John Coltrane's music calls out to the heart and the mind with roughly equal volume, but his records, especially the ones that jazz guides decorate with five stars, can be downright intimidating. These two reissues, the most recent in Rhino's repackaging of Atlantic's jazz catalog from the late '50s/early '60s, are a safer place to begin a Coltrane relationship. The collectible LPs might sound warmer, but the remastered music here suddenly exists within an imaginable space. You can hear Coltrane move toward the mic, then away. You can somehow hear the empty space beneath Elvin Bishop's cymbals. You can practically hear McCoy Tyner's piano breathe.
Coltrane Plays the Blues, from the same 1960 sessions that yielded the classic "My Favorite Things," serves up blue Coltrane, but he's by no means relaxing. From the opening lope of "Blues to Elvin" to the sultry Tyner piano chords of "Mr. Knight," these tunes are some of the most accessible of Coltrane's career.
Olé Coltrane, from 1962, is more challenging. Sax/flute man Eric Dolphy (masquerading as George Lane) and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard step up to match Coltrane innovation for innovation. These records mark Coltrane's move to sever both improvisation's ties to a song's chord changes and the connection between solos and scales. While the theory behind the solos gives experts plenty to chew on, his new freedom is audible to anyone, especially on the lush, lovely "Aisha," a Tyner composition.
The packages themselves also are deluxe, preserving the original brash album art while providing updated liner notes, which offer details about the recording of the material but threaten to chase away casual fans with such statements as "Coltrane casts the melody... with its wide open intervallic leaps, in the Mixolydian mode." This quibble aside, these CDs provide a reason for old fans to check in while making things comfortable for those just walking in the door -- exactly what good reissues ought to do.
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