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David and Art - A Gift from My Daughter

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Travelling back to 1961 for a perfect Christmas gift.

This Christmas, my daughter gave me an iTunes gift card and I was thrilled to get it. I knew exactly what I wanted to use it for. I used it to buy a big recording—a “boxed set” as they used to be called, four CD’s in all—of saxophone player John Coltrane and his combo made over a four day engagement at a jazz club called the Village Vanguard.

It was recorded on November 1, 2, 3, and 5 in 1961. To listen to it, it sounds just as it would have if you were sitting at one of the little tables there 61 years ago. The sound engineer just set his recording gear up on a table near the stage. You can hear people clapping and occasionally a voice or two. It’s simply called Coltrane: The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings.

The Village Vanguard is a basement bar that opened on Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1935. The space had originally been a speakeasy back in the 1920s called The Golden Triangle, named in part because of the shape of the block it was on but also because the room was, and remains, an isosceles triangle in shape. When it opened as the Vanguard, it was intended to be a venue for poetry and folk music. Jazz first began to be associated with it because of an open mic jazz jam hosted there on Sunday afternoons. By the mid-50s jazz had come to dominate most of the bookings at the club and artists and students from the area made it one of their favorite spots.

There’s a slightly shifting lineup among the tunes on the recording, but it’s built basically around Coltrane’s group he had at the time: a quintet made up of him, fellow sax player Eric Dolphy, pianist McCoy Tyner, bass player Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. Coltrane himself plays either a soprano sax or a tenor sax. Eric Dolphy plays either an alto sax or a bass clarinet. A couple of other instruments are present on a couple of the tunes.

Basically, it’s just what they played in their sets at these gigs over four nights. There’s about 7 songs per night. On the four albums there’s a total of only 9 different songs, so most are repeated at least once. A couple of tunes are there four times which means they played them each night.

You may look at this recording and say why do you need four recordings of the song “India?” Why three of “Impressions?” Why four recordings of a tune called “Spiritual?” The recordings of “Spiritual” range in duration from 12 minutes and 50 seconds to 20 minutes and 41 seconds. What’s up with that?

Those are good questions. Let’s tackle them next week.