PlaylistsArtists & BandsGenresConcertsIndustryLearning to PlayInstruments & Gear

Ten Coltrane Albums Every Jazz Fan Should Own

Updated on April 21, 2016
"TRANE" - An original portrait in oils by the author
"TRANE" - An original portrait in oils by the author

"A Whole Expression of One's Being"

The following is a list of ten albums . . . Each album is a compositional realization, execution and recording from the mind, mouth and flurrying digits of the late, exponentially great John William Coltrane (or, Trane, as he was infamously known). My intention herein is to offer the newly and [rightly] curious [jazz] music listener a small, comprehensive list of “must-haves” within John Coltrane’s brilliant and dizzyingly varied catalogue of recorded music. And also to spark the attention, response and input of other Coltrane fans.

John Coltrane is a polarizing figure in the world of Jazz - and music in general, for that matter. Simply speaking, most ‘analysts’ tend to group Trane’s musical output into several broad-but-distinct categories; and, to understand these categories is to accept them for what they were – rawly and unceremoniously – when presented to the general public or, simply, to his audience. The categories, also, were and are more like eras or periods in the evolution of a musical juggernaut. Out of what I would estimate to be about seven individual periods, I’d like to make three – “lumping,” as it were, periods of ‘stylistic similarity’ together . . .

Period one


During the years spent with bandleader/composer, Miles Davis and others, Coltrane, I feel, was still walled-in as a piece of a whole that, while clearly outstanding, was serving mainly as an opportunity to develop as an artist . . . Playing as he did for as long as he did on as many groundbreaking records as he did (“Kind of Blue,” for example) was the best springboard a jazz musician could hope for. And in turn, later, Trane’s explosive voice on his instrument and his perfect mastery of its potential would come to be some of the most valued assets Miles Davis would ever have at his disposal. Trane himself said, of his time with Miles, that he (paraph.) learned quite a bit about modality and chord structure, two things Davis held a special mastery over.

Trane also recorded briefly (and stunningly well) with Thelonious Monk. Of his short time with the brilliant and unique pianist/composer, Coltrane said, "Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I learned from him in every way."

Period two


Elastically-structured brilliance defines, for me, the time Trane spent as a bandleader – eventually, the leader of the aptly dubbed, ‘classic quartet.’ During this acclaimed period, Trane was beginning to actively move beyond the musical borders drawn so boldly by his predecessors. Nevertheless, his compositional style was very accessible to a sort of “mainstream” jazz audience; and his intense, technically astounding command over the tenor and soon, soprano, saxophones, as well as the startling virtuosity of his seminal band (McCoy Tyner on Piano, Jimmy Garrison [after Reggie Workman]on bass and Elvin Jones on drums) were like bursts of pure energy that wholly separated Coltrane’s efforts from those of his working peers.

Period three


Evermore adventurous and extreme “Avant Garde” jazz defined this period, which forged ahead uncompromisingly from 1965 through 1967. A blunt, over-simplified definition of these two years could simply state that people started walking out of Coltrane’s concerts. What had happened? A DownBeat magazine article even went so far as to describe Trane and Eric Dolphy (then touring early-on as part of the same band) as players of “anti-jazz;” a branding the artists felt was neither accurate nor informed. Trane’s technical ideas, in my humble opinion, laid the groundwork for some of the most exciting modern music ever recorded . . . Whether projecting frenzied, controversial grace and alienating transcendence with his quintet (Trane & Pharaoh Sanders on furious, contrasting tenors; the tonally expansive methods of Alice Coltrane on piano, Jimmy Garrison holding fast and adaptively to the bass, and the infinitely flexible Rashied Ali on drums) or striding without hesitation into the strange and undeniably beautiful realm of “Interstellar Space” – an album consisting only of the musical efforts of the duo, John Coltrane (tenor sax) and Rashied Ali (drums) – our noted genius cut a swathe of determined personal vision through a dense thicket of traditionalism.

I am a fan of that ‘third’ period. Many, however – even most, perhaps – prefer a marriage of Trane’s years with Miles and Monk with his years with the ‘classic quartet’ (favoring, usually, Trane leading said quartet); but regardless of popular opinion, to experience the full spectrum of a brilliant musician and composer like Coltrane is to give a listen to each and every one of the aural colors within said spectrum. I have decided, for the sake of continuity and organizational ease, to omit any albums not crediting John Coltrane as the ‘bandleader.’ That is to say, the 1958 album “Milestones” (while containing some of the most spectacular exchanges of saxophone acrobatics between John Coltrane on tenor and Julian “Cannonball” Adderly on alto) will not be included because, of course, it is a Miles Davis recording, not a Coltrane recording. “Live” albums are also omitted, as they offer a supremely distinct and therefore fragile experience when compared to studio toiling.

To truly know Coltrane’s work is to hear every note in every context . . . But, the following works, experienced in any order – each, though, in its entirety – should provide you with an idea as to how or how not to proceed into the dizzying, dazzling, definitive dimension of John Coltrane.

Here, then, are my picks for the ten albums (listed chronologically from earliest release date to the latest) that best present ‘Trane’s echelon as an urgent, fervent and ever-evolving musician. Each listing will include the musicians who performed on any or all the tracks as well as a brief comment on why I’ve included it. Track listings are not included as to avoid clutter – if you want to know more about each album, just click the links.

Above all, when reading, keep in mind that this music, as Coltrane himself described it, was always intended to be "a whole expression of one's being."

"Blue Train" cover art
"Blue Train" cover art

"BLUE TRAIN"

Recorded: 1957

Released: 1958

Record Label:  Blue Note


  • John Coltrane - tenor saxophone
  • Lee Morgan - trumpet
  • Curtis Fuller - trombone
  • Paul Chambers - bass
  • Kenny Drew - piano
  • Philly Joe Jones - drums

"Blue Train" is considered by most to be John Coltrane's first "official" solo album; mainly because he was in total control of the content.  He himself recommended it as the best place in his catalogue for a "new" listener to begin.  I love this album and that sentiment is nearly universal among fans and critics alike.  Trane composed most of the tracks himself, with my favorite being the 32-bar blues flurry, "Locomotion."  Also listen to Lee Morgan's solos on both that and the title track . . .  I've never heard the man play so well; and Morgan was a brilliant trumpet player.


"Giant Steps" cover art
"Giant Steps" cover art

"GIANT STEPS"

Recorded:  1960

Released:  1960

Record Label:  Atlantic


  • John Coltrane — tenor saxophone
  • Paul Chambers — bass
  • Tommy Flanagan; Wynton Kelly; Cedar Walton — piano
  • Art Taylor; Jimmy Cobb; Lex Humphries — drums

"Giant Steps" is one of the most renowned jazz recordings in history . . .  Simply to have performed on the tracks that make up such an album is a remarkable feat; but to have realized, developed and wholly composed all said works (as Trane certainly did) is something else altogether.  This album is a milestone in the truest sense of the word.  Just as "Kind of Blue" (which Trane also contributed to) marked a definitive shift in the direction of jazz, "Giant Steps" marked such a shift in the world of the tenor saxophone and the concepts its range could explore -- listen to the track "Countdown," for a mind-boggling example.  Additionally, Trane's efforts surrounding the ultimate completion of "Giant Steps" would give birth to the astoundingly beautiful jazz ballad, "Naima."  


"Coltrane" cover art
"Coltrane" cover art

"COLTRANE" (1962)

Recorded:  1962

Released:  1962

Record Label:  Impuse!


  • John Coltrane — tenor & soprano saxophones
  • McCoy Tyner — piano
  • Jimmy Garrison — bass
  • Elvin Jones — drums

Simply put, this album found Trane teetering back and forth between what would eventually come to dominate his musical mindset (free improvisation as a compositional tool) and the accessible melodic and rhythmic structures of 'hard bop.'  The first track, an Arlen/Mercer composition called "Out of this World" displays delightfully the commitment John Coltrane steadfastly held to forcing the limits of traditional jazz in order to create something lasting and unforgettable.  Also, listen to Trane's take on Frank Loesser's "The Inchworm" and try not to smile with total fulfillment.  


"Coltrane's Sound" cover art
"Coltrane's Sound" cover art

"COLTRANE'S SOUND"

Recorded: 1960,

Released: 1964

Record Label: Atlantic


  • John Coltrane – tenor & soprano saxophones
  • Steve Davis – Bass
  • Elvin Jones – Drums
  • McCoy Tyner – Piano

This album is one of the most well-rounded efforts from Coltrane; each track affirming its place and identity with firm etching.  If you're looking to experience the full scope of Coltrane (on both tenor and soprano) during a period when he was still utilizing "standard" and therefore "popularly-accessible" structures, "Coltrane's Sound" is a good place to start.  Trane is heard utilizing the signature "sheets of sound," and his playing is spectacular (listen to "Satellite" or "26-2").  But to experience this album as a whole is rewarding on several levels.  Listen to "Liberia" and then decide whether or not this album deserves a place on this list.



"Crescent" cover art
"Crescent" cover art

"CRESCENT"

Recorded: 1964

Released: 1964

Record Label: Impulse!


  • John Coltrane - tenor saxophone
  • Jimmy Garrison - bass
  • Elvin Jones - drums
  • McCoy Tyner - piano

A beautiful and lyrical recording from the 'classic quartet,' "Crescent" contains another of Coltrane's lamenting and beautifully sorrowful ballads . . . "Wise One" is thought (though never officially confirmed as such) to be the second work written for and thereby dedicated to John Coltrane's first wife, Naima -- the woman he held in high regard as having been the driving force behind the end of his heroin addiction. "Wise One" is, in itself, worth the purchase of "Crescent;" but, fortunately, the other tracks also happen to be brilliant and thrilling . . . "Lonnie's Lament" and the title track each deliver thrilling doses of Trane's wondrous horn playing.


"A Love Supreme" cover art
"A Love Supreme" cover art

"A LOVE SUPREME"

Recorded: 1964

Released: 1965

Record Label: Impulse!


  • John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
  • Jimmy Garrison – bass
  • Elvin Jones – drums
  • McCoy Tyner – piano

This superb album is one of the best modern examples of a pristine, exacting, and measured compositional effort on the part of a man whose command over his instrument was seemingly limitless. To hear this infamous four-part suite is to experience the the rapid evolution of a musical genius. "A Love Supreme" was the cornerstone of Trane's musical future . . . A turning point, it would seem.  The composition itself is focused much less on his already-well-established technical proficiency and more so on his ability to develop and fine-tune compositional ideas.  "A Love Supreme" is an astounding composition containing flawless executions all-around; and it was done in a single session. 


"Ascension" cover art
"Ascension" cover art

"ASCENSION"

Recorded: 1965

Released: 1965

Record Label: Impulse!


  • John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp - tenor saxophones

  • Freddie Hubbard, Dewey Johnson - trumpets

  • Marion Brown, John Tchicai - alto saxophones

  • McCoy Tyner - piano
  • Art Davis, Jimmy Garrison - basses
  • Elvin Jones - drums

This record is not for everyone -- in fact, I'd be willing to guess that even a good portion (perhaps most) jazz fans don't find it palatable. However, if one is to see Coltrane from each and every musical angle, this recording is essential. "Ascension" is a forty-plus minute, 'Free-Jazz' recording; and there are two versions on the CD. The work begins with the ensemble stating a simple theme, which happens to be a variation on the main theme of "A Love Supreme;" then Coltrane takes his own whirlwind solo. The structure of the entire work -- from an organizational standpoint -- is quite rigid . . . It moves along in distinct waves of ensemble to solo, back to ensemble, then to a solo and so-on in that order. The solos themselves are starkly conrtrasting and wonderful to listen to. This album, like so many of Coltrane's mid-to-late-sixties recordings, will grow in both depth and richness with each successive listen -- provided you can enjoy such distinct music.

"Sun Ship" cover art
"Sun Ship" cover art

"SUN SHIP"

Recorded: 1965

Released: 1971

Record Label: Impulse!


  • John Coltrane — tenor & soprano saxophones
  • McCoy Tyner — piano
  • Jimmy Garrison — bass
  • Elvin Jones — drums

"Sun Ship" is a high-energy, free-jazz masterwork. Coltrane assumes solo horn duties and does so with relentless energy. Even on the album's gentle ballad, "Attaining," that energy is not lost -- only spread evenly throughout, which makes for a dramatic a sorrowful composition. As for the rest of this stellar recording, I find myself, upon each and every listen, transfixed by Trane's delivery. The structures insist on bombast and fireworks -- each track beginning with a stated theme and some variations; followed, then, by Tyner, Jones and/or Garrison putting everything they've got into the creation of a climactic aural tapestry . . . Then, as if beckoned -- begged to by the rhythmic and chordal fanfare, Coltrane bursts forth like a rising sun.  Try and ignore him -- I find it impossible.

"Interstellar Space" cover art
"Interstellar Space" cover art

"INTERSTELLAR SPACE"

Recorded:  1967

Released:  1974

Record Label:  Impulse!


  • John Coltrane — tenor saxophone, bells
  • Rashied Ali — drums

One brilliant horn player and a drummer whose techniques lent limitless potential to that player's tireless, rampaging flow of technical ideas . . .  This combination of abilities is what "Interstellar Space" is made of.  To gradually and fluidly experience Coltrane's unique passion as a sax player is to naturally -- for me, at least -- want to hear more and more of his musical mind working uninterrupted.  "Interstellar Space" provides that . . .  Many would naturally avoid such an arrangement -- some crazy horn player blows freely over the rolling, pounding and clanging ferocity of some crazy drummer.  The end?  Well, as an introduction to John Colrane, "Interstellar Space" is not a favored suggestion; but, if you find yourself wanting more and more and more after "A Love Supreme," and "Ascension" and "Sun Ship," "Interstellar Space" should give you exactly what you are longing for. 

"First Meditations" cover art
"First Meditations" cover art

"FIRST MEDITATIONS"

Recorded: 1965

Released: 1977

Record Label: Impulse!


  • John Coltrane — tenor saxophone
  • McCoy Tyner — piano
  • Jimmy Garrison — bass
  • Elvin Jones — drums

Most people are familiar with the relatively controversial work which eventually grew out of the compositions on "First Meditations." "Meditations" was Trane's fully developed concept (utilizing the harsh, guttural playing of Pharaoh Sanders' Tenor as well as the unbridled and explosive percussive heaves of Rashied Ali), taking what he first composed and recorded with his 'classic quartet' as "First Meditations" and adding the unpredictable, fiercely scattered tendencies of two new artists. "Meditations" is brilliant and startling; but, if you want to listen to Coltrane developing his ideas in their raw form, uninhibited by the presence of new and additional personnel, get "FIRST MEDITATIONS."


In Brief Conclusion . . .

That's the list.  Let me know what you think.  Of course, if I were to recommend the best possible avenue for experiencing Coltrane, I'd say just buy everything.  Start with these, though.

- Chemical Brains - October 3, 2009

"Naima" live

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Cuthbert Simpkins MD 8 months ago

      This is for Marc,

      There is no evidence that LSD had anything to do with Coltrane's musical progression. There is a rumor that he tried LSD once. This may or may not be true. If you tried heroin once does that mean it led to whatever you accomplished in life? But if true trying LSD once does not mean it influenced you any more than trying anything else once or even a few times. It certainly was not a prominent or even a minor part of his life based on the many interviews I did of those who knew him. If you study Coltrane's music closely it is clear that his progression was a logical outgrowth of what came before and his advances insights and changes in direction are clearly explained. There are people who have said I was on LSD because of the way my book is written. But I have never even tried a drug or even a cigarette. The only enhancement I have experienced is the activation of my own endogenous mechanisms of euphoria derived from initiators such as the beauty and majesty of Coltrane's music the laugher of children and the enchantment of my wife and those who love me. A similar treasure of emotions and experiences, enormous talent, focus and dedication are what I think led to Coltrane's gifts to us.

    • profile image

      Onyxjazz 9 months ago

      "Ballads" - John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman

    • profile image

      brian 9 months ago

      this was a real blessing for me,I cant tell you how happy his music makes me,well I guess you might understand a little bit about that,your passion and love for Coltrane is evident,Thank you very much!!! PS I'm a newbie and my two faves so far are A Love Supreme and Crescent :)

    • profile image

      Slider 2 years ago

      Great list, believe it or not, I'd never heard 'Wise One' before reading this article. Wow. Immediately went out and got a copy of Crescent right away. All I can say is: thank you for turning me on to this.

    • profile image

      song of praise 3 years ago

      a top 10 is very hard to do for Coltrane but these are my favorite 33 that I kept in my collection, in order of release and yeah lush life ,my fav things, giant steps and blue train are great albums but they are not my favorite things (albums).

      1. Coltrane's sound (equinox) 1419

      2.ole Coltrane 1373

      3.Africa brass A-6

      4.live at the village vanguard A-10

      5. Coltrane A-21

      6.impressions A-42

      7.live at birdland A-50

      8.crescent A-66

      9.a love supreme A-77

      10.the john Coltrane quartet plays A-85

      11.new thing at Newport 1 part shepp A-94

      12.ascension A-95

      13.kulu se mama A-9106

      14.meditations A-9110

      15.expression A-9120

      16.live at the village vanguard again A-9124

      17.om A-9140

      18.cosmic music (both Coltrane's and impulse pressings) AU4950 , A-9148

      19.selflessness AS-9161

      20.transition AS-9195

      21.live in Seattle AS-9202-2

      22.sun ship AS-9211

      23.infinity AS-9225

      24.concert in japan AS-9246-2

      25.africa brass volume 2 AS-9273

      26.interstellar space ASD-9277

      27.the other village vanguard tapes AS-9325

      28.first meditations AS-9332

      29.feelin good IZ9345/2

      30.to the beat of a different drum IZ9346/2

      31.jupiter variation IZ 9360

      32.trane's modes IZ 9361/2

      33.stellar regions IMP 169

    • profile image

      Jean-Francois Hayeur 3 years ago

      Leaving ''My favorite things'' out of a Top 10 is a grave error. If there's one track that represent Coltrane (even though he didn't compose it) the most it's that one. He played ''My favorite things'' live, twice a night, 6 nights out of 7, for about 5 years in a row. He loved it.

    • profile image

      marc 3 years ago

      Left out here is that Coltrane went to study with Sun Ra's sax player, John Gilmore. So he picked all the great brains on the Jazz scene. Also, LSD influenced his later work and there's a church /sect that has made him a saint.

    • Chemical Brains profile image
      Author

      Chemical Brains 7 years ago from Connecticut

      Agreed.

    • Dink96 profile image

      Dink96 7 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      Besides, a man that grooves to Coltrane cannot be an ass--physically, mentally and spiritually impossible. :-)

    • Chemical Brains profile image
      Author

      Chemical Brains 7 years ago from Connecticut

      Alright, then, that's a much more sensible take.

    • Dink96 profile image

      Dink96 7 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      It is a shortened version of a nickname my father gave me. Certainly not; I don't address him as the Maestro. If he did, he'd get the cast iron skillet to the brain! ***Boing!***

    • Chemical Brains profile image
      Author

      Chemical Brains 7 years ago from Connecticut

      I hope your "spousal unit" doesn't insist on your addressing him as "the maestro." If he does, you should knock him down a few pegs . . . "Ole'" is great, I agree.

      On an unrelated note, does "Dink" mean "Double Income No Kids?"

      - CB

    • Dink96 profile image

      Dink96 7 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      "A Love Supreme" and "Crescent" are my favorites, but the maestro (spousal unit) said "Ole" with Eric Dolphy is his favorite. Great blog!! Anyone who appreciates Coltrane gets my vote!!