Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane has assumed numerous guises since his death 30 years ago. He is a symbol of "Black Power" to historians of the 1960s, an object of worship for a small cult in San Francisco, and now has entered the computer age through a CD-ROM highlighting his still astonishing music.
"Blue Train," an "enhanced compact disc" (meaning it also works strictly as an audio CD on a CD player), has been recently released by Blue Note Records, and represents a technological giant step forward for jazz music discs.
Priced like a conventional CD, "Blue Train" offers the five tunes which originally appeared on the audio recording, two previously unreleased selections from the recording session, plus a bevy of other surprises.
These include a moving video clip of Coltrane playing with trumpeter Miles Davis on a 1959 television special, interviews with various jazz musicians who knew Coltrane, a portfolio of jazz photography, audio selections from various albums where he performed as a sideman, and an internet link to a major jazz site: (www.bluenote.com).
"Value added" is the catch phrase heard in the industry for this kind of product, and this disc really does demonstrate considerable value. "Blue Train," even in its original audio-only incarnation, represents a pivotal moment in Coltrane's career.
This 1957 recording was the first time in which the saxophonist's own compositions were showcased, and, more significantly, it is the first recording where the full-flowering of his individual sound is actualized.
That Coltrane "voice" is a searching, searing, full-bodied one, with upper registers breaking into sharply piercing cries. His rich involvement with personalizing the blues heritage is immediately evident in the title cut.
Blues phrasing identified with Mississippi delta singers is translated into fiery tenor sax lines. The entire album ripples with a sense of emotional and spiritual urgency, the beginning of a search culminating in Coltrane's epic albums on the Impulse label during the '60s.
The voices of the major musicians who shared the bandstand with Coltrane paint a tremendously moving, multifaceted portrait of the artist.
Drummer Roy Haynes, still a vibrant presence on the jazz scene, recalls that "Coltrane was one of the only musicians I knew who could come to a climax, and then build, and come to another climax."
His inspirational impact on fellow players is aptly summarized by trombonist Curtis Fuller: "He would play some fantastic lick, and then asked if I could play it on trombone. ... That challenge gave me another voice for jazz."
The only tune here not composed by Coltrane is the old standard by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, "I'm Old Fashioned."
Listening to Coltrane's art, and enjoying reminiscences about the artist on a computer, Coltrane seems anything but "old fashioned."
As Ezra Pound wrote of classical literature, this jazz is "news that stays news."