“Blue Train” by John Coltrane (1957)
In the pantheon of jazz, John Coltrane generally is recognized as the Last Giant; in fact, that’s the title of a somewhat unrepresentative anthology of his work. Among jazz aficionados, Coltrane’s death in 1967 at age 40 left a void that has yet to be filled. And probably never will.
Coltrane was about a week short of his 30th birthday when he entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Hackensack, N.J., to record a one-off album for Blue Note Records. At the time, Coltrane was hardly a “giant.” His best-known work was as tenor sax player in Miles Davis’ band, but he lost that gig because of drug problems just as Miles hit the big time by signing with Columbia Records.
Subsequently, Coltrane found himself recording with a variety of artists for Prestige Records, the results of which since have been encapsulated in a 16-CD set. Yes, I did spend a couple of hundred bucks for it …
In the meantime, Blue Note founder Alfred Lion signed Coltrane for a one-record deal, and he recorded it on Sept. 15, 1957, with a lineup drawn partially from Davis’ band: Paul “Mr. PC” Chambers on bass and the inimitable “Philly” Jo Jones on drums. Rounding out the lineup were Kenny Drew on piano, Lee Morgan on trumpet and Curtis Fuller on trombone, an instrumental rarely employed in Coltrane recordings.
The day’s work yielded a record that established Coltrane at once as a major songwriting talent and a practically unbelievable wielder of the tenor saxophone. Each of the album’s five songs serves as a showcase for his playing within the friendly confines of eminently listenable tunes.
The title track is the most well-known on the album, and perhaps within Coltrane’s immense catalog. The beginning call and response sets the tone for a pice that, throughout its 10 minutes, treats the listener to constant inventiveness among the musicians.
“Moment’s Notice” serves as a showcase for each band member showing off his chops, with Drew contributing a particularly melodic piano run before the whole ensemble reprises the upbeat melody.
“Locomotion” is the fastest-paced song on the album, which the instrumentalists playing to a theme that might emulate a train ride. “I’m Old Fashioned,” the standard written by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, slows down the pace considerably, allowing Coltrane to demonstrate he could do more than play lightning-fast runs on his horn.
The proceedings wrap up with “Lazy Bird,” which despite the title picks the pace right back up. Morgan takes the first solo, and it’s a memorable one, showing the speed and complexity that a brass player can conjure. Fuller’s spot is a bit disappointing by contrast, especially when Coltrane follows with his pristine chops.
According to Michael Cuscuna’s liner notes in the 1996 CD reissue of “Blue Train,” Coltrane called it his favorite album of his own work. It certainly put him on the map as far as the jazz world was concerned, and it remains probably the most listenable of the many recordings he produced during his relatively short career.