An incendiary final tour for Miles and Coltrane, and the sparks fly
John Coltrane was unhappy. It was spring 1960, and he was in the last place he wanted to be: on a three-week tour of Europe with Miles Davis. Coltrane had had enough — personally and professionally — of being Davis’s sideman. He was itching to solidify his own band and build his own repertoire. He’d even singled out his replacement, telling Davis he should hire a young kid named Wayne Shorter.
But Miles insisted. No one else knew the songs, he told Coltrane, adding that the saxophonist could quit when the tour ended. Maybe the exposure would help raise Coltrane’s profile in Europe when he returned with his own group.
So he’d gone, along with Davis’s masterly rhythm section — pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. But he was determined to do the gigs on his own terms.
That became abundantly clear at the quintet’s first stop, in Paris on March 21. As Davis ended his painterly solo on Cole Porter’s “All of You,” Coltrane stepped to the microphone and erupted. Almost from his first statement he seemed determined to test limits — of his instrument’s range, the song’s harmonic material, and the patience of his listeners, who grew audibly restless during this lengthy, raw declaration. Later that evening, during “Bye Bye Blackbird,” Coltrane’s solo — shot through with split tones and obsessive repetitions of tiny motifs — grew so wild that the Paris audience responded with whistles and jeers. Was he angry at his former mentor? Bored with Davis’s songbook? Or just chafing at boundaries? History does not tell us for certain. What is certain is that Coltrane was obeying no one’s muse but his own, and that sparks were flying as a result.
Recordings from this tour have long been available on releases of varying legality and sound quality. Sony Legacy has now given five shows — two each from Paris and Stockholm and one from Copenhagen — its first official release in its ongoing Bootleg Series, which has explored myriad hidden corners of Davis’s career. Not every performance in this 4-CD set is as tempestuous as the Paris highlights, and there’s an abundance of more conventional fireworks. (Check out Kelly’s diamond-like playing on “So What” and Chambers’s bowed solo during “On Green Dolphin Street,” both from Copenhagen.)
Yet throughout these concerts, the tension (both aesthetic and personal) between Miles and Coltrane is so palpable that it begins to function as the ensemble’s sixth member, provoking each man to drive the music more furiously in his own direction. As Ashley Kahn writes in the liner notes, it was as though the quintet was redefining what a band could be, how many opposing trajectories it could accommodate simultaneously. Heard today, Miles’s cryptic concision seems as conventional as Coltrane’s explosive intensity sounds avant-garde. But there is good reason to think that the European audiences hearing these riveting performances almost six decades
ago found the whole thing enthralling and confounding by turns.
Davis, who rarely had a problem calling out musicians who displeased him, was oddly silent about Coltrane’s seeming heresy, something that testifies to his iconic presence in Davis’s career. When the tour was over Miles gave Coltrane a gift of a soprano saxophone, which would unlock manifold new possibilities as he became one of the most important musicians of the 1960s. Davis, meanwhile, struggled to find a replacement for his onetime protégé, and the music suffered as a result. It was not until 1964 that he finally found a saxophonist creative enough to propel Davis back to the innovative heights he’d previously achieved. His name was Wayne Shorter.