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'Live at the Village Vanguard'

'Live at the Village Vanguard' album cover

Coltrane's set list in late '61 was a quixotic mix: popular originals ("Naima," but not "Africa"), recently recorded tunes ("Greensleeves," but oddly not "My Favorite Things"), and new compositions that drew inspiration from foreign sources ("India," "Brasilia"), modal jazz ("Miles' Mode," "Impressions"), and traditional folk songs ("Spiritual"). Engineer Rudy Van Gelder, with mixing console set atop a commandeered table near the Village Vanguard bandstand, captured it all on tape.

The eventual album, released in early 1962, distilled numerous reels of live music down to one disc with three tracks. "Spiritual" and the standard "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" constituted Side A, but it was Side B that first drew attention (and derision) and set ears atilt, and for which the album is now celebrated. Later generations revere "Chasin' the Trane" as the birth cry of sixties avant-garde jazz: an outpouring of stylistic tongues and melodic ideas that linked the bebop dexterity and daring of the past with a free, stripped-bare, spiritually charged future.

Van Gelder recalls "Chasin'" primarily as a challenge, with Coltrane swinging his saxophone and stalking the small stage of the basement club (hence the title, which the engineer himself suggested). To Coltrane himself it was merely an impromptu blues -- no theme, no opening statement, pure solo -- that featured his horn, Jimmy Garrison's bass, and Elvin Jones's drums. It was the first time the bassist had played with the group. And significantly, no piano. "The melody not only wasn't written out but it wasn't conceived before we played it. We set the tempo and in we went," Coltrane recalled.

The avant-garde firebrand Archie Shepp, a Coltrane acolyte: "I was living in a loft in [New York's] East Village in 1962. I heard my neighbor's record player booming and I knew it was Trane. But the piano never came in. As he began to develop the line it became clear that the structure wasn't so apparent and he was playing around with sounds: playing way above the normal scale of the horn, neutral and freak notes, overtones, and so on. I found it as shocking a piece of music as Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' was in his day."

A fifteen-minute solo on tenor saxophone -- especially in the context of 1961 -- must have seemed at least indulgent. What was Coltrane up to?

"It's basically a blues," Shepp explains. "But where the song's form is much less important than the melody itself, and the relation between the melody and the rhythm. Sonny Rollins had worked without piano before, but his playing was primarily harmonically oriented -- and Ornette Coleman too, who was totally aharmonic. Coltrane was able to integrate the two, to put everything in context, in such a sophisticated way that it influenced everybody. [Without the piano] it's the point where the Coltrane Quartet became an avant-garde trio."

Rather than simply a zero hour for free jazz, Shepp sees the tune more as "a synthesis of what came before. You could say that it's free jazz, but it's not totally free because there are still very strong structural indications: chords, harmony. Trane said that Giant Steps [1959] was sort of the end of one phase where he had exhausted all of the permutations of chords. 'Chasin' the Trane' was another door that opened: the use of sound for sound itself.

"I think it's one of the most innovative pieces in the history of African-American improvised music, as important as Charlie Parker's 'Ko-Ko' [1945] or Coleman Hawkins' 'Body and Soul' [1939]. That's the greatness of Trane, that he always kept the feeling of dance and the spiritual elements so important to what they used to call 'hot jazz.' That's why his peers all respected him so much, because he didn't throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Critics of the day often diverged in their opinions on Coltrane. But in "Double View of Coltrane 'Live,'" twin reviews in Down Beat in April 1962, Ira Gitler and Pete Welding seemed to agree on "Chasin' the Trane." "More like waitin' for a train -- a 100-car freight train -- to pass," judged the former. "Sputtering inconclusiveness" and "a frenzied sort of soul-baring," wrote the latter.

Present-day judgment has been more generous. To producer Bob Thiele, it was a "musical mega-nova": "Physicists have long debated about the existence of a 'big bang.' Without any question the jazz equivalent occurred during that seismic quarter-hour." Gary Giddins sees in "Chasin'" "one of those crucial performances in which we can hear the subversion of a sensibility and a yearning for new worlds."

Indeed, if it can be said that there was one moment when Impulse took a leap of faith and yoked its fortune to that drive for the new -- sharing Coltrane's path -- it is here.

From The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records Copyright © 2006 by Ashley Kahn.

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