In the early nineties, Sam Stephenson, known these days as the biographer of the great American photographer, W. Eugene Smith, and I worked at the same bookstore. One afternoon we were talking about music and I asked if he knew much about jazz. Already the documentarian, Sam had a list in his wallet of what someone had told me were the essential jazz recordings. About the same time, a poet buddy I had known in Arkansas, Rick Madigan, sent me a much longer list of recordings that he deemed necessary. The third in my triumvirate of jazz tutors was Don Adcock, husband of poet Betty Adcock. Don did not give me lists; he gave me tapes, then CDs. I probably have a couple of hundred CDs Don burned for me over the years. A musician himself, Don had met and even played with a lot of the players who were just names on record covers to me.
Even before I embarked on my journey into jazz, a journey that is a long way from ending, I was familiar with the name Miles Davis. No figure in jazz or in contemporary music has broken as much new ground as Davis. From hard bop through West Coast-influenced cool jazz to the modal improvisations on Kind of Blue, Davis was constantly unwilling to rest on his laurels and always sought new vistas for his music. I could go on about his second great quintet, Bitches’ Brew, and all that came after, but I want to focus now on the recently released recordings of his final tour with John Coltrane.
The Final Tour gives Davis and Coltrane equal billing, but Davis was always the bandleader. In fact, he fired Coltrane once in the late 50’s, when Coltrane’s drug habit was out of control. And by 1960, Coltrane was no longer a sideman. He’d already cut several well-received albums and was on the cusp of recording Giant Steps, generally in a career that was full of breakthroughs.
The first cut of The Final Tour, “All of You,” provides the template for many of the cuts on this album. Wynton Kelly, the pianist (a crying shame Bill Evans couldn’t be shanghaied into this project) and the rhythm section kick off the tune. After a brief statement by Kelly, Miles Davis takes his first solo. Davis was never one to waste notes, and in these years he never left the melody too far behind. His playing might even be considered a bit sparse by those who prefer Coltrane’s more sprawling offerings. Davis always seemed to know exactly wehre he wanted his solos to go and to get there without a lot of digression while Coltrane sometimes seemed almost flummoxed by the sheer range of possibilities before him and set out to explore each one. There are some recordings, that as far as I know have never been released, of Coltrane and his quartet spending an hour on a single tune. Davis was ever restless and always an innovator, but in 1960, his bands adhered a bit more closely to the traditional format of jazz, improvising upon the melody but never entirely abandoning. Coltrane, who was early in his discovery of what critics came to call his “sheets of sound” felt no compunction about swerving far from the melody. Like Charlie Parker before him, he practiced in nontraditional keys and his study of Indian music taught him that music could be composed on a single chord.
With so many ideas and techniques that he wanted to explore, Coltrane’s solos tended to stretch far longer than the average soloist’s. Had Coltane not been such an original and exploratory player, listening to him might have grown tedious. Certainly there were audiences who found his long solo excursions tendious. And even Miles Davis was known to step offstage when Coltrane was in full cry.
Three of the unsung heroes of this set of recordings are Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb. Kelly, especially, plays with a verve I have not heard from him before.His fluid style bridges the gap between Davis and Coltrane and pulled the quintet in a single direction time after time. As for Chambers and Cobb, they were simply one of the best rhythm sections in jazz. Never overbearing, they built a pocket for the other players to soar from and return to.
I like to think that Miles and Coltrane might have intersected in the years to come, perhaps after Miles had incorporated electric instruments and a freer approach into his methods of compostion and playing. But it was not to be. Coltrane died in 1967. The only new music from the Coltrane camp of late has been the release of live albums, such as his 1966 appearance at Temple University. So the discovery of a new album by Coltrane earlier this year turned the heads of jazz listeners everywhere.
Titled Both Directions at Once, the album, recorded in 1963, is not so much a conceived project as a series of tunes, some already established in Coltrane’s repertoire, some not even named yet. The day before this recording, Coltrane and his quartet had been in the studio with vocalist Johnny Hartman, so this recording came a busy time for Coltrane and a time when his music changed with each recording.
Coltrane’s early sixties quartet must be counted among the all-time great jazz combos. Drummer Elvin Jones, brother to trumpeter and composer Thad Jones and pianist Hank Jones, bass player, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and McCoy Tyner on piano were players sure enough to keep Coltrane challenged and confident enough to let Coltrane’s explorations lead them where they would. It’s well worth the time to dig into Coltrane’s live recordings to fully grasp what this group was capable of. Both Directions at Once captures Coltrane and his band trying out some tunes that never evolved past having numbers for titles, such as “Untitled Original 11383” alongside some that would later find their way into the world, such as “Impressions.”
In “Impressions (Take 2),” Elvin Jones’ solid drumming provides a launching pad for Coltrane’s restless playing. The tune cuts short when no one has an answer for what Coltrane unearths with his playing. Half a century after his death, this endless inventiveness is what keeps listeners returning to Coltrane/
One of the surprises of this set for me is the sure soloing of McCoy Tyner, a piano player who is probably not given nearly the credit he deserves. I know that while I own a huge chunk of Coltrane’s recorded output, I have only one or two discs with Tyner as leader. Yet his playing here is strong and sure throughout, and he takes the lead nicely when Coltrane lays out, as on “Untitled Original 11366—Take 2.” Bob Weir, rhythm guitarist for the Grateful Dead, has often mentioned Tyner as an influence, and the parallels are obvious here: two strong players willing to sublimate their egos to make the music better and help the soloist to shine.
If you are already a fan of Miles and Coltrane, you will want these recordings. If you are not, these recordings capture two of the twentieth century’s most innovative jazz artists in transition. We should just be glad the tapes were rolling and that we have as much of their recorded output as we do. Do yourself a favor and buy these.