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Discovering a gem from John Coltrane

Posted by keithosaunders on March 13, 2010

Yesterday I heard a track from John Coltrane that I had previously never heard.  It’s called  Villa and it was recorded in March of 1963 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio.  Previously unreleased, it was included on a CD remastering of  Coltrane Live At Birdland in the mid 1990s. 

There doesn’t seem to be much information about the track other than it is an old standard once performed by Artie Shaw.  It was not unusual for Trane to uncover underplayed gems — Matt Dennis’ Violets For Your Furs, and Hoagy Carmichael’s Little Old Lady are just two examples.  Even though Coltrane’s music was evolving in the direction of the avant-garde, employing long, modal vamps infused with drummer Elvin Jones’ dense polyrhythms, it still retained elements of lyricism that were astounding. 

What is so striking about this track is the restraint of the four musicians.  Trane is on soprano, and Elvin begins the song using brushes.  This is their version of ‘tippin’ — the music is at a simmer, but it hints at raw power.   They’re like a high performance  sports car that’s riding in a low gear. 

All About Jazz critic C. Michael Baily wrote, …if the listener wishes to hear the master in transition, look no further than Coltrane Live at Birdland.  I disagree.  I believe that Coltrane’s playing was in constant transition throughout his career.  Contrast him with the other major band leader of the 1960s, Miles Davis, whose sound remained constant in a brilliantly disparate variety of settings.  Coltrane’s playing and sound were in a perpetual state of flux and his 1963 output was no different.     

If anyone out there has information about the history of this song I would love to hear it.  I also would like to hear your impressions of Coltrane’s version.

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3 Responses to “Discovering a gem from John Coltrane”

  1. Atane said

    I have this CD, and I think Villa is a great song. Like you, I think Coltrane was always in transition, but he still teethered on previous modal, bop & hardbop stylings. Like Ole for example.

  2. Joe Lloyd said

    I love this CD, that take of I Want To Talk About You is increadible, one of the Coltrane’s greatest performances!! Viila is an amazing song, and provides a beautiful contrast to the frenetic playing on some other tunes on this album..afro blue, I Want to Talk etc..

    I agree with the transitional comments on Coltrane’s playing, the man was always driving ahead with new ideas, chopping and changing his approach. His exploration on modal concepts, which are heard on this album, are always so intense, really a precursor to what he would perform on “A Love Supreme” & “Crescent”, espiecailly with his structuring of pentatonic devices, and interchanging pentatonic substitutions on static chrodal progressions.I hear this album as a tranistional/refinement process that would lead Trane into his playing on those pinnacle 1964 releases..

    • Hi Joe. Thank you for stopping by and for your thoughtful response. I can’t wait to buy this record again. (I owned it several years ago) I agree that this record was a table setter for what would follow: the masterpieces of 1964, and the stunning work of 1965. (Meditations, Transition, Live at the Half Note, to name just three of several)

      I have heard that there were a few factors in Coltrane’s more tuneful 1962 output — the albums with Duke and Johnny Hartman, as well as the Ballads record. His label, Impulse, wanted him to record more commercial work. Coltrane was not thrilled with this idea, but of course he relisehed the chance to work with Duke Ellington, and he made some brilliant music during this period. I have also heard that he was having some physical problems that was inhibiting his sound.

      In 1964 he negotiated a contract with Impulse wherein he had complete control of his projects, hence the more longform and ambitious Love Supreme and the freer music of 1965. It’s fascinating history and brilliant music.

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