Sun Ship: The Complete Session
Impulse (two-CD set), $27.48
merica’s deepest traces on planet earth are as much cultural as economic and geopolitical, and no American cultural form is more intrinsic to us at home and lauded abroad as jazz. And standing center stage among American jazz greats is, without question, John Coltrane.
Born in 1926 in the aptly named North Carolina town of Hamlet, John Coltrane initially set out as an alto sax player in thrall to the sounds of the mercurial Charlie Parker, the legendary bebopper who changed the course of modern music. That was before Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and a litany of African-American tenor giants prompted a move to the bigger horn, on which “Trane”, as he was known as early as the mid-1940s, soon became the instrument’s most iconic player, indeed its celestial sage. He was an artist who could blow gutbucket solos that sent shockwaves through not just the air but also traditional ways of musical thinking. Yet an encompassing spirituality, not bounded by the parameters of any one religion, emanated from each well-turned lick and barrage of notes.
Partly as a result, Coltrane remains, with Miles Davis, the artist any jazz neophyte is most likely to first seek out. Listeners like him before they come even remotely close to understanding what he is doing. He is at once a part of several traditions, a number of which he helped congeal, and the most modernist of musical figures, one whose finest art gained its fullest flowering in the halcyon Sixties.
That placement in time has naturally led musical devotees of the period to Coltrane’s doorstep. If, for instance, one is drawn to the rock music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, and if one subsequently develops a hankering to hear what jazz was all about when those greats were still in their primes, the natural move is to Coltrane’s Sixties output rather than, say, Swing-era musicians like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, or beboppers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, or even a seminal figure such as Louis Armstrong, the grandest man of jazz’s recorded Golden Era. Those artists reached their primes in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, eras sufficiently removed from ours as to initially sound antiquated to ears raised on high-end, miniaturized audio devices. Contrarily, there is something about a late-period Coltrane record, nowadays often procured as a digital media download, that lends itself to headphones, or even ear buds on the treadmill at the gym, in a way that a hoary Jelly Roll Morton session from 1938 just can’t match.
Thus, Coltrane’s music is “free” in several ways beyond even what is suggested by the Free Jazz movement it went a long way in shaping. It was born of its time and yet was unmoored from it in terms of both tone and structure. It evinces an ethos we associate with rock LP envelope-pushers like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and The Who’s Tommy—but it is not rock, by even the most elastic definition. It belongs in that small elite crowd, too, thanks in large part to engineer/sonic maestro Rudy Van Gelder: Coltrane’s albums feature high-grade audio specs that best resonate with our current sound quality expectations. Further abetting Trane’s legacy is the fortunate timing of his ascent, having come of age, artistically, in a period when popular and avant-garde music commonly dovetailed. It was a neat dichotomy perfectly suited not just to a musical mage like Coltrane but also—no mean bonus—to hordes of listeners primed for maximum entertainment, and for having their heads blown, aided perhaps by substances less liberally ingested in earlier times.
Coltrane reached his apex as an artist in 1965, with one watershed recording session giving way to another at a dizzying pace. His efforts resulted in a treasury of material that could not possibly fit into the year it was created. It was as though Coltrane, who died in the summer of 1967 at just forty years of age, was on a Keatsian quest to extrude everything he had in him through his horn. He seemed to be locked into a progressive jazz race against time, so much so that his music frequently forfeited time signatures altogether, exemplifying and deepening every bit of musical derring-do the so-called New Thing movement had to offer.
But to appreciate mid-Sixties Coltrane can be a tricky task. The many album-ranking guides available attest to that era as being the time of Coltrane’s greatest musical achievements. Yet if one were to sit down with, say, Ascension (perhaps the Sgt. Pepper of the Free Jazz movement, cut in June 1965), without having one’s ears sufficiently conditioned, one could easily conflate seemingly inchoate (albeit heady) sounds with a druggy aura of counterfeit accomplishment. Much in the same way one might approach a Color Field painting at MoMA, read on the placard that the canvas is a masterpiece, and sees just enough in it, with that bit of help, to believe that to be the case, one might also nod along with the critics’ five-star raves about Ascension. But the judgment feels forced to many and sticks often enough only for those who lack the courage that comes from knowing one’s own artistic tastes.
With Coltrane, the 1965 work is canonical, but it is so profound that the ears need some preparation. If you want to appreciate records like the great ’65 haul of The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, Ascension and Kulu Sé Mama for what they really are, a few steps back can provide just what you need to move a few steps forward. Then you won’t require any placards, or any critics, to help you witness Coltrane, unfettered, doing his thing. For that purpose, the recording session of what was to become the Sun Ship album is invaluable.
n August 26, 1965, Coltrane and the rest of what we now know as the Classic Quartet (Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner at the piano bench, Jimmy Garrison on bass) gathered at RCA Victor Studios, where Elvis Presley cut much of his material. The band normally recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, so this was something of a field trip, with Bob Thiele and Coltrane jointly producing.
Thiele is one of the unsung heroes of Trane’s story. The head of Impulse, the Classic Quartet’s record label (and an encouraging haven for the avant-gardists of the day), Thiele had no issue with Coltrane’s unit recording as much material as it wanted, whenever it wanted, even if the corporate business dictums of the time admonished against releasing more than two albums per year.
We should be grateful for Thiele’s contempt for that bit of marketing wisdom, given that the Quartet belongs in any discussion of jazz’s top small ensembles. Miles Davis’s first and second Great Quintets (the first of which featured Trane in the tenor slot) and perhaps Charles Mingus’s quintet with Eric Dolphy (who partnered memorably on several occasions with Trane) are arguably the only units that merit additional votes as jazz’s ultimate postwar combo. The Quartet had waxed what is commonly held to be their masterpiece, A Love Supreme, in December of the preceding year. A spiritual suite, shot through with elements of the Book of Common Prayer, Indian ragas and African spirituals, it is one of the rare recordings that manages to feel both ancient and eternal, music borne on a wind emanating from a rough, ragged age and continuing into an immortal future. That was Coltrane’s intent, in one regard: it was to be a journey toward God, or gods. (Coltrane maintained that he believed in them all.) The music that his band set down on that summer day in 1965 suggests similarly boundless artistic predilections.
The Quartet recorded five compositions at the RCA Victor session. The resulting album was called Sun Ship, and with so much material in the can it did not see official release until 1971, four years after Coltrane’s passing. It is perhaps the most neglected Coltrane LP of all, but a disc as worthy of experience and discussion as any from his career. Melded together from various truncated takes, edited pieces and solos fitted to follow appropriate ensemble segments, the resulting album does much to disabuse anyone of the notion that jazz albums are always captured “live” in the studio, without any of the collage-type experimentation that was starting to mark recording practices in rock at the time.
But as rich a listening experience as the official album has provided for more than forty years now, the discovery of the complete session tape, which has lately gained a two-CD release, is absolute manna from heaven for Trane-heads. For starters, these things don’t come around very often—that is, a chance to hear a band, let alone a band like the Classic Quartet, in the studio, discussing approaches, cracking jokes, developing their music from one take to another and, on not infrequent occasions here, catching fire in such a way that each individual band member seems to have triggered the initial spark simultaneously, producing an improbable shared point of combustion.
he year of 1965 represents the twin-highpoint for jazz and rock as both creative and commercial forces, but at the time jazz had the more pronounced social conscience, at least in terms of the Civil Rights movement. Even when it doubled as sacred music, or music that looked inward like a sonic wormhole, what one heard on Coltrane’s albums seemed to mirror black solidarity, its achievement and its setbacks. The music took the listener away from the world only to roller coaster the omega and throw him back into it. Coltrane pulled off the unlikely trick of essentially soundtracking a movement without commenting on it directly.
We tend to forget, given the present enervated state of jazz, that the medium was once a jukebox force, capable of producing hits and feature articles in mainstream magazines and newspapers. With the oncoming hippie era, jazz would begin its commercial decline, buoyed for a time by the fusion movement; rock was on the opposite trajectory. The year 1965 birthed canonical, vanguard albums by The Byrds, Dylan and The Beatles, just as it gave us equally important efforts from Davis’s Second Great Quintet, Mingus’s band and Trane’s Classic Quartet. On the bluesier moments from the Sun Ship session we get a sense of Trane looking back on the more boppish musical mannerisms of his work with Davis’s first Great Quintet. Trane encapsulates hard bop and rhythm and blues on the Fifties sessions with Davis’s band, though by the Sun Ship date, those forms have been slowed down and outfitted with upper register voicings suggestive of African funeral music, albeit with a wry, upbeat twist. It feels like music one arrives at rather than departs from, which is apt, given that Trane had left the Davis band after a string of shows in the spring of 1960 in which he expressed his restlessness in one torrential solo after another, much to the displeasure of most crowds, as a number of bootleg recordings attest. This was Trane taking his music ever further out and struggling to find a way to make the music of that journey palatable and suggestive of a past, present and future twined as one. It is only with Sun Ship: The Complete Session that we get all the various bits of the Coltrane legacy in one handy place, as though he had set out to leave a redemptive ark of sounds for future generations to enjoy.
The song titles, such as “Dearly Beloved” and “Amen”, suggest a church service, one perhaps being held for the sacrifices made amidst the Civil Rights movement and for all that still stands to be gained through, in and beyond it. Coltrane, the perpetual searcher, had by 1965 at last come to a sort of jazz-based catechism, one that tapped into the earlier, more listener-friendly quasi-hard bop leanings of the Davis band, with that maelstrom quality of ceaseless disordering and subsequent re-ordering we find throughout a number of the 1964 and 1965 dates. But this is a gentler storm, one that soothes rather than troubles the soul.
Coltrane himself is the very voice of serenity throughout the tape. Co-producer Thiele announces “Ascent” as Ascension, a self-referential joke that must have caused each man present to flash back on that astounding session from just a few months prior. Coltrane demurs. “No, not that one”, he replies in gentle, knowing terms.
Pianist/composer Sun Ra, who was then recording some of his finest music with his ensemble of madcaps and sonic painters, had a knack for making music that one would be hard-pressed to date. You could say it came from 1942, 1972 or 2022, and no one would argue the point. With the Sun Ship tape, Coltrane, for the only time in his career, sounds similarly displaced from the time/space continuum. We know how much he studied traditional African music, and iterations of that wellspring of a medium are on display in the canting power of the opening “Dearly Beloved”, a mash-up of the Christian songbook and African polyrhythms, the latter being provided in large part by drummer Elvin Jones.
A virtuosic percussionist at any point in his career, Jones cuts loose to an especially marked degree here. His roiling rhythms are tantamount to gessoed substrates on top of which Coltrane festoons chunky slabs of melody and his own brand of rhythm, one that is European and futuristic—and that would later inform the works of European free sceners like Peter Brötzmann—but also primal. By the fourth take of “Dearly Beloved” you get the sense that cavemen and space travelers alike would understand and dig the groove Trane is laying down.
At once populist, progressive, African, American, sacred, secular, retro and futuristic, there isn’t a lot to compare this music to in terms of how well it functions as a seamless melange, all the more so when you consider that most of these numbers are rather loudish ballads, something ballads rarely are. If acoustic jazz had a mode to match rock’s sub-genre of heavy metal, this would be it, but propelled by finesse and grace rather than brute strength and repetition.
Jones in particular has a knack for using his drums to create space, the accents of his fills coming rapidly, and yet delivered with such power that they create a resonating effect that allows each successive note to begin to make its mark before the preceding one has fully departed. The result is a shimmering soundscape, best sampled on the first take of “Attaining.” It is a fitting title, for the band has seemingly procured a means to harness rhythm so that it appears to rock and progress from within itself, the band’s push-and-pull dynamic moving the entire apparatus along almost by sleight of hand, advancing without the listener being able to note the movement—stealth jazz that nonetheless functions at top volume.
It is thus a much more nuanced variety of free-form jazz than we hear with the howl of Ascension. For all of Coltrane’s religious studies and leanings, one has the sense in listening to the Sun Ship tape that the vestments of the church, any church, had nothing on the split-notes and upper-register harmonics his horn could produce. Especially here, at the summit of his art, the effect is one of church doors flung open so that these sounds can race into the streets to embed themselves into the cultural consciousness.
The Great Quartet soon dissolved; the band had but one more session remaining. The music, especially for the likes of Tyner, with his piano frequently being drowned out by everything else, was advancing too fast to hold its creators together. But not here, as 1965 danced its fandangoed dance before the lengthening shadow of Coltrane’s death. Five years before, “My Funny Valentine”, with Coltrane on alto sax (an instrument he does not take up at all at the Sun Ship session) was the smash radio hit of Trane’s career, and yet it is 1965 that feels like the love note, a benediction for a band, and a gateway to something beyond. The music of Sun Ship was meant to zoom in two directions at once. It gathers so much of the past, but for the purpose of proposing itself as the soundtrack of the future. It is America making its wrenching, sweet, angrily hopeful and ever restless noise, as if to say, all aboard the Trane.