John Coltrane on DVD. Need convincing?. Few of his performances are available in a video format. Jump on this one if you are a fan or thinking of becoming one. It includes three separate European sessions recorded in black and white for European TV. The tunes are familiar there are two versions of "My Favorite Things." But you feel the intensity more when you see the musicians; the performances are first-rate; the players include giants; and it’s fascinating to hear on one disc how Coltrane continued his startling evolution after leaving Miles Davis.
In the first set we see the 1960 Davis quintet minus its leader. Norman Granz, who promoted the European tour, said Miles just didn’t feel like playing, even though he was contractually committed. That gives us a chance to hear a trumpetless version of "Green Dolphin Street," a tune that was a standard for Davis’s quintet. Although he was about to leave Miles to form his own group, Coltrane’s solo remains solidly in the melodic style of the famous Kind of Blue recording released the previous year. Nor would you expect a change as Stan Getz joins in on a ballad medley. The first hint of future intensity comes in an up tempo version of Monk’s "Hackensack." It’s worth the price of the DVD to see the look the two great tenor-men exchange as Wynton Kelly, who had taken some fine solos, is replaced at the piano bench by Oscar Peterson. He swings into the intro. And they’re off!
I’m a Getz fan, but Coltrane wins this round. He had the advantage of having played with Monk. Getz’s style is traditional and his tone foggy and soft in the light of Trane’s strong, hard-driving voice.
The second session, the following year, features Coltrane’s own group which includes McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, Elvin Jones and Eric Dolphy! The quintet opens with "My Favorite Things." Coltrane is on soprano, Dolphy on flute. Then Tyner is show-cased on "Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye." "Impressions," one of Coltrane’s upbeat reactions to Davis’s modal phase, follows. He returns to tenor while Dolphy switches to alto and sounds closer to his usual quirky self as the set wraps up.
The first two sessions were filmed in German studios. The concluding set is from a 1965 outdoors concert in Brussels. It was cold and you can see, appropriately, steam rising from the players. This was the most cohesive of Coltrane’s groups. Dolphy was gone and Workman had been replaced by Jimmy Garrison. The rapport is total and Trane is playing at a new level of passion and freedom, so much freedom that it takes some adjusting and concentration to feel and understand where he is. In some of the quartet's club appearances it wasn’t unusual for them to dig into a single tune for over an hour.
The DVD documents the changes. "My Favorite Things" has grown from a nearly tongue-in-cheek 10 minutes to an at times ferocious, at times ecstatic twenty. Jones is constantly pushing and provoking. Garrison makes good use of his experience with Ornette Coleman. Tyner has developed his familiar emphatic left hand and hammers block chords to stay in the game. But Coltrane is the leader.
The quartet broke up shortly after this concert. Coltrane’s increasing attacks on harmony and rhythm were too much for even these talented band-mates. He continued to explode into difficult new directions right up to his death just two years later.
This release is fascinating and entertaining. It documents an important piece of jazz history and earns a wholehearted recommendation.