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The Perfectionists: Coltrane, Desmond

**** JOHN COLTRANE, "The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings," Impulse!; **** PAUL DESMOND, "The Complete Paul Desmond," BMG

September 28, 1997|Don Heckman

It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar jazz artists than John Coltrane and Paul Desmond.

Tenor saxophonist Coltrane was a revolutionary and a restless seeker, his music constantly in search of new horizons. Alto saxophonist Desmond, by jazz standards, was a conservative, his appealing, melodic sounds moving well within the traditional flow of the jazz mainstream.

But Coltrane and Desmond were alike in one key respect: Despite the fact that they had productive careers (even though both died relatively young--Coltrane at 40 and Desmond at 52), neither seemed completely content with his achievements. Coltrane never quite managed to reach the improvisational nirvana he sought with such impassioned determination. And Desmond, for all his visibility and success, was well aware of the fact that many in the jazz community viewed his music as lightweight and superficial.

Yet, their vast differences in style and manner aside, the bodies of work produced by Coltrane and Desmond offer clear evidence of artistry fulfilled, of work that accurately reflects unique creative points of view. Coltrane's quest may have been never-ending, and Desmond's desire for the stamp of artistic credibility not quite fulfilled, but both men produced music that will long outlive their unrealized personal goals.

Coltrane's performances at New York's Village Vanguard in November 1961 have long been viewed as classic examples of his work, but they also represent an important developmental turning point in jazz history. Ornette Coleman had arrived on the Manhattan jazz scene two years earlier, Cecil Taylor's iconoclastic piano playing was turning heads, and bassist Charles Mingus and composer George Russell were producing cutting-edge music for larger ensembles. It was an exciting time for jazz, a time of great creative turbulence.

In the midst of this turmoil, no one had quite the impact that Coltrane did. When some of the Vanguard tracks were released, shortly after the performances--first on "Live at the Village Vanguard," followed a year later by "Impressions"--the impact upon young players was immediate and dramatic. It's not hard to understand why. The Vanguard dates, now available for the first time in their entirety and sequenced as they took place over the four nights that were recorded, are treasure troves of contemporary jazz, rich sources of music that would powerfully affect other musicians for decades beyond.

Aside from the imaginative, envelope-stretching qualities of the music, what makes the tracks even more intriguing is the opportunity they provide to hear variant versions of some Coltrane classics. There are, for example, multiple renditions of "Naima," "Chasin' the Trane," "Impressions," "Spiritual," "India" and "Greensleeves."

There also are a variety of instrumental combinations, from a basic trio (with Coltrane, drummer Elvin Jones and bassists Jimmy Garrison or Reggie Workman) delivering renderings of "Chasin' Another Trane" and "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" to Coltrane's regular quartet (with Garrison, Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner sometimes supplemented with woodwind specialist Eric Dolphy), an expanded sextet (with two bassists) and--on two tracks--an ensemble that adds oboist/bassoonist Garvin Bushell and oud player Ahmed Abdul-Malik.

Nearly 36 years after they were recorded, some of the performances are still difficult to listen to. Coltrane and Dolphy, in particular, were triggering each other into progressively more exploratory, often abrasive improvisations. Playing in a friendly jazz venue, able to allow their spontaneity to run free, Coltrane and his players pushed their imaginations into high gear, and the resulting chronicle is an impressive aural document of a great jazz artist at the peak of his powers.

Desmond's goals were different. Where Coltrane was expansive, Desmond was focused. Where Coltrane worked to bypass the architecture of jazz, Desmond strove to refine it.

The material on the five-CD BMG collection, which represents Desmond's output as a leader for the RCA label, is due next week. It was recorded between 1962 and 1965, at precisely the time when jazz was being rocked by revolutionary ideas. Yet Desmond, working with guitarist Jim Hall, drummer Connie Kay and several different bassists, blithely chose to follow his own traditional muse, producing a collection of improvisations that are elegant and witty, thoughtful and romantic.

The tunes are virtually all familiar--"My Funny Valentine," "Body and Soul," "Samba de Orpheu," "Glad to Be Unhappy," "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" and "Easy Living," to name only a few of the 50-plus selections (a few alternate takes are included). Without exception, they are rendered in Desmond's singing alto saxophone tone, surely one of the loveliest sounds in jazz history.

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