When Miles Davis undertook a Norman Granz organized tour of Europe during March and April of 1960, his famous ‘first great quintet’ was pretty much a done deal. Of that ground-breaking combo only Paul Chambers on bass and a reluctant John Coltrane (now playing soprano as well as tenor sax) remained, accompanied by pianist Wynton Kelly. Coltrane was in reality irritated for having allowed himself to be persuaded into this gig having by this time released a handful of classic albums in his own name. He packed his meagre travelling needs in an airport bag and sulked his way around the continent as he re-imagined the Davis song-book in front of disbelieving audiences. No doubt a large chunk of those punters expected to hear the old standards performed as they exist on those classic Prestige and Columbia LP’s of the mid to late fifties, but John Coltrane had developed his stream way beyond the comfort and cliches of those sides, fantastic as they are. The people gathered at the Tivoli Konsertsal in Copenhagen, Denmark on March 24, 1960 must have been utterly unprepared for the space-flight Trane had planned for them, the trajectory of which can be charted on this amazing document. Astounding performances notwithstanding, it is amazing that this recording even exists as it seems to have been captured via a microphone nestled in the armpit of a determined fan.
The relatively poor audio quality (on this and other recordings from this now legendary tour) can be quickly forgiven soon after Miles eases into “So What?” as if disregarding the manic tempo established by Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb by dropping in behind the beat with an assured line and his signature muted tonal purity. He owns this music and the confidence and casualness inherent in his phrasing and tone is his gift to the world. We should all be grateful to the music gods (and George Russell’s ‘The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization’) that he immersed himself in modal theory. Thanks also to the muses for lighting a fire under John Coltrane’s junky soul back when he was carving cathedral architecture with Monk at The Five Spot is also appropriate. Coltrane while on heroin was still awesome, but his pride knew that greater things were to be revealed if he could kill off his smack jones. Miles’ brief preface over, he ushers in the sax player with single note dots and dashes from his muted horn which continue as Coltrane delivers the first bars of his solo. You can hear him thinking his way into a space as he probes a sequence of fourths from a variety of angles; a tightrope walker feeling the first few steps, adjusting himself to the tension and the feel of the situation. This continues throughout each of the tracks on these recordings, and Trane willfully never used a net.
Miles Davis indulged Coltrane here allowing him to soar interminably, possibly as a return favor for agreeing to join this tour with him, or simply because John Coltrane had so many new ideas and found it hard to resolve his soloing. Throughout the album the whole kitchen sink is explored, every bit of technique is utilized; harmonics, sheets of sound, straight sixteens, swinging sixteens, modal, atonal, et al. His phenomenal abilities, technical and expressive, are never less than compelling, even though it appears that he regarded the entire enterprise a waste of his time. Especially so, as jazz is best served with attitude. At times you can hear Coltrane giving the audience and Miles Davis the razor eye as if he knew he was on the path to create monster albums like “Ascension” and co-pioneer the avant garde movement alondside artists such as Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler. Miles was on his way to make further history in his own image also with his famous Second Great Quintet featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, but unlike Coltrane he wasn’t driven by the notion of becoming a saint. The saxophone master, like Jimi Hendrix after him, was a humble and softly spoken man who would practise relentlessly, his uncontained ‘out-there’ playing and total mastery of his instrument may have been a way for him to control and ultimately overcome his inner demons. Coltrane would inspire rock guitar-gods of the 60’s with his screaming upper-register, dense clusters of circular and cascading notes and a form of musical risk-taking that was previously unheard of, particularly when playing the soprano sax, an instrument he was introduced to by Miles Davis on this 1960 tour. It was his audacity, his willingness to explore, the fearlessness displayed on this album and others that came after that outline the conviction of his vision completely. He was driven to marry jazz virtuosity with spirituality, to raise the intensity of experience to new stratopheres. In the words of the man himself:-
“There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.”
It is not accurate to suggest this was a transitonal period for John Coltrane, as it was for Miles, as his entire career was defined by constant development. His style never rested and it could be said that he rarely sounded the same from one album to the next, however I contend that his performance on this recording is a foretaste of the unhinged, incendiary quality of his later albums.