The John Coltrane Quartet Plays came at a very interesting time in the bandleader’s career. It was the follow-up to his landmark A Love Supreme (both 1965), and preceded another landmark, Ascension (1966). It may represent a small step back from the maelstrom, but not much. This is definitely a strong part of the amazing string of albums he released in the final two years of his life.
First of all, the players on the album are among the finest he ever worked with. This is the classic quartet of McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). There is one unusual addition to the quartet, the added bass of Art Davis to “Nature Boy,” making it a “dueling basses” type of thing.
The album opens with “Chim Chim Cheree” from the Walt Disney film Mary Poppins. Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music was an instant classic, and perhaps he thought lightning might strike twice. “Chim Chim Cheree” is interesting, but there was something about the melody of “My Favorite Things” that lent itself to his improvisational style. Keep in mind however that a potentially four out of five-star rating for John Coltrane is a five-star rating for anyone else. “Chim Chim Cheree” may not be absolutely brilliant, but it is brilliant nontheless.
Side one of the original Impulse! LP closed with the 12:56 “Brazilia.” This is an interesting track, and I have to wonder why he titled it as he did. There is no discernable Latin feel or anything to it, but in the end, that is academic. This is the longest cut on the record, and shows the band off very well. Although critics have said that Coltrane “changed” jazz, I find that a funny statement when listening to a song like this. The hard-bop element is undeniable, and that is where all four of these guys came from. Sure, the solos are a bit different from what came before, but the structure is not at all. I love the way Coltrane and Tyner played together, and “Brazilia” is a great example of the reasons why. Prime ‘Trane.
“Nature Boy” is the previously mentioned experiment featuring the basses of both Jimmy Garrison and Art Davis. Davis’ contribution is unusual, he plays a deeply-bowed bass counterpoint to the rhythm, which adds a whole new element. This is especially noticeable towards the end. The tune opens as a ballad, then Coltrane and Tyner trade furious solos for the rest of the way, breaking only to allow the rhythm section to be fully heard near the close.
The fourth and final piece is “Song of Praise.” This 9:49 cut is a ballad all the way through and again shows Coltrane’s willingness to experiment with the bass. Practically the first four minutes of the track is a Garrison bass solo. From there, the rest of the quartet come in, but the song remains very much in the low-key mode. Given the title, one might be excused for expecting something like A Love Supreme, but this is a far more reserved outing.
Arguing about the different eras in the career of John Coltrane is a favorite pastime of his fans, so I will let that conversation slide for now. I will say that the four songs that make up The John Coltrane Quartet Plays are all first-rate. Frankly, this is one of the greatest quartets in jazz history, and I am pretty certain that any serious Coltrane fan has heard this recording already.
They have not heard it in the new Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) format however. The superior mastering process utilized on this makes for an outstanding sound, which is noticeable no matter how high-end your system is. I actually compared my older CD to this new SACD to hear for myself, and there is a presence to the SACD edition which simply does not exist in the earlier release. All of the original liner notes have been preserved, including a lengthy essay by critic Frank Kofsky.
While The John Coltrane Quartet Plays may not be My Favorite Things or A Love Supreme, it is very, very good. And it has never sounded better than it does on SACD.