John Coltrane’s “Sun Ship: The Complete Session” Review
In 1971, four years after jazz saxophonist John Coltrane passed away, his wife Alice assembled some songs he’d recorded in 1965 for the posthumous album Sun Ship. But rather than just released them as they had originally been recorded, Alice Coltrane had a couple of the tracks edited, and even combined two different versions of a song into a single tune. Now, more than thirty years later, and six years after Alice’s passing, the uncut versions of those original sessions are finally being released as Sun Ship The Complete Session (CD, vinyl), a double disc set that includes every note Coltrane and his band recorded that day.
Recorded on August 26, 1965…
by John Coltrane’s classic quartet — bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones, and pianist McCoy Tyner — the tunes on this album are very much in the spirit of that group’s later years, when they started to experiment with structure and melody. Instead, these songs are still rooted in more traditional jazz playing, but will veer into more free territories as the improvisations continue
As a result, the music on Sun Ship The Complete Session isn’t nearly as out-there as such later John Coltrane albums as Live In Japan, but it’s still not anyone who thinks free jazz is just noise. But for those who are, well, centrist when it comes to free jazz, this is a solid album, even if it isn’t the strongest these four ever recorded. It doesn’t, for instance, have the coherence of First Meditations, which was recorded the following month but also shelved and only released posthumously.
It also doesn’t help that, as is, Sun Ship The Complete Session doesn’t work. The album includes everything the foursome recorded that day, which includes every incomplete take, breakdown, and false start. There are, for instance, six different versions of the song “Ascent,” even though only one is complete and the rest are mere fragments. Because of this, nearly half of the twenty tracks are things you won’t want to listen to more than once, and even then only for the sake of curiosity.
It doesn’t help that the tracks on Sun Ship The Complete Session are grouped by song; those six versions of “Ascent” are all in a row on the second disc, followed by two takes of “Amen.”
But as they say, that’s why God created CD burners and iTunes playlists. Once you go through and weed out the good stuff, what you’ll be left with is quite impressive. The complete versions of the songs “Dearly Beloved,” “Attaining,” “Ascent,” and the title track are even more vibrant than their released versions — the song “Amen” made it on to the original Sun Ship unscathed — while the complete but alternate takes of “Dearly Beloved,” “Attaining,” “Amen,” and “Sun Ship” are nearly as engaging and just as listenable (which is why, old man that I am, I burned my own double disc set, with the complete versions on one CD and the alternate takes on the other).
Sun Ship: The Complete Session is an important artifact for fans of John Coltrane’s classic quartet. But, more importantly, it’s nine great songs from the jazz master and his greatest band that we didn’t have before.