Coltrane Review Redux

In the world of jazz the name John Coltrane is recognized by nearly everyone, 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 his recordings “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 is the sound that he is most known for today.

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 strayed 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.

In 1963 the release of “Ballads” was refreshing because it was a return to tradition for Coltrane, not only in his approach to soloing, but in the way the quartet approached the arrangement of the songs. There are no extended solo sections or long vamps like in “Live! at the Village Vanguard,” and most of the songs are no longer than four and half minutes. Harmonically, everything stays true to the original versions, and Coltrane respects all of the song’s original forms as well. 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. The impromptu nature of the recording session lends to “Ballads” a nostalgic vibe that is reminiscent of older jazz records that were recorded in the same fashion.

As the title implies, all of the songs on “Ballads” are ballads. The slow tempo of the ballad 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 the reason “Ballads,” while being deeply rooted in the jazz tradition, is a progressive album. 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. Coltrane simply plays the melody accompanied by his rhythm section and there are no solos, which is unusual for a song on a jazz album. The beauty of this song doesn’t come from the virtuosity of the soloist, but 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. The decision to forgo solos was a genius one on the part of the quartet, as it skillfully highlights these moments between them. Without any improvised solos, 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 is also full of 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.

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