Thursday, May 31, 2012

John Coltrane: Ballads (1962)


(Impulse!)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Like most who've fallen under the Coltrane spell, I believe Giant Steps and A Love Supreme to be the essential works of one of the 20th century's major creative forces. After that, I diverge from the norm unequivocally. For one thing, I believe his "free jazz" peripheral items like Om to be among the most beautiful music he ever recorded, and that Africa/Brass is easily as innovative and influential as A Love Supreme. And then there's Ballads, one of the biggest sources of controversy among Coltrane scholars. The common accusation is that he didn't want to record it at all, that it was a concession to Impulse! and a reactionary move against criticism of his hard bop records (and Africa/Brass). Believed it be laid down quickly in a slapdash manner, it's seen more than anything as a step backward -- an album of standards that includes no music actually written by Coltrane himself. I don't really know or care how much of this is true; I wouldn't put it past even an idiosyncratic record label to worry itself sick over an artist's direction. It's my firm feeling, however, that there are nearly no more intense pleasures available to us as music listeners than Ballads.

And more to the point, I would put it past Coltrane to not care about something he recorded. I don't honestly believe that he was capable of getting drawn into such apathy -- not to paint him as saintly, but this is simple mathematics: terribly young at the time he died (40), he never had time to screw up or to become the jaded business-worn figure, prolific though he may have been. The serious reason I think the "all standards" controversy is bunk, though, is the nature of jazz itself as formed in the hands of people like Coltrane. Clearly, these standards are a mere launching pad for a collection of ideas by a fascinating and robust quartet. It's fair enough to suggest that those ideas are necessarily less vibrant and prescient than those typically explored by Coltrane's various units, but it's nevertheless a stirring feat to hear his fully developed musicianship in service of material that in so many hands would seem tired and basic, witness the very use of the term "standard." If you don't accept that logic, which you really should, fine, think of this as a vacation with John Coltrane to the French Riviera or something. That's no less beautiful than the act of turning jazz on its head with every packed-in note, it's just something else, some other mood this extraordinarily gifted individual was able to give off.

Ballads is the sharpest and most confident of Coltrane's romances, with warmth enough in its introspection to make a listener feel lifted and embraced. It's not simply a performance of songs, it's a definitive recasting of them as golden seduction. The seduction wastes no time; the gentle swaying of "Say It" is instantly tempered by the sophisticated playing of Coltrane as well as McCoy Tyner's hopping, charged piano. Convention gets turned around just slightly throughout both sides of the record; "What's New," for instance, is almost a straight read but with just a touch of the giddily arrhythmic. "I Wish I Knew," by contrast, might add nothing more than that extra sense of yearning to the sax, but it's so much more powerful than such a simple word as "yearning" can get across.

That's because the playing here is so deeply felt, as always, but amazingly just as much so on distant items like these worn-down songs. Coltrane plays both tenor and soprano here, as on My Favorite Things and Africa/Brass, and charges into the emotional center of each track as a vocalist typically would. The entire band does superlative work here, though, supposedly basing their recorded arrangements and performances on only a limited knowledge of the songs and a painfully brief rehearsal for each cut. That's hard to believe considering the intricacy of, to start with, "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "All or Nothing at All." The latter has Elvin Jones starkly pound out a drum introduction with a building, cascading rhythm suggestive of later, wilder freedoms. The song that develops is gloriously illusory, like a mutated bossa nova, a thing so vague that it somehow can't be reached, but as the chaos mounts it features as well the most lyrical sax line on the record -- until tune and sense are slowly and sensually lost.

It's "You Don't Know What Love Is," however, that most conveniently defines the tremendous artistry and immediate appeal of the Ballads aesthetic. Another galvanizing introduction washes over us with drummer Jones pulsing inward -- a wet and disorganized pathway into total bliss -- until stabbing, angular single notes and an abrasive arrangement contrast on the verses with the sax flowing outward -- all growing clearer and more traditional as the clock ticks, until it seems to fall together tantalizingly just before it ends. It's an arresting performance, but most importantly one that's both engagingly strange and gut-level beautiful. That keen sense of the immediate in even the most unexpected setting actually points the way ahead to A Love Supreme.

Like nearly all of Coltrane's work, Ballads is designed to reward careful listening, even if its central conceit and pretense seems to be the crafting of dinner music. Dinner music, great as it may be, seldom shimmers like this, and it's hard to ignore or escape the knowledge that these songs are impossibly elevated beyond their origins. They may be worthy of their status or not, they probably are, but it's Coltrane's actions and violence upon them that matter. Even at the album's most conventional, it's still nocturnal joy ("It's Easy to Remember") with a pulse-pounding undercurrent of frayed, serious, messed-up love and sex. The most beautiful, involving, and (why not) danceable of these songs is "Too Young to Go Steady," the band unbelievably tight with its arrangement's consistent pressing onward, backdropping the sheer and absolutely knowing nature of Coltrane's sax playing. When this crisp, indomitable Ballads whispers off into the night with its lonely crystalline sound, you feel you've heard much more than a simple Coltrane album of jazz-standard covers. But hell, that would be enough anyway, I'm pretty sure.

[SEE ALSO:]
Giant Steps (1960)
A Love Supreme (1964)

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