John Coltrane Quartet, “Ballads” (1963, Impulse! Records)
In the world of jazz, the name John Coltrane is recognized by all, and is surrounded by legend, myth, some mystery, and, most importantly, virtuosic and revolutionary music. The name John Coltrane, if you know his music, conjures up the sounds of continuous streams of notes (or “sheets of sound” as it is sometimes called) in the mind of the listener. On recordings of his such as “Giant Steps,” “My Favorite Things,” and his solos on Miles Davis’ record “Kind of Blue”, this is a style that Coltrane implements frequently, and it came to be the sound that he was most known for.
In the two years leading up to “Ballads,” Coltrane’s releases on Impulse! (“Live! at the Village Vanguard” and “Coltrane”) were adventurous and had a mixed reception with critics. Coltrane strays to some degree from his “sheets of sound” approach on these albums, and the music is much more free, open, and organic than it previously was. Some listeners had a hard time following what was going on because of the casting off of a more traditional structure, hence the amount of negative criticism it received.
“Ballads” is refreshing because it is a return to tradition for Coltrane, not only in his approach to soloing, but in the way the quartet approaches the arrangement of the songs. There are no extended solo sections or long vamps like in “Live! at the Village Vanguard”, and the songs are usually no more than four and half minutes. They also respect the harmonic progression of the compositions and do not stray from this original form. The nature of the recording session may have been the cause of this, as there was little rehearsal, the arrangements were written hastily, and all but one of the tracks are first takes. This process was common historically in jazz, where recording session were often impromptu, with little to no rehearsal time.
As the title implies, all of the songs on “Ballads” are ballads. The slow tempo that ballads have gives Coltrane a chance to show off his ability to play beautiful melodic lines, while also at times implementing his “sheets of sound” approach. It is intriguing that while his playing on “Live! at the Village Vanguard” garnered so much negative feedback, it is just as melodic, if not more so, than his playing on “Ballads.”
While all of the tracks are ballads, there are some moments where there is a departure from that style, such as in “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” The band (McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and of course Coltrane) opens with a chilling and dramatic rubato introduction, supported by the warm, bowed tones of Garrison’s bass and lush, full chords from Tyner. Coltrane plays the melody entirely through, interpreting it in a simple yet powerful way. At the start of his solo, there is a transition into a double time feel as Coltrane slowly lets his “sheets of sound” enter his solo, before abruptly slamming on the brakes and returning to the rubato feel similar to the intro to close the song. The duality that exists in this track is why this album works. It is a marriage of the past and the present (in 1963) of jazz, one bookended by the other.
The best moment on “Ballads,” however, is the track close to the end, “It’s Easy to Remember (But So Hard To Forget).” It is also the shortest track, coming in at two minutes 49 seconds. There are no solos, it is just Coltrane playing the melody of the song, accompanied by his rhythm section. The beauty of this song doesn’t come from the virtuosity of the soloist, but it comes from the interactions between the quartet and the intricacies of them. After having listened to this track many, many times, these very small moments will reveal themselves, and you realize how much can really happen in a three-minute song. This was a genius decision on the part of the quartet, as it skillfully highlights these moments between them. Without any improvised solo, the listener instead can focus on other elements of the music and appreciate them as much as the skill of improvisation. Instead of a long, slowly evolving song like one that might be on Coltrane’s first live album, it is a short, densely packed one.
“Ballads” is an album that is great as an introduction to Coltrane for the inexperienced listener, but also is full of the complexities that devoted fans of Coltrane can enjoy. While tamer in some aspects compared to his other works, “Ballads” shows Coltrane’s strong connection to the history and tradition of jazz, while showcasing his steps to expand and progress the genre as well.