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Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel

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Far From Old Fashioned: Blue Train at 55

September 18 2012

Maybe it’s the blueness of the cover, or its chamber-like sound, but John Coltrane’s Blue Train, like Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, frequently puts listeners in a reflective mood.

The cover photo of Blue Train, Coltrane’s second album as a leader and the only recording he made for Blue Note, shows the saxophonist seemingly deep in thought, his face, arms and shoulders, and the mouthpiece of his instrument, saturated in a blue chiaroscuro. It’s a profound album cover, probably one of the greatest ever printed, motivating other artists—including on-and-off Stone Temple Pilotsfrontman Scott Weiland and rapper J-Live—to put out albums of their own with art inspired by the 1957 release, which turned 55 on September 15th.

The session found Coltrane at an important juncture in his career. About four months earlier, he had quit using heroin, and at the time of Blue Train’s recording, he was performing regularly at the Five Spot in New York in Thelonious Monk’s quartet. It’s probably safe to assume that his newfound sobriety, coupled with the influence of Monk’s awkwardly refined sense of harmony, gave Coltrane a lot to think about.

On Blue Train, Coltrane is in very good company. To start, there are his two old bandmates from the Miles Davis Quintet, drummer Philly Joe Jones and bassist Paul Chambers. (Davis had kicked Coltrane out of his group about five months prior to this recording.) Pianist Kenny Drew fills out the rhythm section, while trumpeter Lee Morgan and trombonist Curtis Fuller (the only player from this session who’s still alive) complete the front line.

The title track, a haunting 10-minute blues, establishes Coltrane as one of the great interpreters of the form in jazz. In its starkness, it feels like a nod to the modal music Coltrane would later play, most notably on the 1961 album My Favorite Things. Still, Coltrane solos with lots of notes, using long tones and uneven phrases—and he sounds restless, as though he is trying to keep hold of all the ideas sloshing around in his mind. Morgan enters after Coltrane, with a spare and memorable opener. (He was very good at those. Listen to his solo on the title track of Art Blakey’Moanin’, a Blue Note release recorded a year later, for another instance.)

On “Locomotion,” the album’s third track, Morgan explodes like a firecracker into a suspenseful, eight-bar break. His ensuing solo is an intricate braid of sound; his phrases never tangle. (Such virtuosity prompted the critic A.B. Spellman to describe Morgan’s performance as “one of the great jazz trumpet solos.”) The trumpeter’s brassy articulation serves as a good foil to Fuller’s smooth, soft-toned lyricism on trombone.

“Moment’s Notice,” another Coltrane original with fast-moving chord changes, presages the recording of “Giant Steps”—Coltrane’s impossibly methodical composition that now exists almost solely for pedagogical purposes—by about two years. “Lazy Bird,” too, which supposedly draws from Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird” (which, in turn, draws from the standard “Have You Met Miss Jones?”) is another bellwether of Coltrane’s intensely focused attention to harmony.

And then there is the ballad “I’m Old Fashioned,” the only track on the album that Coltrane didn’t write. It is simply lovely. Coltrane could play very sweetly when he wanted to, and this song marks the musician as a refined and sensitive ballad player—one of the best in jazz.

To call Blue Train a hard bop album, as many have done, sort of misses the point of Coltrane’s singular, and expansive, vision. Coltrane was not a hard bop musician, just like his then-boss, Thelonious Monk, cannot be described as a bebop musician, although he recorded with Charlie ParkerMax Roach and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. If you want to try to understand Coltrane, it helps to look atBlue Train almost as a living thing, a signpost indicating some of the many roads he would explore in the 10 years before his early death. But it also exists just fine on its own.