John Coltrane never stopped wondering what he wanted from music, and never stopped pushing the boundaries. Trane genuinely strove to be saintly in his devotion to the divine, creating a body of deeply spiritual music that has come to be regarded as holy by his many devotees. His musical legacy was officially consecrated in 1971 when the Church of Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane was founded in San Francisco.
A gentle and enigmatic man of many voices, Trane was an often fiery, shockingly original musician. Put on any of his records, and the sounds emanating from his saxophone crackle with life. While his music was criticized by some as being too “aggressive,” Trane knew (as some people “knew” in the 1960s) that love was the answer. His albums gaine momentum, one after the other, until his death in 1967, when perhaps he finally went even further beyond.
Right from the outset, Olé Coltrane establishes itself as a continuation of the approach taken on its predecessor, My Favorite Things. The modal jazz setting remains, the lineup is mostly the same, and Coltrane is playing soprano sax again. But the title track, a Coltrane original, is a different framework for the musicians to build on in terms of tone, with its strong Spanish influence. While Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain album recorded the year earlier could’ve been an influence, Davis and company opted for a more rigid orchestral setting which limited the opportunity for group improvisation. Coltrane’s take is far more conducive for that.
When he recorded Olé Coltrane in 1961, Trane was already transitioning over to Impulse! Records and his playing reflected the greater freedom that the new label afforded him. In the original liner notes, he is quoted as saying (in a classic understatement), “I like to play long.” On the 18-minute showpiece Olé, one can imagine the profound satisfaction he must have felt, when for the first time, he was free to let his playing stretch out across the record grooves. This is trance music of the highest order.
Trane’s Olé resonates with the mystical sounds of the North African Moors who once ruled the Iberian Peninsula. While Sketches of Spain is big on Gil Evans’ sweeping orchestrations and flamenco grandeur, Olé” explores the Eastern-influenced musical modes of Islamic Spain in a more stripped down and earthy manner. Just two days after recording Africa/Brass, his stunning debut album for Impulse!, Trane took old band mates McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones into the studio for a rendezvous with some talented new friends. Joining them there were Trane’s equally intense and innovative counterpart, Eric Dolphy, the very young and fabulous trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and two bassists: Reggie Workman and the Art Davis.
Reggie Workman Art Davis
He would often record within a conventional quartet in which he was the only horn player, but here he expands his group, adding a trumpet, a flutist, and even a second bassist. The way the band accommodates the two bass players on Olé is interesting and effective – one hammers out the distinct, simple, repetitive riff that establishes the Spanish theme on which the piece is built, while the other tinkers in a higher register, arguably operating free of pure rhythm section duties. The two co-exist without ever crowding each other out or cluttering the low end.
Eric Dolphy Elvin Jones
This dream team provided a great deal of musical empathy, liberating the conception and size of Coltrane’s solos, spurring him to unknown heights. Everyone except Elvin Jones solos on Olé, shaping the song with ever increasing freedom into the masterpiece that it is. Eric Dolphy’s flute solo is unforgettable, communicating genius in a voice that no one could fail to identify. The interplay of the two basses lends an eerie mysticism to the song, with Art Davis’ strong rhythmic bow-work suggesting the entrancing dance of Istanbul’s Whirling Dervishes. Dahomey Dance is a more traditional sounding blues, with Trane switching to tenor sax. If not for the double-bass frontline and Dolphy’s blissfully unconventional solo, this song could easily be mistaken for a missing gem from Miles’ Kind Of Blue sessions.
The soloing is fantastic throughout, as you’d expect from these musicians. Eric Dolphy’s contributions on the flute stand out very prominently, not just for the choice of instrument but also his distinct style and delivery. The instrumentation is more typical of jazz than on Dolphy’s most famous work, but the solo is brilliant in any case.
Tyner is also wonderful, managing to thrive in this format as he did on My Favorite Things. His interplay with Elvin Jones is incredible. The title track is one of Coltrane’s greatest songs and is clearly the highlight of the record, spanning 18 captivating minutes. It’s intense but in a radically different way to his work that would follow. Ole casts a long shadow on the rest of the record, but Aisha, written by McCoy Tyner, is another excellent song – the ballad of this set. Aisha burns with such sensuality that it’s hard to understand why it was one of the few McCoy Tyner compositions Trane ever recorded. People familiar with Coltrane’s more famous, frenetic work can appreciate the restraint shown, particularly Jones’ minimal brushwork on the kit.
. The final track, a Billy Frazier composition entitled Original Untitled Ballad (To Her Ladyship), was not released until 1970. A lovely and delicate tune, it was excluded from the original release for some strange reason.
Fans of My Favorite Things will find lots to like about this album. This, along with Africa/Brass from the same period, are good starting points for hearing Coltrane playing in a larger group than his typical quartet formation. Four short years later, he’d record in larger ensembles again, but by that stage, his philosophy towards performance and composition had changed considerably and it bears very little immediate resemblance to what he offers here.
Olé Coltrane was his last recording for Atlantic Records, after which he’d record for Impulse for the remainder of his career – a label that would afford him tremendous freedom and faith that’d be reflected in his later work. It’s an intriguing listen that further showcases Coltrane’s rapid development, and is worthy listening for fans of his work or modal jazz in general.
A transitional record, Olé Coltrane successfully navigates the line between Trane’s sonically challenging later years and his earlier accessibility. A magnificent milestone in Trane’s artistic growth, this is an essential recording for any collection.