The Impulse record company has done much valuable work in documenting contemporary developments in jazz. Perhaps their finest achievement to date has been the compilation of nine volumes of John Coltrane’s playing since 1960. They deserve to be commended for continuing to release the work of this important musician in the face of much adverse criticism.

The latest release in this series (Coltrane Live At Birdland: Impulse a50) is especially welcome, containing music from sessions in October and November of 1963, the most recent yet recorded. Though the album contains nothing with the grandeur of Impressions (Impulse a42) or Out Of This World (a21) all five pieces show Coltrane’s regular group playing with their customary involvement and intensity. The most interesting tracks are those on which Coltrane plays soprano—Afro-Blue, a blues in 6/8 and 3/4, The Promise and Your Lady. The soprano saxophone is a notoriously intractable instrument and Coltrane’s first recorded attempts at playing it (My Favourite Things, Atlantic 1361: Olé, Atlantic 1373) show that he found it difficult to pitch accurately and to maintain an even tone throughout his range. On this record, however, he demonstrates complete control; the distortions of tone and pitch are now planned and deliberate. Particularly remarkable on these tracks is the way in which he imbues his long, torrential demisemiquaver runs, the so-called ‘sheets of sound’, with variation of tone colour so that they take on a spiralling quality and added depth. Coltrane’s struggles with this horn seem to have led him to the discovery of the various vocal effects which have enriched his tenor saxophone playing in recent years.

A criticism often levelled at Coltrane may seem confirmed by these tracks—that his playing contains little melodic development. It is true that, when his work is compared with that of his two great contemporaries, Coleman and Rollins, it sometimes seems melodically restricted. Coltrane does not show the inexhaustible linear invention that makes Coleman the finest improvisor since Charlie Parker, nor does he use the theme to structure his improvisations in the way that Rollins does. However, Coltrane has developed another method of development which makes less use of melodic devices. Like Cecil Taylor, Coltrane is predominantly a harmonic thinker, in the sense that he prefers to work with blocks of sound in which the values of the individual notes are of lesser importance. Development in Coltrane’s work often proceeds by means of contrast between such units of varying colours and shapes and by the gradual intrusion of savage vocalizations, overtones and bent notes into this fabric.

Elvin Jones’ playing also contributes to the mounting tension and eventual resolution of the music. Jones is the most important drummer to emerge since Max Roach, and his partnership with Coltrane is one of the most fruitful alliances in jazz history. In all his recorded work he shows exceptional technique and an ability to spread his rhythmic patterns over all his instruments while maintaining their cohesiveness. When playing with Coltrane he is rarely content to state the basic beat with occasional elaborations but prefers to engage in continual improvisation around it, without destroying the group’s forward momentum or impairing his own response to the other musicians’ playing. Often, as the piece progresses, his improvisation becomes more complex and massive until it finally penetrates Coltrane’s own line and threatens to engulf it. Here, this is best exemplified in Afro-Blue and Your Lady. The ability of these two musicians to bring their performance to climax in this way instead of reducing it to chaos is a remarkable collective achievement. It is by developing these techniques that the Coltrane quartet points the way to one method of achieving closer group integration—a method which has less flexibility but greater overt rhythmic drive than Ornette Coleman’s. This is an important step forward in small group improvisation.

Coltrane plays tenor on the remaining two tracks. Alabama is a beautiful and haunting composition in which the rhythm section provides menacing undertones. But it is a fragment rather than a complete performance: Coltrane returns to the theme after his first chorus. I Want To Talk About You, on the other hand, is perhaps the most successful slow ballad Coltrane has recorded. Previously, much of his work on this type of material has verged on the perfunctory, for he has often been content to state the theme and then turn over the performance to McCoy Tyner. Here, however, he makes an extensive investigation of the theme’s possibilities, using more of his tonal vocabulary than he has previously used on ballads of this type and concluding with a long, unaccompanied coda beautifully sustained.

Throughout the record, pianist McCoy Tyner contributes his usual harmonic richness and percussive strength. Bassist Jimmy Garrison does not solo and is occasionally submerged in the ensembles. It is unfortunate that Coltrane’s present conception of group playing forces the bass player to take a comparatively passive rôle. Though he does not indulge in the adventurous rhapsodic solo playing of musicians like Gary Peacock, Russell Thorne and the late Scott La Faro, Garrison is one of the finest of the younger bass players. A fairer account of abilities is given on Ornette On Tenor (Atlantic 1394) than on any of his records with Coltrane.

Although this record shows that Coltrane’s technique is continually maturing, it shows no radical change in either his own playing or his approach to group improvisation. However, since the personnel of this group has remained comparatively stable since 1960, it is not surprising that Coltrane has reached a period of consolidation rather than one of further development. It may be true that Coltrane cannot develop his present conception any further and that he will only discover new ideas when he is playing with another group. However, nothing on this record suggests that the present group is becoming trapped in its own devices. It is soon to be released in Britain on the hmv label.