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John Coltrane Back at the Top of the Jazz Charts
Published October 28, 2006

Nearly 40 years after his death, the legendary saxist has two of the three best-selling jazz albums in the country.

In a surprising development, saxophone trailblazer John Coltrane accounted for two of the top three jazz albums last week, 38 years after his death.

The two-disc Impulse! set "One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note" entered at No. 3 on Billboard's top jazz albums chart for the week ended October 16. Sitting at No. 2 was Blue Note's recently released album by the Thelonious Monk Quartet with Coltrane, "At Carnegie Hall."

The Half Note album bowed with sales of 3,500 units (and went on to sell 2,400 in its second week), while the Carnegie Hall package has moved 44,000 to date. The latter title recently racked up an amazing 11-day run at No. 1 on Amazon.com's album best-seller list.

Both collections were hitherto unreleased officially. The Impulse! package -- a steaming 1965 live set at New York's Half Note club with his classic '60s quartet of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones -- was much bootlegged among Trane aficionados; in the early '90s, Coltrane's son Ravi unearthed a pristine tape made for the musician by DJ Alan Grant. That tape is the source material for the present CD release.

The Monk/Coltrane Carnegie Hall album -- one of the few documents of the brief collaboration between two jazz titans -- had never been heard before. A Voice of America tape of the long-lost 1957 concert was found in the Library of Congress' holdings by researcher Larry Appelbaum.

High-quality unreleased material by Coltrane, who died of liver cancer in July 1967, has trickled out over the years. The lone live recording of his masterpiece "A Love Supreme" finally was issued officially by Impulse! in 2002. In July, Columbia/Legacy released a previously unheard 1956 concert by the Miles Davis quintet with Coltrane as part of a two-CD edition of Miles' Columbia debut "'Round About Midnight."

But the near-simultaneous release of the Half Note and Carnegie Hall sets made for a Coltrane event. "(The music) was not just ghettoized in jazz magazines," says Tom Evered, senior vp/general manager of EMI Jazz & Classics, Blue Note's parent division.

Says Ken Druker, vp catalog development at Impulse! "The (press coverage) involved in finding the Carnegie Hall tape drove it a little bit. Other than that, I think it is the legend. The (Coltrane) name seems to have magic to it. . . . Aside from the magic of the name, there's the magic of the playing."

However, considering that the fare at the top of the current jazz chart is conservative material -- mainly by vocalists including Michael Buble, Madeleine Peyroux, Paul Anka, Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr. -- the immediate success of Coltrane's uncompromising music is somewhat unexpected. The Half Note performance, which finds Trane wailing in full-bore, free-blowing fashion, might be especially challenging for some.

But album annotator Ashley Kahn, author of a book on "A Love Supreme" and a forthcoming history of the Impulse! label called "The House That Trane Built," maintains that listeners have caught up with Trane: "It's a very universal, accessible sound, even though he's one of those guys who was very intense and devoted to experimental, avant-garde sound."

The current spate of interest in Coltrane could go on, for the musician's family has uncovered even more unheard material. Kahn says: "There's a whole bunch of tapes that even the record label didn't know about. There is going to be a lot more stuff."