Here it is: eight CDs worth of John Coltrane's classic quartet, comprised of bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist McCoy Tyner, and drummer Elvin Jones, recorded between December of 1961 and September of 1965 when the artist followed his restless vision and expanded the band before assembling an entirely new one before his death. What transpired over the course of the eight albums and supplementary material used elsewhere is nothing short of a complete transfiguration of one band into another one, from a band that followed the leader into places unknown to one that inspired him and pushed him further. All of this transpired in the span of only three years. The group that the saxophonist had assembled for Coltrane in 1962, a band that had been together a little while and had performed together at the Village Vanguard (the tracks that include the quartet without Eric Dolphy from Impressions are here, and, in fact, the first pieces on the set are from those session dates chronologically) in a variety of settings, is almost nothing like the band that made Kulu Se Mama in 1965.
For a change, the oft-employed yet irritating chronological method of compiling a box makes sense here. McCoy Tyner's piano style, that rich open-ended modal chromaticism he developed was at work on "The Inchworm," astonishingly enough the first work recorded in the 1962 studio dates. "Out of This World" was one of the last from that session that would produce the album Coltrane. The blues element that would disappear from later records -- at least consciously -- was the driving force behind ballads like "Soul Eyes" and "After the Rain."
But it isn't until the latter end of 1963 that we hear the band beginning to gel into the unit that would make A Love Supreme and create the tracks that would be assembled into First Meditations for Quartet. There are the two alternate takes of "Alabama," and the soprano solo that is positively danced around by the rhythm section on "Dear Old Stockholm." There is also the great schism in Coltrane, much that took place between the June 1964 session that produced "Crescent" (and its first version is on disc eight, which is full of supplementary and unreleased material) and the following December when A Love Supreme was recorded. Here is the hinges in the whole box, the questions that need to be resolved than that this box only begs more than answers: what happened to that tight conscripted modalism Coltrane had been working on in his official releases prior to that time period as many of them hold clues but never give away the entire picture. What the box does in its voluminous way is set the record straight that there was no retrenchment in pursuant releases to A Love Supreme. There were softer moments on record, but the material in the can was far more adventurous recorded at about the same time, such as the "Suite" or "Transition" or "Dusk Dawn." Disc eight is also a treat in that it contains seven "works in progress" from all periods in the quartet's history. It begins with the aforementioned version of "Crescent," which is appreciably different than the master take in Tyner's solo particularly. There's also an incomplete though steaming initial take of "Bessie's Blues." Perhaps the most beautiful thing on the final disc is the alternate take of part II of A Love Supreme's "Resolution," with its elongated obligato by Coltrane and Tyner's gorgeous tenths playing ostinato during the saxophone solo. There's an alternate of "Feelin' Good" that's no big deal, followed by breakdowns and alternate takes of both "Dear Lord" and "Living Space," both of which reveal the harmonic development of a scale as it becomes the architectural model for the rest of the composition and improvisation. There can be no arguing the value of the originally released recordings; whether they were issued during Coltrane's lifetime or after his death, they tell a story that millions of listeners formed their impressions by, true or false, and created a legacy that lives on. But there is also something to be said for setting the record straight, and the chronological approach that this set takes in no way desecrates the integrity of the original albums themselves -- unlike the Ornette Coleman box. Simply put, it is indispensable to those who need a deeper understanding of Coltrane's music and the development of his most influential period. The sound quality is fully remastered to 20-bit technology, and the package is unwieldy but beautiful and sturdy. It's a must.