John Coltrane is a towering figure in the world of jazz, having made a name early on with Miles Davis and laid the groundwork for hard bop. He was kicked out of Davis’ quintet for his heroin use but returned a year later clean and made some of the most quintessential jazz records of that period, including Davis’ Kind Of Blue.
By 1960 John Coltrane was off and running fronting his own band recording for Atlantic, then Impulse Records. It’s with his stint on Impulse! that Coltrane began an artistic and spiritual rebirth. The beginnings of that creative and musical awakening are captured on 1961’s Live At The Village Vanguard, which was recently reissued by Impulse. It’s three tracks, but much is offered in the album’s nearly 38-minute runtime.
The band was recorded over four nights and in 1997 Impulse! put out a box set of all the recordings, but the original was simply three performances. “Spiritual” opens the record, possibly a take on “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See”, and it comes alive in a fury of swing, notes, and fire. This track is also a preview of what is to come three years later on Coltrane’s quintessential A Love Supreme. “Spiritual” is also important as it has avante garde master Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, a move that perplexed and even turned off many jazz listeners and scholars. What Coltrane and Dolphy were doing together had never been heard before and veered from the cool jazz of Coltrane’s former boss, Miles Davis.
“Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” lays into the standard’s easy breezy swing and showcases a young McCoy Tyner on piano as he makes the track his own. I could just imagine the crowd at the Village Vanguard hearing this and having their minds blown.
Of course final track “Chasin’ The Trane” is the track that blew the walls off the joint, as well as paving the way for the future of jazz(for both Coltrane and the music world at large.) Coltrane essentially creates a new language to speak with his saxophone here and paved the way for future albums like A Love Supreme, Ascension, Kulu Sé Mama , and Expression.
Live At The Village Vanguard is an important live musical statement as it shows John Coltrane finding his voice. And with a band that included Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, Reggie Workman, McCoy Tyner, and Eric Dolphy, there was no way this album wasn’t going to prove to be a definitive musical statement.