'Final Tour' Celebrates John Coltrane's Last Go-Round With Miles Davis

Mar 28, 2018
Originally published on April 2, 2018 12:26 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the spring of 1960, John Coltrane played his last engagements as a sideman with Miles Davis on a European tour. Recordings from these concerts have been bootlegged for years. Now a few are collected in a new anthology. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "FRAN DANCE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Trumpeter Miles Davis in a puckish mood on his first European tour in March 1960. It's from a new four-CD set, "Miles Davis & John Coltrane - The Final Tour." Coltrane's last go-round with Miles was a package tour where they played one set per concert, a fairly easy schedule. The box includes five sets from the start of that three-week trip. Miles sounds rested and in good lip over the firm, springy support of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: By spring 1960, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane had been working for Miles off and on for almost five years, and he was ready to be done. Coltrane had grown by leaps in that period. He'd become famous for cramming umpteen notes into a line while giving it a noble, yearning sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS AND JOHN COLTRANE'S "BYE BYE BLACKBIRD (LIVE FROM OLYMPIA THEATRE, PARIS)")

WHITEHEAD: But by 1960, Coltrane's explorations were getting more abstract, his leaping lines less melodic and more methodical, more obsessive. This is from "Bye Bye Blackbird."

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS AND JOHN COLTRANE'S "BYE BYE BLACKBIRD (LIVE FROM OLYMPIA THEATRE, PARIS)")

WHITEHEAD: Coltrane's bracingly insistent approach earned him some audience catcalls later in that six-minute solo. But the contrast between his shouts and Miles' whispers made Coltrane an effective foil. Miles liked a more transparent texture. Pianist Wynton Kelly might stay mum behind his solos, then dive in like he was reading Miles' mind. This is from "So What," recorded at the late show in Stockholm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS AND JOHN COLTRANE'S "SO WHAT")

WHITEHEAD: Miles surfs over that rhythm section. The intense Coltrane solo that follows almost sounds like he's rebuking the others for complacency. His restlessness is audible. But this anti-Miles betrays Miles' influence when he slows down for notes that slowly widen and change character, and sleek passages that set off and relieve the frantic stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS AND JOHN COLTRANE'S "SO WHAT")

WHITEHEAD: John Coltrane would soon use the simple structure of Miles Davis' "So What" as the template for his own blowing tune "Impressions." In the tumultuous '60s, Miles and Coltrane each built on that model in different ways. Coltrane superimposed complex improvisations onto simple forms while Miles sought ways to make the forms themselves more flexible. But it took Miles a bit longer to get there, the ambling toward us to John Coltrane's jack rabbit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Miles Davis & John Coltrane - The Final Tour" on the Sony Legacy label.

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