John Coltrane or “Trane” was an unquestioned genius of the jazz saxophone whose brief candle burned out at the age of 40. While most of his work was avant-gardist and later informed by spirituality, this Ballads album was a distinct departure from such styles, presenting standard tunes adapted to Coltrane’s quartet. Surrounded by superb colleagues (McCoy Tyner-piano, Jimmy Garrison-bass, and Elvin Jones-drums), this eight-track playlist was recorded over a timeframe of nearly one year (December 1961-November 1962):
- Say It (Over And Over Again (4:13)
- You Don’t Know What Love Is (5:20)
- Too Young To Go Steady (4:19)
- All Or Nothing At All (3:50)
- I Wish I Knew (4:37)
- What’s New (3:42)
- It’s Easy To Remember (2:40)
- Nancy (With The Laughing Face (2:59)
With the exception of “All or Nothing at All,” the remaining tracks were recorded with little rehearsal time and in a single take. This aforementioned track is also the freest in terms of its departure from the main melodies and tempos of the original. The quartet’s relatively straightforward approach to the rest of these numbers with only modest improvisation will come as a real surprise to Coltrane fans accustomed to Trane’s unique ability to spin the initial melodic lines into near unrecognizability. What ultimately emerge, particularly in the longer selections like “You Don’t Know What Love Is” or “Say It (Over and Over Again),” are stretches of almost ineffable beauty, not typically the province of most jazz recordings.
As this recording was made in the early days of stereophony, recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder puts Coltrane’s saxophone mostly in the left channel, the piano and bass in the center, and the drums inhabit the right channel. Over the course of this album, given the overall superb tonality of Coltrane’s instrument, this sonic perspective is not really a distraction. The limitation of high-resolution remastering resides in the sound quality of the original master tapes, and the recording techniques. It is obvious here that the Coltrane sax gets more prominence than his band mates with Jimmy Garrison’s bass being quiet reticent throughout.
The extras include cover art, recording credits, and some nice liner notes by jazz expert Gene Lees.
The Definitive Word
An album that is as far from Coltrane’s earlier Giant Steps or later Love Supreme, Ballads is one that goes straight to the heart of the matter and reveals how great Trane was as a pure song stylist. Considering the modest amount of preparation and forethought that went into each of these songs, we get the kind of spontaneity that makes for great jazz recordings. Of course, the soul that sells each number is the Coltrane saxophone taking the place of the singer’s voice. The obvious synergy that each member of the group brings to the table goes a long way to selling what some jazz aficionados would consider a “minimalist” approach. Ballads is one of the best examples of the less-is-more approach that Coltrane would eventually abandon in his later recordings. Compared to my original LP version (that has stayed with me since college), the remastering effort marks a distinct improvement, revealing details that were concealed by the vinyl’s higher noise floor. Dated sonics aside, after all we are talking about a 50-plus year old recording, this is one album that jazz lovers must consider an essential addition to their libraries.