One of the greatest tour stories of jazz takes place not in its birthplace but in Europe, where John Coltrane reluctantly joined Miles Davis for a nine-date “Jazz At The Philharmonic European Tour” in 1960. It’s not down to any shenanigans offstage, but the pure musical fire that erupted onstage. This is the sound of two geniuses pulling apart and heading in different directions. They may have returned to the States at the same terminus, but Coltrane and Davis landed on different planets afterwards.
You can hear that in the above video. Kind of Blue had been released the year before--imagine a time where that was the case!--and here the Davis quintet dive in to “So What” with a fury not heard on the record.
The concerts have been endlessly bootlegged, and rightly so. They are stunning. Several were recorded for radio broadcast, others went into the hands of collectors. Not all of the nine dates are complete, but there’s plenty of magic in those sets to satisfy the curious.
But the final meeting of Coltrane and Davis nearly didn’t happen. Months after the release of Kind of Blue, Coltrane had recorded Giant Steps and was pretty much ready to go his own way. But Davis pleaded with Coltrane--he knew the material really well, of course, having played it all that year--who eventually, reluctantly gave in. (Coltrane did suggest Wayne Shorter take his place, and Davis later brought the young sax man into the group).
Along with Davis and Coltrane, the European tour quintet featured pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. And according to Cobb, it was obvious Coltrane’s mind was elsewhere on the trip.
“He sat next to me on the bus, looking like he was ready to split at any time. He spent most of the time looking out the window and playing Oriental-sounding scales on soprano.”
But when he was onstage, that tension resulted in the kind of mind-melting solos that made these recordings so essential. The “sheets of sound” that one critic used to describe Coltrane’s style is all here, as are moments where Coltrane just seems to be obsessed with two or three notes, toying with them, trying to uncover their essence. (Some in the audience thought it was too indulgent--you can hear them whistling in disapproval on some of the numbers.) In some of these recordings you also hear Davis becoming the sideman in his own band as Coltrane takes off into the stratosphere. By the way, you can stream the full album on Spotify.
It’s not animosity, just the sound of two artists going their own way, and that’s rarely something that gets recorded. Fortunately, the best of five dates--two in Paris, two in Stockholm, one in Copenhagen--are now officially released, 50-some odd years later for the rest of us to enjoy.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.