In the early 1960s, jazz impresario Norman Granz sent Coltrane on several European tours, and issued a handful of albums on Pablo Records from these shows (The Paris Concert, Bye Bye Blackbird, The European Tour, Afro Blue Impressions). This new collection compiles their contents and substantially augments them; unlike other box sets which ask fans to buy several discs of reshuffled catalog material for the sake of one or two new tracks, almost two thirds of Live Tranea mammoth seven-disc packageis previously unreleased. It begins in 1961, when Eric Dolphy was accompanying Coltrane on alto sax, flute and bass clarinet (and raising the ire of critics who took exception to his Ornette-ish approach to free harmony), and ends in 1963, with Coltrane's "classic quartet" of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones. Much ink has been devoted over the years to the power of this group, and they remain a highwater mark in small-group jazz; very few bands have achieved such one-mind brilliance (David S. Ware's mid-1990s quartet, with Susie Ibarra, comes to mind as a recent example). A Love Supreme may be regarded as the quintessential Coltrane album, but "My Favorite Things," with which he had a popular hit in 1961, stands as the single tune most commonly associated with him. Live Trane serves up no less than six versions of the song, and it's fascinating to hear the fresh explorations on each piece. Small details jump out: listen to the rising-scale motif that Coltrane plays about eight minutes into "Traneing In" from Stockholm in 1962, and one can hear a future echo of his composition "Jupiter." This hefty set carries an equally hefty price tag, but the worthiness of the music is practically unassailable, and unpacking all of its riches justifies the money spent. A minor criticism: Pablo has taken hits in the past for providing shoddy information on their live albums, and unfortunately they haven't redeemed themselves here. Three tracks attributed to a 1961 Hamburg concert are actually from a 1962 gig at Birdland, in NYC (which sorta kills the set's subtitle), and the version of "Impressions" that Pablo dates from Stuttgart, 1963 doesn't match the rendition on the private tape of the full concert; one hopes that these errors will be corrected on future pressings. But this is nitpicking, of course, and it's a separate matter from the music itself.
The Olatunji Concert was recorded on April 23, 1967. As a penultimate live testamenthis final concert, a few weeks later, apparently went undocumentedit's a staggering piece of work; although Coltrane died of liver cancer less than three months later, there's no sign whatsoever of diminished capabilities. This is intensely spiritual music, and one can see how such ecstatic testifying could inspire similar passions in his audience (Eric Clapton may have been deified in a famous piece of bathroom wall graffiti, but the Church of John Coltrane in which Trane enjoys sainthoodis an ordained member of the African Orthodox Church). On the plangent "Ogunde" (laid down in the studio on Expression, his last session), he takes two wrenching solos; the young Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane's controversial protege, delivers one of his tenor saxophone assaults that so polarized Trane's listeners at the time. Alice Coltrane received short shrift from critics (not least because of the pianistic shoes she had to fill), but she was undoubtedly more prepared to play the high-energy free jazz of Trane's final years than Tyner, and her solo turn here is no exception. "My Favorite Things" is as far removed from the versions on the Pablo set as those were from the original show tune. After a long bass introduction by Garrisonthe lone remaining member of the classic quartetColtrane dives into the song headlong, only obliquely stating the theme. Sanders, in fact, is the only member to play the theme outright, at the end of his solo, after which Coltrane rejoins for a round of double-reed bliss. The sound quality is surprisingly rough for a non-bootleg release (although it's been cleaned up considerably, judging from the short excerpt that's been in circulation among collectors for years), but it does nothing to detract from the music. If anything, it adds to it; the in-the-red rolls of Rashied Ali's drums and the microphone-swallowing saxophones sound all the more urgent for the hastily assembled recording setup.
One only hopes that the Powers That Be don't wait for Trane's 100th birthday before opening the archives again; music this beautiful shouldn't be beholden to calendar anniversaries.