Pressing Issues: John Coltrane, One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (2005 Impulse! Classic Records)

Original Pressing: Impulse!, Classic Records; B0002380-01 (2005)

Musicians
John Coltrane (ts, ss), McCoy Tyner (p), Jimmy Garrison (b), Elvin Jones (d)

Spoken introductions and announcements by Alan Grant

Cover design: Greenberg Kinglsey/NYC
Liner notes: Ashley Kahn, Ravi Coltrane

Produced by Ravi Coltrane. Recorded live at the Half Note, New York, NY, March 26 (Sides A & B) & May 7, 1965 (Sides C & D)


Using his own recording equipment, John Coltrane often taped the live  performances of his quartet. But despite having recorded the music for what would become One Down, One Up in the spring of 1965, the tapes were  apparently stored away, forgotten for decades. That is, until they were re-discovered in a family closet in 2005. The result is an extraordinary document of the John Coltrane Quartet at the height of its powers.

By this point in their four (and change) years together as a unit, the quartet regularly extended tunes for 30 minutes or more. Thus, there are just four tunes on this two-LP set (one per side): “One Down, One Up”; “Afro Blue”; “Song of Praise”; and “My Favorite Things.” “Afro Blue” and “My Favorite Things” had in Coltrane’s book for some time, while the others were relatively recent additions.

Although this was not recorded professionally, the sound is surprisingly good, if not high fidelity. Yes, there are a few dodgy spots where the sound cuts out very briefly. But as a listening experience, it captures the vibe of a combo playing in a small club — which is exactly the point, I suppose.

Perhaps the most notable (and noted) aspect of this record is that the title track features Coltrane’s longest recorded solo, at around 27 minutes. Alan Grant starts things off with some introductions for WABC radio, which was broadcasting live from The Half Note, then it begins. A brief bass intro by Jimmy Garrison, followed by the rhythm section joining in as Coltrane improvises on the tune’s melodic theme. The quartet’s intensity level begins at full throttle and stays there for the duration, one of their trademarks. Supporting Coltrane, Tyner creates a wall of dissonance with Jones, whose stamina seems almost superhuman. (Indeed, jazz musicians and fans who were lucky enough to have seen the quartet live during this era speak of its energy as unlike anything they had ever seen before or since.) At just before the 11 minute mark, Tyner and Garrison drop out, leaving Trane and Jones in a duet, perhaps foreshadowing Trane’s late period duets with Rashied Ali.

During his stint with Coltrane, Elvin Jones was known for regularly breaking bass drum pedals in the middle of a gig, a combination of both his aggressive technique and the design of his preferred pedal. And this is exactly what happens somewhere between 12 and 13 minutes in, leaving just Trane, a snare, and a couple of cymbals. Yet somehow, it works.

Much has been written about Coltrane’s music and his sound. What fascinates me about Coltrane on this tune — and this entire album, for that matter — is indeed his sound. Leaping between registers, jagged fragments colliding, it’s a tonal — in every sense of the word — free-for-all. Then, with about three minutes remaining, he starts a series of frenetic descending lines that, while chaotic, can only be executed by a virtuoso in absolute control of his instrument. For me, this abandon tempered by breathtaking chops is what has always distinguished Coltrane’s approach to “free” jazz. Kind of like looking at a Picasso with the knowledge that the man was doing exactly what he intended to do, and that what appears almost “random” is anything but.

In “Afro Blue”, the Mongo Santamaría standard, McCoy Tyner gives a clinic in the techniques that have made him one of the towering pianists in jazz history. Right-handed runs that are at once blazingly fast and impossibly precise. Left-handed chords built on quartal harmony. It’s all here in his long solo.

The second disc (Sides 3 & 4), recorded on May 7, 1965, includes 20 minute versions of both “Song of Praise”, a new Coltrane tune, and “My Favorite Things”, which by then had been in their book for years. The band brings the same energy to these pieces as they did on the earlier date on disc one. Ultimately, this album clearly peaks on the opening track, such is its ferocity and passion. And while the “classic” quartet can be heard on numerous live albums, for sheer power, One Down, One Up is as good as any of them. Highly recommended for fans of the quartet’s late period.

Collecting Notes

  • First edition
  • 200g
  • Mint

When I got this on eBay two years ago, the price was still under $40. A quick look at the last 10 auction sales on Popsike shows an average price of 56 USD, although it has exceeded 100 USD three times in the past three years. Thus, it appears that if you’re considering this for your collection, it might be better to grab it sooner rather than later. The good news is that sealed copies are rather easy to find.

Now, some details. Have you ever held a 200g record? No? Well, imagine you are holding a record that weighs as much as a manhole cover. Now double it, for there are two LPs in this set. Maybe it’s an illusion, but I feel like these are noticeably more substantial than even a 180g. Whether the sound is improved dramatically is unclear, but you do feel like you’ve got something important here.

As for the packaging, this definitely qualifies as a deluxe record. The aforementioned 200g vinyl, a gatefold sleeve, and a roughly 11″x11″ full color booklet featuring some very rare photos of the band (see above) and fairly extensive liner notes. Nice presentation all around. When looking at the photos, you can’t help but notice how small the stage at the Half Note Café really was. This was not an upscale space, the likes of which you’d see today. Rather, it looks like a cross between a neighborhood bar and the grungy rock clubs of ’90s-era Boston and Cambridge in which I spent my formative years. In other words, cool.

 

What’s your favorite live Coltrane album? How about your favorite period for the quartet? Let me know below.

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