The Sound Cafe
Blue Note Announce Two Special Tone Poet Vinyl Editions Of John Coltrane’s 'Blue Train' Out Sept. 16
On September 15, 1957, John Coltrane went into Rudy Van Gelder’s living room studio in Hackensack, New Jersey and recorded his first great masterpiece: Blue Train. The fulfillment of a handshake deal Coltrane made with Alfred Lion, it would be the legendary saxophonist’s sole session as a leader for Blue Note Records, a locomotive five track album fueled by the bluesy title track that featured a dynamic sextet with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Blue Train established Coltrane as a force of nature and set him on a course towards becoming one of the most revered and influential jazz artists of all-time.
To mark the 65th anniversary of the album’s recording, Blue Train will be released in two special editions on September 16 as part of Blue Note’s acclaimed Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series. A 1-LP mono pressing of the original album will be presented in a deluxe gatefold tip-on jacket, while the 2-LP stereo collection Blue Train: The Complete Masters will include a second disc featuring seven alternate and incomplete takes, none of which have been released previously on vinyl, and four of which have never been released before on any format. The Complete Masters comes with a booklet featuring never-before-seen session photos by Francis Wolff and an essay by Coltrane expert Ashley Kahn. Both Tone Poet Vinyl Editions were produced by Joe Harley, mastered by Kevin Gray from the original analog master tapes, and pressed on 180g vinyl at RTI. Blue Train: The Complete Masters will also be released as a 2-CD set and digital collection.
“Few studio experiences I’ve had can compare with the thrill of listening to the original master tapes—mono, stereo and alternate takes—of Blue Train,” says Harley. “I consider these two new versions the definitive editions of this masterpiece performance by John Coltrane.”
Blue Train came at a pivotal moment in Coltrane’s career. Earlier in 1957, the saxophonist had hit bottom when his heroin addiction caused him to be fired from the Miles Davis Quintet. But after kicking his habit, Coltrane returned with a fervor inspired by an extended summer residency with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot Café. By the end of the year, Coltrane had been rehired by Davis and had produced his first masterwork, an album that even he was deeply proud of. As Kahn recounts in his essay: “Blue Train was a recording that Coltrane, ever self-critical and modest, held in high regard. In 1960, while on tour with Miles Davis for the last time, a Swedish deejay asked Coltrane what he favored from his catalogue and he immediately responded: ‘Oh, I like Blue Train myself. It’s a good band on there, you know. It was a good recording.’”
John Coltrane – Blue Train: The Complete Masters
Blue Train (Coltrane) – 10:43 Moment’s Notice (Coltrane) – 9:10
Locomotion (Coltrane) – 7:14 I’m Old Fashioned (Kern-Mercer) – 7:58 Lazy Bird (Coltrane) – 7:07
Blue Train false start * – 0:21 Blue Train alternate take 7 * – 7:09 Moment's Notice alternate take 4 * – 7:19
Lazy Bird alternate take 1 – 9:22 Blue Train alternate take 8 – 10:27 Moment's Notice alternate take 5A (incomplete) * – 5:08 Lazy Bird alternate take 2 – 7:29
John Coltrane, tenor saxophone Lee Morgan, trumpet Curtis Fuller, trombone Kenny Drew, piano Paul Chambers, bass Philly Joe Jones, drums
Original Session Produced by ALFRED LION Recorded on September 15, 1957, at Van Gelder Studios, Hackensack, New Jersey Recording Engineer RUDY VAN GELDER Cover Design by REID MILES Photography FRANCIS WOLFF LP Supervision by JOE HARLEY LP Mastering by KEVIN GRAY, Cohearent Audio
ORIGINAL LINER NOTES BY ROBERT LEVIN:
JOHN COLTRANE has often been called a “searching” musician. His literally wailing sound — spearing, sharp and resonant creates what might best describe as an ominous atmosphere that seems to suggest (from a purely emotion standpoint) a kind of intense probing into things far off, unknown and mysterious. Admittedly such a description is valid only in a personal way but “searching” remains applicable to Trane in view of actual fact. He is constantly seeking out new ways to extend his form of expression — practicing continually, listening to what other people are doing, adding, rejecting, assimilating — molding a voice that is already one of the most important in modern jazz.
John’s “sound” as mentioned in the lead is rather unique. It is certainly his most obvious trademark (similar to Dexter Gordon, his earliest and strongest influence) but has meaning apart from just a “different sound.” His way of thinking is at one with his tonal approach. His ideas often seem to run in veering, inconsistent lines appearing at first to lack discipline but, like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk (two of his closest musical associates, both of whom have been labeled by some as “eccentric” and/or “poorly equipped” instrumentalists) John is aware and in control of what he is doing. What may appear to be suddenly rejected is used, rather, as a basis for further exploration.
Born in Hamlet, North Carolina on September 23, 1926 John began his study of music with the alto horn and clarinet when he was fifteen. Later, after a hitch in the Navy, he played with King Kolax, Eddie Vinson (switching to tenor), some spotted gigs with Howard McGhee at the Apollo in New York, Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, Lonnie Slappey in Philadelphia, Guy Crosse in Cleveland, Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges. In 1955 Trane joined the Miles Davis Quintet for what turned out to be more than a year and a half gig and is currently a member of the Thelonious Monk Quartet. (Incidentally, at this writing, the Monk unit was moving into its fifteenth consecutive week at the hip Five Spot in Greenwich Village). Trane feels that working with Miles and Monk have been “invaluable musical experiences.” His employment with each of these giants has provided him with an education that most musicians could not acquire in a lifetime. In addition Miles, and now Monk (being of this school themselves) have never inhibited John’s musical sense of freedom. He is able to experiment while on the stand with no fear of being called down and with a good chance of being congratulated.
John, though highly self-critical, has broad and varied tastes when it comes to others. His favorites are many; Miles (“His style of playing is very interesting to me. He has a very good knowledge of harmonics and chord structure. I used to talk with him quite often.”), Dizzy, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Joe Gordon, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Stitt, Cliff Jordan, Monk (“He plays with a whole range of chords. I had never heard anything like it before and I’ve learned a lot from him.”), Red Garland, Kenny Drew, Phineas Newborn, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Paul Chambers, Wilbur Ware, Earl May, Cannonball, Jackie McLean, Jay Jay Johnson, Curtis Fuller and Milt Jackson.
John has recorded previously for Blue Note with Paul Chambers (BLP 1534) and Johnny Griffin (BLP 1559).
Trane selected all the musicians used for this date. Lee Morgan, the exciting Gillespie-Navarro-Brown styled, young trumpet player who made his professional debut with Dizzy Gillespie when he was only eighteen and who, in a fantastically short period of time, has become an accepted front-runner on his instrument is also represented on Blue Note with five of his own albums (BLP 1538, 1541, 1557, 1575 and 1578), and with Hank Mobley (BLP 1540).
Curtis Fuller who, next to Jay Jay Johnson, is for this listener modern jazzdom’s top trombonist can be heard on his own LPs (BLP 1569 and 1572) and as a sideman with Bud Powell (BLP 1571) and Cliff Jordan (BLP 1565). His conception continues to mature and increase in potency.
The rhythm section, comprised of Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, is superb. Drew is a blues rooted pianist with a swinging, cohesive technique. Chambers and Jones are known primarily for their sparkling work with Miles Davis. They are both more than familiar with Trane’s style having worked with him for an extensive period and assist in brilliant fashion. Paul fronts his own units on BLP 1534, 1564 and 1569 and is with Kenny Burrell (BLP 1523 and 1543), Lee Morgan (BLP 1541), Hank Mobley (BLP 154) and Sonny Rollins (BLP 1558). Philly Joe has driven the groups of J. R. Monterose (BLP 1536), Chambers (1534), Clifford Brown (BLP 1526) and Morgan (BLP 1538).
The four impressive originals in this set are by Coltrane. The title number, Blue Train, is a moving, eerie blues. Trane rides swiftly down a lonesome track with Lee and Curtis shoveling extra coal into the boiler near the end of his solo. Lee follows with an energetic statement and is succeeded by a gutty Fuller. John and Lee riff behind Curtis just before he gives way to funky Kenny Drew. Chambers takes a brief but effective solo before the group returns to the theme.
Moment’s Notice is a happy romper with expressive solos by Coltrane, Fuller, Morgan, Chambers (bowed) and Drew.
Locomotion, an uptempo blues begins with a rocking drum statement and a unison riff theme with Coltrane taking off on several “breaks” in between the repeated pattern before moving into his actual solo which, like those of Fuller, Morgan, Drew and Jones who follow, is played in a hard, slashing fashion.
I’m Old Fashioned, a pretty, old popular song that was suggested to Trane by a friend is rendered a delicate treatment. Here John is given a chance to display his warm handling of a ballad and shows himself to be adept with tunes set in any tempo. Curtis, Kenny and Lee are also provided with solo space and their interpretations are sensitive and poignant.
Lazy Bird is faintly reminiscent of Tadd Dameron’s Lady Bird. After a short piano introduction Morgan (with a brief assist from the other horns), Fuller, Coltrane, Drew, Chambers (with bow) and Jones, take off in that order. Lee returns at the end to ride out over John and Curtis with the theme.
What is perhaps the most striking attribute (among many) about his LP is its free, but not disorganized, blowing mood that has everyone in exceptional form both individually and collectively.
— Robert Levin
NEW ESSAY BY ASHLEY KAHN
Blue Train, John Coltrane’s 1957 masterpiece, the sole album he recorded for the legendary Blue Note record label, has grown in sixty-plus years—and grown, and grown—in stature and legend.
What was at first a solid album on a leading jazz label at the time—a first flush of Coltrane’s compositional and emotional mastery—has today become a permanent part of the canon of great American music. Boasting four striking original tunes plus a wistful interpretation of Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned,” Blue Train is a classic recording from a classic era. It is a cultural treasure recognized by such organizations as The Library of Congress and the GRAMMY® Hall of Fame. It offers any music fan immediate entry to that bygone world of 1950s hip—cool sophistication and the swinging, earthy feel of the blues. With the almost too-obvious pun in the title, and the blue-tinged, intensely cropped image of Coltrane on the cover—finger on lip, left arm stretched behind him, mind buried in the music—it looks as moody and off-the-mainstream as the music inside.
Blue Train was a recording that Coltrane, ever self-critical and modest, held in high regard. In 1960, while on tour with Miles Davis for the last time, a Swedish deejay asked Coltrane what he favored from his catalogue and he immediately responded: “Oh, I like Blue Train myself. It’s a good band on there, you know. It was a good recording.”
Generations of jazz players since Coltrane would agree, having used Blue Train as an introduction to modern jazz, and as a means to unlocking the secrets of post-bop harmony and improvisation.
Saxophonist Dave Liebman is one of those. Known for his apprenticeship in bands led by Miles Davis and Elvin Jones—both who worked side-by-side with Coltrane—he is one of the many who have worked their way down that same rabbit hole. To Liebman, Blue Train’s value rests in “the compositions—so new and harmonically different from where others were at that time—and the idea that Coltrane was just getting into his so-called ‘sheets of sound’ phase in his own playing, really fast lines employing lots of 16th and 32nd notes.”
The Blue Train date at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, September 15, 1957, came during an unsettled but very productive year for Coltrane. It was nearly five months after he had quit a nasty heroin habit cold turkey, after having been fired from Miles Davis’s famous quintet at the start of the year, and before being rehired by the trumpeter in December. The return to freelance status had given him the freedom to pursue sideman gigs and his own projects, to start to envision life as a leader in his own right. There had also been a summer residency in Thelonious Monk’s quartet at the Five Spot club, which had the impact on Coltrane of a graduate school course in harmony, turbo-charging his explosive way of navigating through chord structures. “I learned from him in every way,” the saxophonist said of Monk, “through the senses, theoretically, technically.”
Blue Train was a direct product of the Monk-Trane union. “There’s a lot more harmonic information packed into his solos by this point,” Liebman says, “And there’s so much going on in this one album, and so much to learn.”
With Blue Train: The Complete Masters, the primer has been expanded to include all the surviving alternate tracks from the session. These tracks offer the listener a chance to hear the music as it approached its state of completion, plus the final master takes. They enhance the inherent lessons in the music, helping us to grasp the work and skills that went into music that is today almost taken for granted.
The Complete Masters also highlights the first example of Coltrane creating original music out of a workshop environment then common to the New York City scene—late-night jams and practice sessions—like one with trombonist Curtis Fuller. “We both knew Lee Morgan, and [Coltrane] always said he’d like to have a group with Lee and I,” Fuller recalled. “We started doing Monday nights at Birdland and different places with a sextet. The personnel changed from time to time, but it was mainly the three horns, Lee, him, and myself, and it really worked . . . we did songs like ‘Woody n’ You’, things that were conducive for ensemble play.”
Coltrane’s choice of musicians balanced the relative youth of the front line—the 19-year old Morgan fresh from Philadelphia, and 23-year old Fuller just in from Detroit—with the more experienced rhythm section: journeyman pianist Kenny Drew, plus two fellow members of Miles Davis’s quintet, bassist Chambers (a year younger than Fuller) and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
“These are young guys and Lee Morgan really sounds like he’s come to the studio full of energy and excitement,” says Liebman. “It’s palpable, the enthusiasm. He’s burning it—his time and his tone and his inflection—he’s so intensely on it.”
Besides Morgan’s unbridled teenage energy, Liebman notes that “Kenny Drew is really swinging in his playing—completely, while Curtis [Fuller] sounds so comfortable in this context, especially with the blues. Philly Joe comes through; Trane knew him from their time together in Miles’s band and on ‘Lazy Bird’ he really steps up to the plate with a great solo. Meanwhile Paul Chambers is the rock of the date. Note that with unusual chord progressions you’re going to lean on the bass player big time to know where everything is.”
The three-horn lineup is noteworthy because other than two other albums—a few tracks on Coltrane (Prestige) and all of Olé (Atlantic)—Coltrane never dedicated himself to three-horn harmony as he did on Blue Train. It was the kind of project requiring preparation prior to the recording session, and inevitably multiple takes in the studio. As all jazzmen knew at the time, this was what distinguished Blue Note from other labels. It was the modus operandi of Alfred Lion, Blue Note’s founder and in-studio producer. Not only did the label pay for rehearsals, but Lion himself was especially hands on.
“Alfred really had to listen to things,” Fuller says. “He kept wanting to hear ‘Locomotion’ again and again while we were rehearsing it. He knew when it didn’t swing. If you listen to the outtakes of ‘Blue Train’ you’d have to give Alfred Lion the credit for Blue Train the way it came out.”
The rehearsals helped hone the title track, his moody take on the blues (which produced a successful, two-part 45rpm single), a more swinging blues, “Locomotion” which was a structural borrowing of Lester Young’s “D. B. Blues.” There were also two uptempo numbers that offered more complexity than standard bebop structures—“Moment’s Notice” and “Lazy Bird.”
“I remember ‘Lazy Bird’ took longest to get together,” says Fuller. “‘Blue Train’ everybody jumped on.”
For Liebman, Blue Train stands out as the album that convinced the world of Coltrane’s compositional prowess, “especially ‘Moment’s Notice’ and ‘Lazy Bird’. ‘Blue Train’ is a blues, ‘Locomotion’ a blues with a bridge, and of course ‘I’m Old Fashioned’ is a well-known standard, so those three were not unusual structures.
“But ‘Moment’s Notice’ is what I call a rhythmic melody that by the ninth bar lands on a really lyrical melody—Trane putting together this harmonic progression with a pedal point at the end, and with a rhythmic motif—bah-bah, bah-bah, ba-ba-ba-bah-bah. There’s a lot of things being juxtaposed there. ’Moment’s Notice’ is a pretty challenging tune right off, at the top of the head [the opening theme]. On the alternate takes, you can hear the other guys scuffling, everyone except Kenny. ‘Lazy Bird’ also challenges with chord progressions that don’t go to the normal, expected place, although it’s not as radical as ‘Moment’s Notice.’”
Fittingly, an offhand remark by Fuller about the scant warning of that challenge helped title the track “Moment’s Notice”. “Two of them had a name on it [before the session]—‘Locomotion’ and ‘Lazy Bird’,” Fuller recalls. “The other two Trane named later.”
There’s much else to be gleaned from the alternate takes on The Complete Masters. The priority was to get the in-theme right while allowing the improvisations and the other details to gel—like the harmonized horn line that enters midway through Coltrane’s “Blue Train” solo. Still untogether in Take 7, it’s sharper in Take 8. There was flexibility to play it out rather than keep to a pre-determined limit; his Take 7 solo was merely half the duration.
“I like that background figure that they came up with on ‘Blue Train’,” Liebman says. “They probably came up with it right there in the studio. Maybe Coltrane brought it in, but to my ears it sounds like something that was extemporaneous.”
Various alternate takes reveal other inspired solos worthy of study and comparison: Morgan and Drew on Takes 7 and 8 of “Blue Train;” Drew’s solo on Take 8, in fact, was edited into Take 9, the eventual album master. Fuller on Take 5A of “Moment’s Notice,” on which tape runs out just as Morgan gears up for a run. Drew, Chambers and Jones on the very first take of “Lazy Bird.”
“The thing is that they are all fairly uniform in their solos,” Liebman says, “though there are exceptions—like how Lee Morgan phrases his different entries into [his solos on] ‘Lazy Bird’. But the exception is Coltrane. Sometimes there’s really an order, like a form, that Trane follows, and you can hear it in the different solos, through several takes. You can hear how he develops it and brings in wider range of ideas each time—compare the early takes of ‘Blue Train’ to the final. Or ‘Moment’s Notice’—his solo on that final take is the best because it has the most variety, in my opinion. On one take of ‘Moment’s Notice’ he doesn’t even solo. I wonder what happened there.”
Liebman notes another Coltrane detail that he and fellow saxophonists have come to prize and imitate. “There is a phrase at the end of the first chorus [of his solo] on the final take of ‘Moment’s Notice.’ It’s this diminished, crowded pattern of 16th notes that he plays and that became part of his sound in ’57. He also plays it quite a bit on “I Love You” from his Lush Life album, recorded the same year [only a month earlier than Blue Train] so it was something fresh then—an example of his working out a pattern on his own, then bringing it in to a session displaying his mastery of it. This pattern has become a kind of standard lick that all sax players have to know.”
The Complete Masters also includes brief behind-the-scenes snippets of studio chatter that humanizes these legends. As Take 5 of “Moment’s Notice” comes together, Jones intones “How do you do?” in his Bela Lugosi voice; Morgan reminds Van Gelder he’ll play on a particular section, and then suggests that Jones provide a drum fill. There’s tension-relieving band banter leading into the master take of “Blue Train.” Throughout there are hints of Van Gelder’s no-nonsense approach. Coltrane’s voice is not heard at all, evidence of his role as primarily a demonstrative leader.
Liebman states that ultimately, “Blue Train is notable because it really is a great example of Coltrane starting to be in charge in the studio, getting a feeling for leading a band which he would do so well in the years to come. It worked so well—I wonder why it’s his only record with Blue Note.”
It’s a question that has often been asked, and is raised once again, as Blue Train: The Complete Masters offers another valuable peek at the historical confluence of Coltrane’s development as a recording artist in his first year recording under his own name, with Blue Note Records working at peak efficiency, in its prime years, backing recording projects with necessary budgetary support and production focus.
Blue Train fulfilled a handshake agreement Coltrane made with Alfred Lion, head of Blue Note, prior to the saxophonist signing an exclusive contract with Bob Weinstock at Prestige in April 1957. (Still, permission was needed, which was noted on the back of the original Blue Note LP: “John Coltrane performs by courtesy of Prestige Records.”) One can easily imagine Coltrane being persuaded to record Blue Train for Blue Note, rather than Prestige, which favored recording impromptu, blowing sessions. Whatever his motivation, Blue Train remains more widely known and revered—more praised as a consistent, choate statement—than any album he recorded on Prestige. In fact, not until Coltrane signed to Impulse Records in 1961, a major label with more generous production budgets, did he take on a project demanding similar rehearsals: Africa/Brass, his debut on the label.
In the end, Coltrane’s relationship with Blue Note was relegated to only four albums: three sideman dates — Paul Chambers’s Whims of Chambers, Sonny Clark’s Sonny’s Crib, Johnny Griffin’s A Blowin’ Session—and Blue Train. Did Alfred Lion wish it could have been otherwise? Lion himself answered the question when interviewed by the noted jazz journalist Nat Hentoff on New York City’s radio station WBAI in 1959.
NH: Have you ever made one big goof, one guy you let get away that later became an important name? AL: Well sure, we all make mistakes. I made plenty of mistakes. NH: Who was one you let get away? AL: Well, actually I didn’t let him get away. He made his first…we couldn’t have kept him exclusively, let’s say. NH: Who was that? AL: Well one happened to be John Coltrane and he slipped away. NH: Oh, he might come back. AL: He might come back is right. He made some good records for us.
— Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning music historian, author and producer. He has authored books on the making of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme by John Coltrane and a definitive history of Impulse Records. Kahn also co-authored Carlos Santana’s autobiography.