July 23, 2024

John Coltrane With Eric Dolphy – ‘Evenings At The Village Gate’- “Listen and wonder”

IMPULSE! RECORDS    14th July 2023

Ever hungry for more Coltrane releases, the fear is that, many decades after his death, anything unheard will be floor-scrapings. Thankfully, there are good condition recordings still tucked away in people’s lofts or in libraries, museums etc. This particular one was lost in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and, although a single-mic mono recording made solely to test the club’s sound equipment, responds to and demands multiple listens. Why multiple? Well in 1961 John Coltrane was going through a massive flowering, as evidenced in the legendary ‘Live at The Village Vanguard’ releases, recorded three months later. Not only that but he had a fantastic band, with Eric Dolphy every bit the match for Coltrane and, arguably, occasionally outplaying him (sample ‘Africa’ to see if you agree).

The recording set-up (one mic, hanging above the stage) does mean that Reggie Workman’s bass is barely present, mostly as a distant throb but Elvin Jones’ drumming is always there and a major part of the appeal of the recording. Across this whole set, Jones swings hard on drums, making polyrhythms, going in a few directions at once. Add to that McCoy Tyner on piano and the band is amazing. Yes, they come through clearer on the Village Vanguard releases, recorded professionally by Rudy Van Gellar, and Jimmy Garrision provides some of the bass but this is another slice of the band and that is very welcome.

Eric Dolphy was not to live even as long as Trane but burned bright as a band leader as well as here. An innovator, he was as able to fly high and strange as Coltrane but could please with a drop to the main melody easily. It’s him we hear on flute as we join ‘My Favourite Things’ mid-flight. Coltrane joins and spirals in an extended tight flurry. This is intense music that insists on and rewards attention as Dolphy and Coltrane circle each other, Dolphy playing longer notes and Coltrane responding with machine gun repetition. A conversation takes place, spaces are explored, boundaries are pushed and jazz becomes richer for it. The combination of the two wind experimentalists, both growing up in the age of Bebop, sees a fusion of minds that melds that era’s innovations with post-Birth Of The Cool ideas and emerges with a new vision for jazz – one so radical that one contemporary critic described it as ‘anti-jazz’.

All the pieces are ten to twenty minutes long and the recording is a generous eighty minutes. There are no duff tracks and highlights include Dolphy’s fluttering melodic exploration on clarinet in ‘When Lights Are Low’ as well as the piano solo on that track and the subsequent ‘Impressions’. Of course, the rarely performed (and then yet-to-be-released) ‘Africa’ draws the most attention for historians, as the only live recording. Emerging from a formless ramble, all players seek a joint shape before digging in and digging deep. There is a nice gentle jam section where the lack of blowing allows the bass to be better heard at last, in a lengthy solo. ‘Africa’ had yet to be released on record and this would be new to the listeners. As across this whole set, Elvin Jones swings hard on drums, making polyrhythms, going in a few directions at once.

This is an important release, adding to our samples on the wonders of 1961 and capturing the short-lived combination of Jones, Coltrane and Dolphy while they are setting fire to each other’s ears and souls, inspiring performances that still astonish. Even if you have the complete Village Vanguard set, you need this in your life too. Listen and wonder.


Ross McGibbon





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