July 17, 1967 marked the passing of the American saxophonist, at just 40 years old. The recordings he left behind have completely reshaped the history of his instrument, that of jazz and of 20th century music altogether.

“I never even thought about whether or not they understand what I’m doing… the emotional reaction is all that matters. As long as there’s some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood.” - John Coltrane

This ‘emotional reaction’ and ‘feeling of communication’ touched all listeners of the famous saxophonist, who died on July 17, 1967. From the most discerning jazz connoisseurs to the novice passers-by, everyone who heard A Love Supreme, his most celebrated record, felt something immediately. Coltrane was more than just another giant of jazz… Be-bop, hard bop, modal and free jazz, he explored every corner of the genre and was never a loudmouth like some of his contemporaries, but rather a mystical artist on a musical mission.

© Village Vanguard / Impulse ! / Downbeat

Despite spending just forty years on this earth, John Coltrane had ample time to record as a lead artist on four labels: Prestige, Blue Note, Atlantic and Impulse!. His was a gradual, almost imperceptible introduction into the world of music, notably through early ventures with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. He had already mixed with such luminaries as Charlie Parker, Jimmy Heath and Bud Powell by the time his big break came in 1955, when Miles Davis invited him to play in his first quintet with Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers. In his autobiography, the trumpeter recalls having quickly recognised the potential within his new sax player:

'Shortly after Trane and I started playing together; the critic Whitney Balliett wrote that Coltrane had a "rough dry tone which highlights Davis, like a coarse frame for a beautiful gem." Rapidly, Trane became much more than that. He became a gem himself. I knew it, like everyone that listened to him play.'

Their collaboration lasted only two years, after which Miles kicked out Coltrane on account of his growing drug addiction...

Miles Davis - So What (Official Video)


In April 1957, a brand new John Coltrane, who had conquered his inner demons, signed with Prestige Records. A great number of recording sessions took place with the label. Trane was only a sideman, for the most part. It was with Prestige, however, that he released his first discs as a leading artist, with the soberly entitled Coltrane. That same year, Prestige granted him one transgression: a record with Blue Note, the legendary Blue Train. The mastermind was finally ready to be himself; to break free of anything holding him back. On 15th September 1957, Trane chose a select few musicians to surround him: Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Stylistically, we’re in classical hard bop territory and have not yet reached that iconic Coltranian sound, but it is still a record of the very highest order. It incorporates some beautiful tunes (all composed by Coltrane, except for 'I’m Old Fashioned' composed by Mercer & Kern) and is performed by six musicians conversing like never before. Not to mention the formal modernity of the improvisations!

The John Coltrane of the Prestige years was certainly no rookie. Thanks to signing with the label, the saxophonist would succeed in beating his addiction at the age of 30. His style was constantly evolving at this point, however. Far still are we from the transformation that he would undergo at Atlantic and at Impulse! (the latter even more so). Nonetheless, this Coltrane from the Prestige era, accessible to all and demonstrating perfectly controlled virtuosity, already possessed a clearly recognizable sound. He rises above his innate shyness and deploys new harmonic progressions, sharpening all his solos in the process. One need only be reminded of his performances with Miles, who called him back for Milestones and, of course, Kind Of Blue with Bill Evans…

John Coltrane signed with Atlantic Records in April 1959. Between April 1959 and April 1961, he would record four discs for Ahmet Ertegun’s company, considered by some to be the quintessence of his art: Giant Steps (his first, comprised exclusively of his own compositions) in 1960, Coltrane Jazz (his first collaboration with the pianist McCoy Tyner and the drummer Elvin Jones), My Favorite Things and Olé Coltrane (with Eric Dolphy), all three of which were released in 1961. His singular approach had finally seen the light of day. This unique style—both technically and harmonically—shattered the bebop canon and diverged significantly from that of his former boss, Miles Davis. Nonetheless, they would team up for Kind Of Blue - the very cornerstone of modal jazz. Many within the jazzosphere were stunned by the complexity of Coltrane’s creations, which stayed true to his blues roots but displayed a growing interest for African and Indian music…

John Coltrane joined up with Impulse! in 1961. In addition to being the first artist to sign with the label of the producer Creed Taylor, he is still its most iconic representative, to the extent that Impulse! soon became the house that Trane built… Under the orange imprint he would take his experiments the furthest, challenging his boundaries more than ever before. A few major albums remain: A Love Supreme - obviously - but also Ballads, Coltrane, a live show at the Village Vanguard, as well as duos with Duke Ellington and the singer Johnny Hartman.

For many, A Love Supreme is not only one of the artist's greatest albums, but is perhaps one of the greatest jazz albums ever made. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, The Complete Masters version released at the end of 2015 offered up many previously unpublished takes (most notably from the sextet with Archie Shepp and Art Davis) as well as the sole live version of the record, performed at Antibes during the summer of 1965… It is easy to understand why A Love Supreme garners such love from newer fans. A feeling of elevation is achieved through this sublime, hypnotic trance - rage intertwined with mysticism, where escape is immediate and guaranteed... By then, Coltrane had found redepmption through God. He said as much in the cover notes, proclaiming that this revelation occurred in 1957. Even if it oozes out of this great record, recorded on 9th December 1964 by the producer Bob Thiele, the saxophonist’s growing mysticism is based on a modal jazz that allows him a broad scope of melodic freedom. Traces of free jazz appear here and there, but on the whole the theme is refined to the bone. Split into four chapters ('Acknowledgement', 'Resolution', 'Pursuance' and 'Psalm'), and enhanced by his three faithful bodyguards (the pianist McCoy Tyner, the drummer Elvin Jones and the bass player Jimmy Garrison), this prayer-album aims only at elevating the soul, and at magnifying what the listener feels by letting themselves be carried along by this contemplative, serene, yet intense outpouring. Spiritualism, mystery, trance, and serenity succeed one another with great fluidity. The record’s harmonic freedoms herald changes in the saxophonist’s music. A Love Supreme will probably remain the most spiritual work by Coltrane, who was heading towards an increasingly extreme style of free jazz.

The following year, his partners would be Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown and Archie Sheep (on Ascension). Not all of his close friends agreed with his increasingly libertarian leanings, however. The pianist McCoy Tyner dropped him that year, followed soon after by another faithful companion in the drummer Elvin Jones. Thereafter it was a completely different band - one dedicated to free, that would produce the powerful Live At The Village Vanguard Again! (28th May 1966), with Pharoah Sanders on sax and flute, John’s wife Alice Coltrane on piano, Jimmy Garrison on double bass as normal, Rashied Ali on drums and Emanuel Rahim on percussion.

Despite his growing fatigue, John Coltrane remained very active during the final months of his life. Alongside the drummer Rashied Ali, he would produce what will always be considered his most extreme music: Interstellar Space, a pure free album released in 1974, well after he passed away… Recorded during February and March 1967, Expression (the last disc he would oversee, which would be released two months after his death) assembles Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali. The Coltrane we see here is seemingly preoccupied but retains strong links with tradition, even in the most intense sections. A few concerts would follow: at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in Harlem at the end of April, and in Baltimore on May 7 - his last live appearance. Cancer continued to eat away at his liver and John Coltrane, refusing all treatments, died on July 17, 1967…

Translated by Damien Izabelle.