Cool vibes, transcendent sax

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Milt Jackson & John Coltrane: Bags & Trane

The first live ballet performance I ever saw was by the American Ballet Theatre. Watching the dancers in the corps de ballet, I thought it was pretty good, pretty impressive. Then 6’3″ blond defector from the Bolshoi, Alexander Godunov, took the stage. Once described as “a Pre-Raphaelite angel posing as a punk-rock idol,” he took it to a whole new level. Now I was truly impressed. Until Mikhail Baryshnikov came out. His unmatched grace and sheer athletic power were apparent even to my woefully untrained eye. From that moment on, the performance was electrifying.

That’s how John Coltrane is to me. And the more I listen to jazz, the more apparent his genius becomes. Recently I talked about his final recording, Interstellar Space. That was an out and out envelope-pushing avant garde tour de force, an aggressive, challenging, but ultimately thrilling album. Bags & Trane is an earlier work, much more melodic and straight ahead, but every bit as rewarding.

The pairing of bebop giant vibraphonist Milt Jackson [“Bags”] and avant garde proponent Coltrane [“Trane”] isn’t an immediately obvious choice. But it succeeds beautifully. Jackson is perhaps best known as a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet; they were as fine a group of players as you’ll find anywhere, but the relentlessly stately pace of pretty much all their music leaves me cold. I feel guilty saying that, like I should like their music because they’re such giants of jazz. But I just don’t. We own a couple MJQ albums, in fact, that I never play.

On this album, first released in 195X, Jackson gets to swing on a few medium- and up-tempo tracks. And swing he does. The energy and invention on these tunes in particular is breathtaking. He does a lot of the heavy lifting melodywise too. Many of the tracks are old standards, and Jackson lays down the melody on most of them.

Then Coltrane steps in and takes off from there. His playing is, in turn, muscular and delicate, often densely packed with many notes dancing around the melody, only hinting at it, if at all. Of the two, Coltrane colors outside the lines a lot more than Jackson does. But together they create beautiful conversations.

And the sidemen are no slouches. Pianist Hank Jones, Jackson’s MJQ colleague drummer Connie Kay and longtime Trane collaborator bassist Paul Chambers are all amazing performers in their on right, adding great depth and subtlety to this extremely listenable album. But Coltrane is just Coltrane. When he starts playing on Bags & Trane, I find myself listening harder.

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2 Responses to “Cool vibes, transcendent sax”

  1. Toni Says:

    Bob (my late husband) and I had a jazz pianist friend who wound up living on our couch for about 4 months. (Long story). He brought with him about 1500 albums. Bob looked them over and declared that there were about 5% that he was interested in. By the time he got done recording them (onto cassettes), he decided that there was about 5% that DIDN’T interest him.

    Coltrane was certainly one of the giants in that collection. Milt Jackson is in there as well, but not so much with the MJQ as in his own right, playing with some fine players. One of the delights of his transcribing all of that music was the musical education he got along the way.

  2. Terry B Says:

    Great story, Toni! For a few months we had a violin maker stay with us, also a long story. When we came home from work every day, beautiful violin music would be wafting from our apartment.

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