Blue Train along with Giant Steps and A Love Supreme were the albums which served as my introduction to the music of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. Throughout my teenage years my primary musical interests were rock and heavy metal, the world of jazz seemed to be above me in some strange way, as if it was designed for solely for intellectuals. So as far as I was concerned when you're trying to rebel against your parents and the world, jazz didn't seem like the music to aid and abet you in your mission. It wasn't until I entered my twenties that I decided to give this jazz thing a try, and as soon as I started sampling the giants of the jazz world, musicians like Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Chet Baker, Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane, I was well on my way to enjoying this self perceived superior form of music. Blue Train was one my first jazz purchases when it made it's first appearance on CD back in 1990. When Blue Note Records released The Ultimate Blue Train to mark it's fortieth anniversary back in 1997 I picked up another copy due to that fact that this expanded edition featured two added bonus tracks as well as enhanced multimedia content. Although the disc has since been re-released three more times in both 24bit 192kHz DVD-A and Super Audio format as well as a Rudy Van Gelder remastered edition, the version I am reviewing from my own collection is the fortieth anniversary edition.
In 1957 John Coltrane's personal and professional career was about to undergo a rather significant change that would set him on the course to exploring the musical cosmos for the remaining ten years of his life. While he was fired from Miles Davis' group earlier in the year due to his increasing alcohol and drug use, 1957 would also mark the first time that Trane would step out on his own and record under his own name. After his tenure with Davis ended John recorded his first album for Prestige Records entitled Coltrane (issued in 1960) in May, as well as his sole session for Blue Note in September which was penciled in while Coltrane was in the middle of an extended stint at the Five Spot in New York City with Thelonious Monk's group. On September 15th Coltrane gathered at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Hackensack New Jersey with Lee Morgan (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Kenny Drew (piano) as well as a couple of familiar musicians from Davis' classic first quintet, Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums), and got down to creating one of the most beloved albums of his career.
Four of the albums five compositions are Coltrane originals and the album begins with the ten minute title track which is basically constructed around a blues riff. "Blue Train" is a great way to kick off the record due to it being a real ensemble piece that allows each musician to take a solo spot. After the opening theme Trane steps to the forefront and let's loose with a flurry of fluid and crisp sounding notes that almost serve as the blue print for his sweeping 'sheets of sound' method of playing which he would develop over the next few years . After his solo concludes the young Lee Morgan is up next. Although only nineteen years old at the time, he unleashes an impressive barrage of notes of his own, and while it doesn't match the intensity of Trane's fiery opening statement, it proves he is certainly capable of holding his own. Curtis Fuller's trombone solo while not as effective, does maintain the overall cohesive feel of the track and sets the stage for the subsequent solo's of pianist Kenny Drew and bassist Chambers before the main theme returns to close out the song. The alternate take of "Blue Train" which is one of the two added tracks, features a slightly reworked solo from Coltrane which unfortunately doesn't equal the fire of the master take (take 9), although both Morgan and Fuller seem to fare better on this version as they pack a bit more urgency into their solos. Also interesting to note that Drew's solo on this alternate take (take 8), was the one used in the master, as his solo from the preceding take did not survive.
"Moment's Notice" is another shimmering ensemble track, again constructed around a blues riff, although distinctly more up tempo than the opening number. Coltrane once again turns in an absolutely splendid extended solo that features a plethora of layered, sharp sounding notes, which sets the bar high for the others to follow. However, both Fuller and Morgan once again prove their worth on this session as both turn in confident solos of their own, which really kick this swinging track into overdrive. "Locomotion" is up next and finds the group continuing the brisk pace laid down on the preceding number. While the opening theme is played in unison, Trane veers off on a few breaks in and around the pattern before launching into his solo. Again the collective and individual talents of each musician is on full display here as Fuller, Morgan, Drew and Jones all turn in solo's of their own. While the pace slows down on the standard ballad "I'm Old Fashioned" it proves Coltrane is already a true master regardless of the tempo, as he constructs a beautifully warm and compassionate solo. Likewise Fuller, Drew and Morgan in that order lend their tender impressions to give this composition its distinct feeling of sentimental contemplation. The album concludes with another lively track entitled "Lazy Bird". Unlike the majority of the album which finds Coltrane leading off each number, this one begins with Morgan, who after the brief piano introduction takes off on another one of his robust sounding forays. After each musician has had chance to display their individual talents with solo's of their own, Morgan along with Coltrane and Fuller reprise the opening theme and bring the track to its end, concluding what is definitely one of the most stellar recordings in the John Coltrane catalogue.
Over the years I've read the odd article or two that have suggested that Coltrane's supporting cast of musicians on Blue Train were inadequate and not the right players to the execute the music on this session, which is something I've never been able to wrap my head around. To my ears, as a collective this unit does a fantastic job of maintaining the cohesive nature of the music, and as mentioned throughout this review each musician individually is given ample opportunity to blow.
If you're new to John Coltrane's music I couldn't think of a better place to start than right here with Blue Train. On the other hand if you're like me and have had this one in your collection for ages, and you know the music inside and out, you probably have one of the more recent editions sitting proudly in your CD rack. That being said, even though The Ultimate Blue Train has served this reviewer well over the years and I can find no sonic flaws with the 20 bit SBM (Super Bit Mastering) that was the standard for the time, I probably owe it to myself to seek out an upgrade of my own and compare it with the more recent Rudy Van Gelder remastered RVG edition. Regardless of which edition you manage to stumble upon, it won't change the fact that this is a five star album plain and simple from one of the most respected and enduring figures the music world has ever seen.
1) Blue Train
2) Moment's Notice
4) I'm Old Fashioned
5) Lazy Bird
6) Blue Train (Alternate Take)
7) Lazy Bird (Alternate Take)