John Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings

COMPOSERS: John Coltrane
LABELS: Impulse!
WORKS: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings
PERFORMER: Coltrane (ts, ss); Eric Dolphy (as, bcl); Garvin Bushell (bas, ob); Jimmy Garrison & Reggie Workman (b); Elvin Jones (d); Ahmed Abdul-Malik (perc)
CATALOGUE NO: IMPD4 232 (distr. New Note)


On three days in November 1961, John Coltrane recorded 22 performances of varying length and with varying configurations of personnel at the famous New York jazz club, the Village Vanguard.

However, the two albums that followed, Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions, only accounted for five performances. Subsequently, between 1977 and 1985, a further 14 tracks appeared across three albums, leaving three unissued tracks in Impulse’s vaults.

This collection finally draws everything together from this historic recording session in the order it was performed and with much improved sound, using 20-bit mapping process. Two years earlier, Coltrane had participated in the historic Kind of Blue session with Miles Davis.

The session had the effect of sanctioning a move from chromatic to modal harmonies as a basis for improvisation. Yet considering the seismic shift Davis proposed, in live performance he continued to play a mixture of standards and blues numbers well into the mid-Sixties. In spite of what the history books tell us, the full implications of modal improvisation immediately after Kind of Blue were not exploited by Davis but by John Coltrane, and these tracks number among his most profound statements in the idiom.

In 1959, Coltrane had turned the jazz world on its collective ear with ‘Giant Steps’, a tune that moved key centres around by major thirds for an entire tune. This was unheard of in jazz at the time – the closest any song had come to this had been the bridge to ‘Have You Met Miss Jones?’, then universally recognised as a difficult song on which to improvise. Thus the ‘giant step’ was as much in handling the key centres as in the supreme technical accomplishment with which it was achieved.

Coltrane’s formidable harmonic facility was then brought to bear on modes, paradoxically as harmonically undemanding as ‘Giant Steps’ had been demanding. However, the term ‘modal music’ in jazz means something quite different from its application in classical music, where the latter adheres strictly to the scale implied by the mode.

In jazz, Coltrane led the way by using notes not included in the basic mode, often by introducing new and exotic scales (those of India were a favourite), ‘chord stacking’ and side-slipping. Thus a Coltrane modal solo often appeared to be harmonically complex when it fact its harmonic base was nothing more than a mode, a single chord or a pedal point – all of which in jazz usually come under the general catch-all of ‘modal music’.

That Coltrane’s infatuation with harmonic complexity did not end with ‘Giant Steps’ can be heard on the 5 November version of ‘Impressions’. Here the harmonic base is Miles Davis’s modal ‘So What’, and Coltrane exhaustively works over a simple melodic idea, inverting it, playing it higher and lower and forwards and backwards. Piano and drums drop out and it becomes a coruscating duet with Elvin Jones.

Coltrane was also combining melodic methods in this and tracks like ‘Chasin’ the Train’, which he attributed to the influence of Chicago saxophonist John Gilmore. This gives a guide to his thinking in reconciling melodic simplicity with harmonic complexity. Such examples here of this approach include the first known ‘Miles Mode’ and ‘Brasilia’, the only known live version of ‘Greensleeves’, and ‘India’.

Equally, it provides a perspective of his musical relationship with Eric Dolphy, who solos with equal facility on both alto and bass clarinet on tracks like the 1 November ‘Chasin’ the Train’ on alto and ‘Spiritual’ on bass.


Ultimately, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings is an indispensable historical document that captures a moment in history when Coltrane’s working group – with exemplary solos by McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones – was at its peak. SN