Something I’ve carried over from my Miles studies is the habit of measuring a jazzman by his facility and strength with ballads. Especially standards and slow tunes. It’s the basic premise of musical modesty: the master returns to the simplest, most familiar songs to display economy, soul and superior technique. Or rather, call it musical musical wisdom: the master who’s at home in all formats as well as being a radical technician and explorer in his dayjob. I’m thinking of Miles in the depths of sickness and Fusion, breaking down and playing an old ballad, from an old-school place in the heart, where the genius is at home.
Ballads also represent the challenge not to play sentimental or clichéd; they must be addressed maturely and with masterful tact.
So I was looking forward to Ballads a lot. AllMusic hints at commercial and audience interests being a motive behind this album, coming off the relatively demanding exploration and hard work of Giant Steps, say, which in its defence wasn’t quite as difficult as the later Ascension either. The record company gunned for an inoffensive crowd pleaser without sheets of sound or squawking horns. Coltrane rises to the challenge by not sounding chafed or restrained – there’s quite a few of his hallmark fills and compressed runs on the tenor’s middle range. The explorer hasn’t completely lain down, but his vision continues to infiltrate. There’s no soprano saxwork here – though my personal mix includes the awesome simplicity and sweetness of Central Park West which one could call a ballad of sorts — though I’d much rather call it melodic wisdom in its purest form – one of the humblest, most humanly sufficient tracks ever recorded. When I ripped this album I tacked the latter on because I missed the sense of pure melody and unchained invention that propels My Favourite Things (another standard) into the (sopranic) heights.
The only gripe with this album I can muster — though the band is excellent and the recording, song choice and laid-back, late-night mood are all impeccable, it’s that Coltrane as solo hornplayer sounds a trifle lonely – I’d think he’d be better accompanied here by another sax, trombone, trumpet for a completer band sound, instead of having only the steady piano response/counterpoint of McCoy Tyner. Maybe it’s the subtle lack of sparring or dialogue, or his occasional, repetitive hanging on the dependent note of the solo – I just thought a full quintet might be more to the point. Maybe a Dolphy, Curtis Fuller or Freddie Hubbard would round off the concept, really drive it home. This probably goes against the sanctity of this ‘classic’ quartet, and all that entails for Coltrane purists, which I am certainly not. But it’s a pleasant album nonetheless. Coltrane passes the ballad test.
John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, Reggie Workman, McCoy Tyner (1962, Impulse!)