The Great (Live) Albums is our new bimonthly column taking a look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in to an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
Newport ’63, John Coltrane (1993, Impulse!)
Braver men than I have been dashed into splintered clarinet reeds trying to explain jazz music. So let’s just get this out of the way right now: I’m no expert. I’m just a semi-knowledgeable 35-year-old Caucasian who acquired a mild battery of jazzbo affectations in college, which have stubbornly persisted into uncool adulthood. And core to these would-be black-turtleneck- wearing-and-clove-cigarette- smoking pseudo-bohemian tendencies is sax legend John Coltrane’s Newport ’63—56 minutes of consummate musicianship spread over four sprawling tracks and conjuring an intense sense of artificial nostalgia for the lifestyle of suave adults luxuriating in the comforts of Kennedy-era metropolitan modernity.
Newport ’63 is a partially misleading title. Only three of the albums’ four tracks—“I Want to Talk About You,” “My Favorite Things,” “Impressions”—were captured at the titular 1963 Newport Jazz Festival. The fourth—“Chasin’ Another Trane”—was actually recorded two years prior, during a 1961 show by the John Coltrane Quartet at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. What’s more the versions of “Things” and “You” appearing here both surfaced decades prior to the album’s belated 1993 release, on a three-song LP entitled Selflessness from 1965.
But it’s Newport ’63 that I want to talk about. Which, along with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out cemented my own personal interest in jazz. Or at least the bee-bop/hard- bop/cool jazz permutation that seemed to be the music’s preeminent form during the 1950s and ‘60s and subsequently packaged by Madison Avenue carpetbaggers as a sort of upscale lifestyle music—perfect for long, hazy nights at the Playboy Club.
The album kicks off with an interpretation of swing crooner Billy Eckstein’s “I Want to Talk About You,” performed by the lineup of Coltrane, pianist McCoy Taylor, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Roy Haynes. Coming in at a comparatively concise 8:14, the track glides along for five velvet-smooth minutes. Then, the other the rest of the quartet drops out as the spotlight pinholes onto Coltrane for an increasingly frenetic solo showcase. Like I said: I lack the musical vocabulary to describe exactly what he’s doing here. But the narrative image evoked is one of ascending back onto the street after many long hours in an underground nightclub, loping back home through the city slightly drunk and stumbling into a few wrong turns down dark alleys, only to arrive safely home, tucked in bed just as the sun begins to rise.
Next up is Coltrane’s famed take on the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein composition “My Favorite Things.” If the research I did for this post is to be believed, this particular performance of the Sound of Music tune is widely regarded as one of Coltrane’s best: a regal, non-pejorative sax karaoke of Julie Andrews’ Alpine-kitsch pop vocal. At 3:30, Coltrane clears out for an extended Taylor spotlight with Garrison providing stellar countermelodies Haynes holding it all together with a pair overworked brushes. Coltrane eventually pops back in around 8:00 for more crooning, before devolving into a nearly psychedelic closing run that to my rock-oriented mind is reminiscent (if not in melody or instrument, than at least in intensity and innovation) of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” from 1970’s Band of Gypsies.
After 18 epic minutes of “My Favorite Things,” next is a hard-charging rendition of Coltrane’s own “Impressions,” which buzzes around for 15 anxious minutes like a horsefly trapped inside a Lincoln Town Car. For long time, I regarded this track as perhaps my least favorite on the record, mostly due to its manic repetitiveness. But I think the key to unlocking the performance is right there in the song’s title. “Impressions.” Once I began thinking of Coltrane’s horn as the aural equivalent of a Modernist painter madly tracing, re tracing, and re-re- tracing brush strokes in a fit of Benzedrine-addled artistic inspiration, it all finally made sense.
Wrapping up with Coltrane’s own punnily eponymous “Chasin’ Another Trane”—recorded not at Newport but at the 1961 Village Vanguard show and featuring Reggie Workman on bass—the quartet is joined by alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Here, Coltrane plays a tenor sax (playing soprano elsewhere.) Performed and recorded under different circumstances, “Trane” is much tighter and less sprawling than the album’s other three tracks. The five performers lock together for another 15 magical minutes of dictionary-definition jazz; upbeat, with two horns in spirited conversation with one another, riffing together like two old men playing milk crate chess in Washington Square Park. I don’t have much else to add about his one, other than I would kill to have been in the crowd that night (especially with drink prices adjusted down for inflation.)
As a discursive statement full of moments both epic and intimate, Newport ’63 is a wonderful document of a singular musical talent. And pretentions aside, this is music worth listening to for its own sake. No highballs, turtlenecks, or chin-only goatees required.
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)