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  The Top Two Modern Jazz Bands  
  by Dustin Garlitz  

November 2004:

My picks for the two top modern jazz bands of all time would be ‘The Miles Davis Quintet’ and ‘The John Coltrane Quartet’. 

Miles Davis founded his band in 1955 when he was issued a new record contract with ‘Prestige’.  Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane was on his front line, complemented by Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and ‘Philly' Joe Jones on drums.  The band recorded a series of albums with a one word theme in the title, such as Steamin’, Cookin’, Relaxin’, and Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet.  Most of the jazz world was introduced to John Coltrane on tenor saxophone when the first Miles Davis Quintet started making these recordings.  This (at the time) Philadelphia-based tenor saxophone player was a controversial pick for Miles Davis, especially considering he could have easily chosen more mainstream horn players like Sonny Rollins or Hank Mobley.  Yet Coltrane’s garrulous ‘sheets of sound’ improvisational style blended perfectly with the Miles Davis economy our whole jazz world had grown to love.  Miles must have been humbled by playing alongside Charlie Parker, whose mind-blowing rapacious solos must have turned the trumpeter in the direct opposite direction: making for a quieter, slower, and softer concept of modern jazz music.  His band would grow to redefine modern jazz for the next two years…until John Coltrane would go off and launch his own solo career by making Blue Train in 1957 for Blue Note Records.  Miles, in his autobiography, took partial credit for the success of Trane’s first album: he claimed to have taught him what it takes to put a killer band together in the pursuit of playing first quality jazz.  A couple of years later, Miles would call on Coltrane one more time, producing possibly the most popular jazz album ever: Kind of Blue for Columbia Records. 

            If the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue was considered the top jazz recording session of all time, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme for Impulse! Records would run a close second.  This album documented the Coltrane Quartet at its prime.  The band consisted of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.  This quartet started playing together in 1961, the year iconoclastic tenor-man Coltrane landed an exclusive recording contract with ‘Impulse!’  The band made a self-titled album which changed the way many people thought about jazz (including my teacher David S. Ware).  The music of the Quartet featured improvisation that served as a transcendental vehicle of departure from reality.  Coltrane went on to record with other label mates such as seminal pianist Duke Ellington and popular vocalist Johnny Hartman over the course of the next two years.  He was touring Europe with musicians like alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy.  There are some unbelievable bootleg recordings of the Coltrane band from this phase in their development.  The year Eric Dolphy died in Germany (shortly after touring the continent with Charles Mingus) the Coltrane Quartet recorded A Love Supreme (December, 1964).  After Transition was recorded the next year, the band was augmented once again, this time with a more free-form approach.  Eventually drummer Rashied Ali would replace Elvin Jones and John’s new wife Alice would replace McCoy Tyner on piano.  Jimmy Garrison would stay with the band until Coltrane’s death in 1967, recording a couple of wonderful sessions during that year including the posthumously-released  Stellar Regions.  It is often believed that the remarkable success of the tenor saxophonist later in his career gave him the artistic freedom to make more compositionally original and spiritually honest albums. 

            No jazz listener should be without albums in their collection from the ‘Miles Davis Quintet’ and ‘John Coltrane Quartet’.  The true aficionado would own both Davis' Kind of Blue and Coltrane's A Love Supreme.