Vinyl Spotlight: John Coltrane, Blue Train (Blue Note 1577)

April 18, 2017 /
  • Music Matters mono reissue circa 2016

Personnel

  • 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

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.

For Collectors

Blue Note fanatics may already be aware that the label recorded to both mono and stereo tape from May 1957 to October 1958. But Rudy Van Gelder has clarified over the years that the mono mix of these albums was the singular focus at that time. I’ve always sought out the mono mixes of these albums, and despite the stereo-bent tastes of most audiophiles, they largely consider Blue Train, recorded in September 1957, an exception to their usually steadfast rule. The reason for this, I believe, has much to do with the fact that Van Gelder mysteriously decided to leave the center of the stereo field empty for this recording despite having positioned the piano there on many of his previous stereo recordings for Blue Note. The end result is quite a hollow stereo listening experience that has forced the hand of even the most passionate stereo proponents.

In a 2014 telephone interview with Deep Groove Mono, Blue Note producer Michael Cuscuna explained that when Rudy Van Gelder was approached to digitally remaster the Blue Note catalog in the late ‘90s, he originally wanted the reissues to be done in mono, but to keep with the times Cuscuna insisted that they be done in stereo. The result of this difference in opinion became the type of “pseudo-mono” balance heard on the 2003 RVG Edition CD of Blue Train, for which the left and right channels have been pulled in much closer to the center of the stereo field.

The Japanese recently reissued this album in mono as an SHM-CD, though I was disappointed to find that this digital reissue sounded like it was either made from a damaged Japanese (duplicate) mono master tape or carelessly folded down from a Japanese stereo master. (For Blue Note albums recorded in the time period mentioned above, Van Gelder did not create the mono master by summing the channels of a two-track tape, he was running a separate full-track machine; perhaps the Japanese have misunderstood this.) I also recently noticed that the album was released in mono as an LP in Japan by Toshiba in the early ’90s despite being unwaveringly released in stereo there previously, though I am yet to hear this pressing.

Originals of Blue Train are pretty expensive (I’m talking about any of the first few pressings brandishing some form of “West 63rd Street” address on the album labels), which is why I’ve gone after the less expensive but surprisingly rare “New York USA” Rudy Van Gelder-mastered mono reissue, only to be outbid a handful of times on eBay. I have also given the Classic Records mono 33 R.P.M. reissue a chance and wasn’t particularly impressed. I’m not nearly as fanatical about Music Matters reissues as most audiophiles, but when I heard that they were releasing Blue Train in mono my interest was piqued, and I’m happy to say that this reissue does not disappoint (tip of the hat to mastering engineer Kevin Gray). Many of us get to hear this classic in its originally intended mono presentation for the very first time. We may never know the source of the mono versions of this album reissued in Japan over the years but make no mistake about it: after decades of stereo U.S. reissues, Music Matters has finally granted jazz fans the opportunity to hear the original full-track master tape of this legendary album in all of its monaural glory and the results are simply marvelous.

  • Marijn Meijer

    Funny how you mention being turned off by the major, somewhat old-timesy sound of the record. I had a similar initial reaction to this album and much pre 60’s jazz in general (excluding Monk for some reason – I dug him from the start). Another specific album I felt this way about was Shorters Speak no Evil which initially sounded too straight and sunny to my ears compared to the murkiness and edginess of the preceding Juju. While part of me still prefers the edginess of later jazz I’ve certainly come around to the happy, bopping sounds of the fifties.