Atlantic's Coltrane Knockout

The Heavyweight Champion. The title conjures up images of a

reigning titan, one person who so dominates everyone else that there is no

disputing supremacy. A good title for a John Coltrane box set. The

Heavyweight Champion, indeed. There are those in the jazz world and

I happen to be one of those people who feel that since the time of Coltrane,

jazz has, for the most part, stagnated. Josh Redman, while undoubtedly a

virtuosic entertainer, lacks any real sense of passion. Older jazz standard-

bearers such as Herbie Hancock (yes, he was a jazz musician before "Rockit")

and Sonny Rollins are consistent only in their mediocrity.

Howard Gardner, in his book Frames of Mind, puts forth the

theory (while discussing Mozart) that some practitioners so advance

their field that, in effect, they dry it up. Their fertility consumes

the realm of innovation. And the field must move in a different

direction if it is to remain pertinent. So after Mozart came Beethoven

and the beginning of the Romantic period.

Coltrane was comparable to Mozart in jazz. While some argue that since

Coltrane's death in the '60s, the jazz world has seen the birth of

fusion and of neo-bop, there are those again, I am among them that feel

that the only real innovations happening in jazz are happening in the

corners of the avant-garde world, the world of hat ART, John

Zorn, and Don Byron.

The Heavyweight Champion, a Rhino collection that chronicles

Coltrane's years at Atlantic which began with his some of his first

sessions as a leader and ended with Trane exploring the nether-regions

of harmonic improvisation is a perfect document to back up this theory.

Beginning with the sessions that led to Trane's masterpiece Giant

Steps as well as the album Bags and Trane , the first-disc

of this seven-CD collection unwinds with Coltrane's athletic

sixteen-chord progressions, his growing fascination with Latin themes,

and his increasing skill as a composer. These recordings also show

Coltrane's growing experimentation with harmony as a tool for

improvisation, hence his oft-noted use of harmonic chordings. These

first recordings also show the sturdy influence of Miles Davis's use of

modal jazz; Coltrane, not incidentally, recorded both Giant Steps

and Kind of Blue in 1959.

Beginning two years after Coltrane had kicked his heroin habit, these

recordings also show Coltrane's unceasing diligence. Videotapes of this

time period often show Trane backed into the corner of a recording

studio, rehearsing a song or even just a riff over and over until he

felt he had it down perfectly. Working with his infamous quartet with

McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Paul Chambers on bass

(with Steve Davis occasionally sitting in) many of these tunes are

recorded two, three, four times. (With the release of previously lost

tapes from the Giant Steps sessions, this is often doubly true.)

Remarkably, these outtakes will interest both jazz fanatics and

part-time fans as well, as the same tune is often recorded with a

different rhythm, different harmonies, different bass lines. Coltrane

had to have things perfect.

In more than six-hours of music, there is not a dull moment on this

collection. However, there are highlights. Coltrane's minor-key version

of "My Favorite Things," turned a romantic ditty into a chilling piece

of art...and on of Trane's first turns on soprano sax. "Equinox," a

12-bar minor-blues that was one of the first songs Trane recorded with

his legendary quartet, is also a work of majestry. And his interplay

with Milt Jackson on the Bags and Trane sessions are, while

well-documented, a treat as well. Coltrane's work at Atlantic spanned

from January 1959 to October 1960. In that time he recorded enough

material for ten full albums, as well as the unreleased takes sold here

for the first time. His infamous free-jazz recordings, which often

paired him with Pharaoh Sanders, were still to come. When Coltrane

died less than a decade later, many claimed that God had taken an

artistic genius in his prime. Yet as these recordings show, Trane was a

master through and through. Indeed, the only problem with the

Champion's legacy is that another musician may not come along to

further his work for some time to come. Until then, we are blessed with

The Heavyweight Champion. It would be greedy to ask for more.