Celebrating the Jazz Messiah’s Masterpiece
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In 1956, John Coltrane, who was then part of Miles Davis’s Quintet and only beginning to be noticed by the jazz world, went to the offices of Blue Note Records with the intention of picking up some albums by one of his heroes, Sidney Bechet. The label’s president, Alfred Lion, not only gave Coltrane the records he wanted, he talked him into doing an album for Blue Note. Coltrane honored that promise a year later with “Blue Train.” This was the tenor saxophonist’s fourth album as a leader but his first masterpiece.
Jazz fans treasure “Blue Train” for a variety of reasons, not least because it was Coltrane’s only album for Blue Note. Whereas most labels, including Prestige Records, which then had Coltrane under contract, were content to record off-the-cuff jam sessions, Lion encouraged players to stretch themselves compositionally and subsidized rehearsal time to help them achieve that.
Coltrane would have turned 80 this September, and this week at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, a band dubbed Blue Trane is paying tribute to “Blue Train.” Surprisingly, the band has been put together by a trombonist, Vincent Gardner.
Mr. Gardner originally planned this show to feature trumpeter Nicholas Payton alongside saxophonist Walter Blanding Jr., his colleague with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Unfortunately, Mr. Payton was recently injured in an auto accident and is temporarily unable to play. The Brazilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi agreed to fill in, while pianist Marc Cary, bassist Greg Williams, and drummer Quincy Davis made up the rest of the sextet.
“Blue Train” was also Coltrane’s only work in the hard-bop sextet format, which allowed him to team up with trumpeter Lee Morgan and trombonist Curtis Fuller. The sessions produced two of his most famous compositions, “Blue Train” and “Moment’s Notice.” Appropriately, Blue Trane began its second set on Wednesday evening with these two pivotal pieces.
As the title implies, “Blue Train” is a haunting, minor blues in a standard 12-bar format. It is one of the most memorable melodies Coltrane ever wrote. The blues theme is played twice; the first time through, it’s played in harmony by the tenor and trombone, and the trumpet joins in the second time around. Mr. Blanding, a 34-year-old saxophonist who gets better and better each time I hear him, was in the difficult position of having to fill Coltrane’s formidable shoes; to his credit, he didn’t try to imitate Coltrane’s sound or approach, but played his own treatment of the tunes. He wound up his first solo with a long sustained note, held for a whole 12-measure chorus via circular breathing.
“Moment’s Notice” is one of Coltrane’s trickiest compositions, and also one of his most whimsical. Mr. Gardner, who had started slowly on the first number, reached peak intensity here. Mr. Roditi, channeling both Morgan and Dizzy Gillespie, showed that he is a particularly apt player for this project.
The sextet then played Mr. Roditi’s three-horn arrangement of Coltrane’s most famous ballad, the 1959 “Naima” (named for his first wife). Mr. Gardner’s low, slow playing contrasted with Mr. Blanding’s double-time, highpitched soprano saxophone. Mr. Roditi was at his most mellow on flugelhorn, carefully choosing each note rather than just knocking out a million at once as Coltrane emulators tend to do.
Next the band essayed a relative rarity, “Straight Street,” from Coltrane’s first album as a leader (“Coltrane,” taped only four months before “Blue Train”). This is written in 12-bar sections but employs chromatic rather than blues harmony. It caught the six men in a mellow mood and gave Mr. Williams his major solo of the set.
The evening also included an elaboration of Coltrane’s take on a signature standard, Frank Loesser’s “Inch Worm.” The group focused on the second of Loesser’s two melodies, which was highlighted by a chase chorus between tenor and trombone. Mr. Blanding and Mr. Gardner quoted other Coltrane waltz standards back and forth at each other: Mr. Blanding, on curved soprano, played “Chim Chim Cheree” and Mr. Gardner responded with “My Favorite Things.”
I was disappointed not to hear the rest of “Blue Train” on this night, but the sextet will no doubt play the album in full several times over the course of the weekend. As Mr. Gardner put it, “Blue Train” is an album that “most musicians know by heart, we know every drum hit and we can sing every solo.”
“Blue Train” also figures prominently on “Brotherman in the Fatherland,” the third release of previously unissued concert recordings by Rahsaan Roland Kirk on Hyena Records. Though Kirk (1936-77) played every instrument under the sun, he was foremost a great tenor saxophonist, and he was especially proficient in the music of Coltrane, his erstwhile friend and colleague.
This disc, recorded live with his quartet in Germany in 1972, is divided between music associated with Coltrane and Kirk’s radical revisions of current pop hits. He begins with “Like Sonny,” Coltrane’s elaboration on a lick by Sonny Rollins, and along the way, he treats Bread’s “Make It With You,” slow and soulful on tenor, and The Temptation’s “My Girl,” fast and furious on flute. Kirk concludes with a 17-minute romp through “Blue Train.” Kirk was often criticized for stunts like playing three horns at once – his opening for “Blue Train” sounds like the whole sextet from the original album – but what he’ll be remembered for is the passion and intensity he displayed on his best nights, of which this is one.
Blue Trane will perform until May 14 (Broadway at 60th Street, fifth floor, 212-258-9595).