In the context of the decades since his passing and the legacy that's continued to grow, John Coltrane's Selflessness album bears an odd similarity to Bob Dylan's autobiographical book Chronicles. In Chronicles, Dylan tells the tale of his beginnings, jumping abruptly and confoundingly from his early years to life and work after his 1966 motorcycle accident, omitting any mention of his most popular and curious electric era. The contrast between these two eras becomes more vivid with the deletion of the years and events that bridged them. Released in 1965, Selflessness presents long-form pieces, likewise from two very distinct and separate eras of Coltrane's development. The album's first two-thirds was recorded at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival and consists of an amazingly deft rendition of Coltrane's take on the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic "My Favorite Things" as well as the glowingly affectionate "I Want to Talk About You." Coltrane is backed on these numbers by the classic lineup of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Roy Haynes, and the quartet absolutely crackles with the flowing joy that characterized its sound. Tyner especially sparkles in his extended spotlight moments on "My Favorite Things," arguably the best version Coltrane put to tape of this favorite. Fast forwarding two years to 1965, the 14-plus-minute extended atmospherics of "Selflessness" find Coltrane ramping up to the free-form spiritual style that he would work in for the short remainder of his life. The large ensemble on this date included Pharoah Sanders' blistering tenor and Elvin Jones' sputtering drums working alongside second drummer Frank Butler as well as the reverb-doused percussion sounds of Juno Lewis. The sprawling and sometimes aimless meditation comes off a little dippy as a result of the production and low-key playing, but it hints at a direction that would be fully articulated later on records like Sun Ship and the gorgeous Concert in Japan. Though the rapid changes in Coltrane's playing between 1963 and 1965 are thoroughly documented on other albums, taken as a whole, the contrast on Selflessness is striking.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas