Coltrane’s restless ear

John Coltrane: Lush Life

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Ask most people to name a sax player and the first name that comes to mind is John Coltrane. Sure, Charlie Parker was one of the founding fathers of bebop, the basis for modern jazz. But Coltrane, through his work with Jimmy Heath, Dizzy Gillespie and especially Miles Davis, developed a passion for experimentation that set the stage for so much that followed. Coltrane took both the instrument and jazz itself to places artists continue to explore today.

Lush Life, recorded in ‘57 and ‘58, is more lyrical than some of the more innovative work that would follow, during his time with Miles and particularly once he formed his own quartet in 1960. But already you hear what jazz critic and author Joe Goldberg called Coltrane’s “restless, probing and searching” sound.

The album opens with the ballad Like Someone in Love—a beautifully haunting rendition, just Coltrane’s tenor with Earl May on the bass and Arthur Taylor on drums. The aforementioned restlessness comes through as Coltrane plays bits of the melody intact, then alternately crowds many notes together, stretching the melody even as he dances around it. To me, it’s the best cut on the disk.

Most of the album maintains this crackling energy. Set firmly in the 1950s New York jazz scene it came from [Trane’s Slo Blues conjures up smokey jazz clubs and grainy black & white footage of Manhattan at night], it manages to stay fresh and relevant some 50 years later. The one cut that less than delivers is the title track. Throughout its nearly 14 minutes [a full third of the entire 5-track disk] Lush Life does have its moments, especially when Coltrane is driving. But too much of it too slavishly follows the difficult, slow-moving melody, and for far too long. Still, better-trained ears than mine have rhapsodized about this rendition of the Billy Strayhorn classic, so it could just be me.

In my defense, it could also be that Lush Life has been recorded to death. Yes, it’s amazing that Strayhorn was a mere 22 years old when he wrote this classic song about world-weary, dissolute women of a certain age trying to erase life’s disappointments with “too many through the day twelve o’clocktails.” And that he’d never been further than North Carolina and Pittsburgh at the time. Yeah, I get it. Can we play something else now?

But back to the disk as a whole. When I’m planning to write about an album for What’s on the Kitchen Boombox?, I play it and play it and play it. On the kitchen boombox, in the car, on my iPod on the subway, at work… Sometimes it can burn me out on an album or piece of music for a good, long while. In this case, it has me thinking we need more Coltrane in our collection.

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