John Coltrane plays "Naima"
One of the first things I did when I began using I-Tunes ten years ago was create a playlist of ballads recorded by John Coltrane, and it remains one that I turn to often. Coltrane’s music offers one of the most complete realizations in sound of an artist striving to find balance between serenity and disquietude, and his ballads often reflect this search most fully.
In tonight’s Jazz a la Mode, we’ll feature Coltrane playing ballads, including “Soultrane,” an early breakthrough which Tadd Dameron composed for his 1956 session with the saxophonist, Mating Call; Coltrane’s beautiful upper register playing on “Soultrane” made it both a model for his subsequent ballad playing and a tonal portrait of its eponymous subject.
Coltrane’s mature ballad style began to emerge with his 1957 recordings of “Ruby, My Dear” with Thelonious Monk; "I'm Old Fashioned," the only non-original that he played on his great Blue Note release, Blue Train; and "Lush Life," the first of two classic performances he made of Billy Strayhorn's ballad. On the following year's Soultrane, he played "Theme for Ernie," and “I Want to Talk About You," the latter a Billy Eckstine song that remained in Coltrane's repertoire. In 1959, Trane recorded two landmark jazz originals, “Naima,” on Giant Steps, and “Blue in Green” with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. Ben Ratliff writes that Kind of Blue "collects [Coltrane's] energies into narrative instead of spraying speed and technique and influences," but that's a process that his ballad playing fostered and reflected in the preceding three years.
“Naima” was named for Trane’s first wife, Juanita Naima Grubbs. He called it his favorite in various interviews, and when he visited the home of the Norwegian pianist Randi Hulton in 1963, she asked him to sign her guestbook by writing “a few bars of your favorite composition.” He obliged with "Naima.”
Coltrane described the tune to Nat Hentoff as one “built on suspended chords over an E-flat pedal tone on the outside. On the inside, the channel, the chords are suspended over a B-flat pedal tone.” In noting the song’s powerful emotional impact, Hentoff says, “It represents a man’s being in thorough contact with his feelings, and being able to let them out.”
“Naima” was recorded by Trane with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb in 1959. An earlier take featured pianist Cedar Walton, who later recorded his own medium tempo arrangement of it with George Coleman in 1975 on their celebrated recording, Eastern Rebellion. Walton’s arrangement was also used by the sextet One For All, featuring tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, on their 2003 Criss Cross Jazz release, Blueslike. We'll hear that tonight, too.
Here’s the John Coltrane Quartet playing “Naima” in 1965. The clip’s a bit grainy, but it's complete and offers close-up shots of this historic ensemble with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones.