to the opener, set-closer ‘Lazy Bird’ is oft cited as a ‘core-syllabus’ piece, its twin tonal centres inspiring the establishment of the term “Coltrane changes”. Look it up and it’s complicated; simply listen, and become entranced.
Neither of these songs, nor ‘Blue Train’ as a whole, could have become markers of such magnitude without the people playing around Coltrane’s tenor sax. Pianist Kenny Drew had previous form with Buddy Rich and Milt Jackson; drummer ‘Philly’ Joe Jones had toured with Miles Davis; and Paul Chambers, on double bass, would play on Davis’ 1959 masterpiece, ‘Kind Of Blue’. Trumpeter Lee Morgan and trombonist Curtis Fuller were no slouches either, with several impressive credentials.
The non-original here, Mercer and Kern’s 1942 song ‘I’m Old Fashioned’ (written for the Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth musical, You Were Never Lovelier), could have been isolated by its surrounding invention. But it sits prettily in the sequencing, and writer Robert Levin, in his liner notes for ‘Blue Train’, observes that it “shows (Coltrane) to be adept with tunes set in any tempo”. Certainly, if you didn’t know it wasn’t a Coltrane original ahead of listening, the recording gives little reason to point it out as somehow ‘different’.
Nor does ‘Blue Train’ present the contemporary listener with signifiers dating it as over fifty years old. It’s an invigorating experience in 2012, just as it must have been in 1957. As its maker’s first concentrated expression of his immense potential, it’s a classic to rank beside any, from any genre. And, just as Gil said, it’s great to dance to.
Words: Mike Diver
JOHN COLTRANE ‘BLUE TRAIN’
RELEASED: OCTOBER, 1957
PRODUCER: ALFRED LION
JOHN COLTRANE: TENOR SAXOPHONE
LEE MORGAN: TRUMPET
CURTIS FULLER: TROMBONE
PAUL CHAMBERS: BASS
KENNY DREW: PIANO
‘PHILLY’ JOE JONES: DRUMS
1. ‘BLUE TRAIN’
2. ‘MOMENT’S NOTICE’
4. ‘I’M OLD FASHIONED’
5. ‘LAZY BIRD’
1957: IN THE NEWS
Harold Macmillan becomes UK Prime Minister.
The Frisbee is invented.
Elvis Presley buys his Graceland mansion.
John Lennon first meets Paul McCartney.
Jack Kerouac published On The Road.
1957: THE ALBUMS
Chuck Berry - ‘After School Session’
Miles Davis - ‘Birth Of The Cool’
Charles Mingus - ‘The Clown’
Little Richard - ‘Here’s Little Richard’
Frank Sinatra - ‘A Swingin’ Affair’