The stats for this boxed set are impressive: seven CDs recorded over two years (November 1961 to November 1963), 20 of 38 cuts previously unreleased, approximately 11 hours of music. One of the greatest saxophonists of the past century is heard playing outside the confines of an early-’60s recording studio with the most sympathetic combo of his career.
This is Coltrane’s late-middle or early-late period, his modal/trance/ecstatic energy phase. That the box is monumental isn’t just another example of CD-era excessiveness; it’s a fitting extension of the music, of Trane’s relentless probing, which, for all its moment-by-moment excitement, its alternating fragmentation and lyricism, isn’t exactly keen on resolution. When the man heads down the final glide path of the six different versions of “My Favorite Things” offered here, there’s often a certain wistfulness, but never a true sense of finality. Like a true obsessive, he proceeds as though he found wrapping things up to be counterintuitive — he had to discipline himself to play shorter solos and he said as much.
Eric Dolphy (alto sax, flute) appears on the early cuts, his bouncing-off-the-walls approach not really blending into the grand modal scheme (as Neil Tesser points out in his excellent booklet notes), but when did Dolphy ever blend in? Pianist McCoy Tyner’s two-fisted, heavily embroidered style might have seemed a little grandiose in any other context, but with this group he sounds modest, close to the ground, though, of course, very intense. Drummer Elvin Jones never flags and when Jimmy Garrison steps out for a 10-minute solo on the last cut on the last disc (a half-hour version of “Impressions”), you realize that, Jesus, even the bass player is brilliant.
But the main attraction remains Big John, whether he’s circling the eternal now on soprano or asserting an almost painfully uninhibited sense of self on tenor — and trying to keep it, relatively, brief.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.