- Music Matters mono reissue circa 2016
- Lee Morgan, trumpet
- John Coltrane, tenor saxophone
- Curtis Fuller, trombone
- Kenny Drew, piano
- Paul Chambers, bass
- Philly Joe Jones, drums
Recorded September 15, 1957 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey
Originally released November 1957
Selection: “Moment’s Notice”
For Music Lovers
I’m surprised by how many people recommend this album to jazz novices because I don’t necessarily find it to be an “accessible” listen. Slowly it has become one of my favorite jazz albums but I didn’t like it initially and ignored it for quite some time. I find Coltrane’s solos here challenging, and this next comment may not be something most people can identify with, but I initially found many of the melodies to sound “major” in terms of scale and thus maybe a little old-fashioned (no pun intended) at a time when I was looking for something more edgy and “minor”.
Growing out of my fashionable pessimism phase, I’ve come to appreciate older-sounding jazz numbers. But there’s a sort of hidden darkness looming in between the heads of the songs here. “Moment’s Notice”, an album favorite of mine, is the prime example of this: its happy, soulful theme seems to deceitfully change from major to minor key at the renewal of each chorus.
One by one, I grew to adore each and every song on this album. “I’m Old Fashioned”, a standard written by songwriting juggernauts Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, initially sounded like a cookie-cutter jazz ballad but ultimately won me over. On “Lazy Bird”, trumpeter Lee Morgan’s quiet introductory proclamation of the theme is a welcome break from the sheer power of this all-star sextet. But what hasn’t already been said about the album’s mega-classic title track? The simple 24-bar theme is one of the most famous intros in all of jazz. Coltrane’s solo has been exhaustively picked apart by scholars as well. No more than forty seconds after the album’s first notes sound, the leader launches this mazeltov cocktail at the listener. It was too intense for me as a jazz newcomer, but over the years I feel I have grown to better understand Coltrane’s music and today I marvel at the flurry of notes played here. In my view of jazz history this marks the beginning of Coltrane’s revolution: uninspired by what he was hearing at the time, it is the moment when the saxophonist took his instrument and proclaimed to the jazz world, “Enough is enough, it’s time to push this music forward.”
On a side note, two weeks prior to the recording of this album in mid-September 1957, Coltrane was in the studio as a sideman for the recording of Sonny’s Crib (Blue Note 1576). That album’s title track bears a striking resemblance to the minimal, bluesy progression in “Blue Train”. Was Coltrane inspired by Sonny Clark? Had he taken Clark’s idea and ran with it? We may never know if there was a conscious connection between the two songs in Coltrane’s mind (“Sonny’s Crib” was not necessarily written first just because it was recorded first) but I found it worth mentioning.
The choice of lineup on Blue Train is interesting. Coltrane was not known to have a regular working relationship with either Kenny Drew or Lee Morgan (he had recorded with each of them once on separate occasions prior to this date), which leaves open the possibility that Drew and Morgan were suggested by Blue Note producer Alfred Lion. This seems more plausible in the case of Morgan, a regular leader with the label. Though the album proved a grand slam for Blue Note in terms of sales, it was ultimately a one-off recording Trane did for them.
Critics seem split as to the brilliance of Blue Train. Beyond the title track, I have read reviews suggesting that the album amounts to little more than a run-of-the-mill bop date. The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, while awarding it four stars, also manages to call it “an overvalued record”. I personally find the music jubilant and adventurous. The pairing of Trane with Morgan doesn’t create a seamless fusion to me, but it’s interesting to hear how Morgan responds to be being thrown into such a foreign situation.