Saxophonist John Coltrane would have been 87 years old today, had he not passed away from liver cancer in 1967. This untimely death means the icon is preserved at the peak of his artistic powers. As both a fiery tenorman and a sensitive balladeer, Coltrane inspired hundreds of thousands of musicians, from Kenny G to Iggy Pop, to do vastly different things in his name.
That dichotomy is often ignored in tributes because few musicians can successfully bridge that breadth of emotion, and even fewer listeners are willing to entertain such variety. In honor of his birthday, here's a list of ten recordings (in chronological order) that show why Coltrane has few equals, despite the fact that his recording career that lasted less than twenty years.
“Ah Leu Cha”
Round About Midnight (1955)
Coltrane joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955. This partnership would lead to many classic records, culminating with Kind of Blue in 1959. Here, the young tenor saxophonist is confident on the Charlie Parker tune, bouncing a series of well-spaced phrases and biting riffs. He is a complimentary sparring partner with Davis on the melody. Coltrane was still grappling with the bop sound, trying to find his place in the scene but relative to many other musicians, it didn't take him that long.
Tenor Madness (1956)
This 13 minute track marks the only time Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane recorded together. The song finds the two tenors interested in sharing ideas, sussing each other out with immense respect and curiosity. This landmark recording only makes the listener wish Coltrane had stuck around the studio for a few more numbers.
Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (1957)
Monk's off-kilter tune served as a launching pad for Coltrane's famous sheets of sound. Breath seems to be a low priority as Coltrane rages through his solo with a flight of cascading notes. Monk mostly stays out of the way and lets Coltrane do his thing. The younger saxophonist spent six months on the bandstand with Monk in 1957 and managed to soak up a decade's worth of knowledge.
“Why Was I Born?”
Kenny Burrell N John Coltrane (1958)
Coltrane didn't work with many guitarists. Kenny Burrell was an exception. Here the two men duet on the obscure Jerome Kern melody that is a master class in economy and interplay. Burrell slowly strums the changes as a bed for Coltrane to lay his measured tones upon. Coltrane got a lot of flack for his spiraling sheets. Here he proves that he had no trouble dropping the pulse.
Giant Steps (1959)
Sometimes you just gotta blow. This two and half minute jaunt was the extreme end of Coltrane's experiments in cramming as many relevant notes into a measure as possible. Tunes like “Giant Steps” and “Mr. P.C.” tested the limits of tempo and the brain's ability to process sound. Coltrane's own band was often left winded, absorbing many of these new concepts while in the recording studio.
“My Favorite Things”
My Favorite Things (1960)
Coltrane changed the game when it came to interpreting popular songs. The Sound of Music's “My Favorite Things” went through the Coltrane grinder before Julie Andrews even got a shot at it. The result was an almost entirely different tune, soaked in modal landscapes and bashing drums. His use of the soprano saxophone also drastically changed the role of the instrument, giving it muscle over the course of this nearly fourteen minute song.
Live at the Village Vanguard (1961)
New York's Village Vanguard jazz club became intertwined with the Coltrane legend in the early 1960s. The box set that came out of this run is indispensible. In a live setting, Coltrane was free to explore ideas to their limits. This was his first pairing with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. Eric Dolphy guests on this track on bass clarinet. Together, the Coltrane quartet blazed new trails with a display of force, experimentation and productivity unrivaled at the time.
“In A Sentimental Mood”
Duke Ellington N John Coltrane (1962)
In the 1960s, Duke Ellington was happily accepting his place as one of the most important composers in American music history. Here, he was paired up with Coltrane and drummer Elvin Jones. Ellington's more conservative approach to the tune, including the iconic piano introduction, meshes well with Coltrane and Jones' styles. Together, it's a once-in-a-lifetime sound.
Johnny Hartman N John Coltrane (1963)
Coltrane's quartet was paired with baritone crooner Johnny Hartman the following year. This interpretation of this standard by Ellington's composing partner Billy Strayhorn feels like the convergence of two different worlds. The straight, McCoy Tyner-accompanied melody shows no indication of the Coltrane solo to come. Jones pounds along with a pair of brushes, implying a host of rhythmic complexities as Coltrane offers a spine tingling flutter above him. Coltrane may have been deep into a spiritual and artistic journey at the time, but he never forgot his ability to swing a tune.
A Love Supreme (1964)
Recorded in one day in December of 1964, A Love Supreme is Coltrane's most lasting spiritual statement. Where he had been and where he was heading here collide with an unparalleled resonance, combining a wealth of bare emotion with a band that was in peak form. Those unfamiliar with the tune might recognize it as intro to the news on KCRW. Sorry. Coltrane was aiming much higher than donor sponsorships and traffic reports; he was pursuing the stratosphere. Here, he finally touched it.