Friday, September 26, 2008

Top Ten Trane Tracks

NPR Music's Jazz Sampler has a nice little piece: the Cocktail Party Guide to John Coltrane.
So you're at a company shindig, talking to a group of colleagues over hors d'oeuvres, when the background music finally becomes too grating to pass by without comment. "They should just put on some real jazz," your co-worker says. "Like Coltrane."

Because he claims to like jazz, he may well be insufferable. But you aren't trying to get on his bad side, and in any event, you don't have anything against reportedly good music. So, forcing enthusiasm, you assent heartily.

Yet your strategy backfires: You've only invited further interrogation. "Really?" he asks. "What are your favorite Coltrane records?"

Well, Jazz Note SDP isn't about to let any of our readers end up flat-footed in such a situation. Here is my list of the top ten Trane recordings, about evenly divided between the famous and the not so famous. Get the music, and you will better prepared for that cocktail conversation than either Presidential candidate at tonight's debate.

Let's start with the big five:
1) A Love Supreme.
2) Giant Steps.
3) My Favorite Things
4) Live at the Village Vanguard
5) Blue Trane
A Love Supreme is frequently ranked second among all hardbop recordings, after Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. Divided into four parts, it has the structure of a classical composition. It is a breathtaking piece of jazz. Giant Steps was one of those recordings that marks a genuine advance in the space open to musical composition. My Favorite Things was Coltrane's best selling recording, in part because the theme melody was familiar and in part because of the haunting sound of his Soprano Sax. The Village Vanguard represents, to this Coltrane worshiper, the peak of his genius. Everything Trane had been patiently or impatiently forging in his workshop is on display here. I think that after this, Coltrane went a bit off the rails. Blue Train is a good fifth here. It is one of the best selling recordings. You will find it at any good Barnes and Noble jazz section. But it is probably a bit overhyped. Say that, and you will sound sophisticated.

Any cocktail party Coltrane enthusiast will be familiar with those five. If you want to sound really hip, you could just say you like this or that box set. But here are five recordings that you can mention to make your point.
6) Crescent
7) Coltrane's Sound
8) Coltrane Plays the Blues
9) The Complete Africa /Brass Sessions
10) Bye Bye Blackbird
Cresent is exquisite. The great quartet (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums) is in perfect form behind Trane, and they produce the whole Coltrane package: brilliant weaving of musical themes over a pallet of passions that reach down to the bone. "Lonnie's Lament" is one of Trane's most beautiful ballads. Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Plays the Blues were both recorded in October of 1960, along with My Favorite Things. You can say that Coltrane's Sound is actually the better recording, and mention that you heard it from me. The Africa/Brass Sessions put Coltrane in front of an orchestra, and you don't want to miss that. Blackbird is part of a body of recordings Trane and the quartet made in Europe. There are lots more, but tell your cocktail enthusiast that this is your favorite.

So what are the odds that you will need all this preparation for a conversation in some hotel bar? I don't know. But now you are armed, especially if you get all this music and listen to it. And besides, just listening to it is its own reward. Trane was one of the great musical geniuses of America. It there is ever to be a jazz Mount Rushmore, his face should be on it.

Here is a clip from Crescent. Enjoy it, and if you do, shell out a few dollars for the whole thing.

John Coltrane/Wise One/Crescent/@Openomy.Com


  1. Hate to nitpick, but your "big four" is actually five!

  2. Great post, and I am mostly in agreement on your list. I haven't heard the blues album, so I will pick that one up.

    I am listening to Crescent as I type this. What a wonderful way to spend a rainy Saturday morning, listening to these gorgeous Trane ballads.

    Another album worth mentioning here is Coltrane and Ellington.

  3. Thanks to Anon for the math lesson. I have corrected it.

    KL: I think that most jazz is better on a rainy day. Bill Evans is perfect for driving in the rain. But as it happens, I was listening to Crescent as I wrote that post. The sky in these Dakotas was clear, and the breath of Autumn was nice and soft. That's good enough.