It starts out innocently enough. A radio announcer introduces the band, which then eases into a spry and full-bodied improvisation; the tune is built upon a quick-moving bass line and tonal structures reminiscent of the group's previous work. Then, about five minutes in, it's clear that the saxophonist is not letting go of whatever broadly defined theme he's got in his head; he swoops in and out, circles around and around, and suddenly the entire group is locked into an inflammatory musical exchange that goes on for 20 more exquisite and revelatory minutes.
Squeezed together on the tiny "bandstand" really just a small indentation in the wall, between the pay phone and the cash register at the Half Note, the John Coltrane Quartet shifted gears in the spring of 1965. It wasn't the first time Coltrane undertook a wholesale revisiting of his music; anyone who listens to the difference between My Favorite Things (1960) and Impressions (1961) understands that a lot can change in a year.
But while those were methodical and evolutionary, what happened between early 1964 and late 1965 was a complete explosion. A Love Supreme may have packed the cannon and the spectacular freeform pyrotechnics of Ascension may have been the explosion, but it was the woodshedding at the Half Note that put the spark to the fuse.
It's impossible to know exactly what effect this music had on audiences at the time and our ears have been so acclimated to Coltrane's latter-day freedom that his voluminous wail on "My Favorite Things" no longer shocks. Further, these shows were light on average jazz fans and heavy on New York musicians who wanted to learn a thing or two by watching an acknowledged master leap fearlessly into the future. (As Miles Davis said of the Half Note shows: "What is that he's playing?")
Originally recorded for radio broadcast on two different nights, these four songs totaling more than 90 minutes mark the precise point where jazz charted a course for the heavens. Coltrane here is completely willing to abandon formality in favor of the intricacy and intimacy of full-bore improvisations. He was blessed with what may have been his best and most inspiring group (McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones) and defined what freedom truly sounds like.
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