[Review] Milt Jackson & John Coltrane: Bags & Trane (1961)

The best vibraharpist and the best tenor sax player of their day join forces for an album that, frankly, isn’t their best.

Kronomyth 11.0: Lost baggage.

When, at last, the grass and I have good, long conversation about the earth and all things on top of and underneath it, neither of us will mention the serendipity of Bags & Trane. That Milt Jackson and John Coltrane left a recording of their encounter leaves us with a pleasant forty-minute diversion, leaves Atlantic with another chance to glut the market with Coltrane albums, but whether it leaves the earth in pursuit of higher things, no.

Bags & Trane is exactly what it says it is: Milt Jackson and John Coltrane playing together in what constitutes a partial merger of their two quartets: Paul Chambers on bass, Connie Kay on drums and Hank Jones joining the occasion on the piano. The group has some chemistry, Chambers and Kay seem to get on well together, Jackson and Coltrane trade solos, and the record ends. As tempting as it is to cast this as a meeting of titans, Coltrane was simply passing through. The decision to release these sessions coincided with a whirlwind year in which Coltrane released three original albums plus three albums of archival material. Of the six, this or Settin’ the Pace would settle to the bottom.

Jackson “wrote” two new songs for the occasion. I put that in quotes because Bags & Trane is just a basic jazz blues frame on which to hang solos from the band. The Late Late Blues is more interesting but, again, it seems to be mostly made up of Jackson riffing on the vibraharp against a familiar blues jazz theme led by Chamber’s bass. A minute or so into both tracks, you know where things are headed as you wait for Jackson and then Coltrane to take turns soloing.

The three covers are more original, ironically. The band does unexpected things with Three Little Words, twisting the melody into an almost unrecognizable shape. Connie Kay gets a neat little solo in here that shows why he functioned so well as a second percussionist in the Modern Jazz Quartet. The Night We Called It A Day is the obligatory ballad, and the album’s prettiest number. Be-Bop is a steeplechase that seems to give Chambers the highest hurdles to clear with its rapid pacing.

The combination of vibraharp and tenor sax in a quintet setting is interesting. When the two principals involved are the greatest vibraharpist and tenor saxophonist of their day, even moreso. But I personally feel the praise heaped on the pair for this particular session is misplaced. There’s not enough interplay between the players and the material is merely okay. Again, just my opinion, and I do think the record works well as background music, though I’m sure there are plenty of MJQ records that have more to offer. Subsequent reissues added one more Jackson/Coltrane collaboration (“Stairway to the Stars”) and two Coltrane recordings to the original album.

Original elpee version

A1. Bags & Trane (Milt Jackson) (7:23)
A2. Three Little Words (Harry Ruby/Bert Kalmar) (7:27)
A3. The Night We Called It A Day (Matt Dennis/Tom Adair) (4:19)
B1. Be-Bop (Dizzy Gillespie) (7:57)
B2. The Late Late Blues (Milt Jackson) (9:35)

Expanded CD version
1. Stairway to the Stars (3:58)
2. The Late Late Blues (9:35)
3. Bags & Trane (7:23)
4. Three Little Words (7:27)
5. The Night We Called It A Day (4:19)
6. Be-Bop (7:57)
7. Blues Legacy (9:00)
8. Centerpiece (7:05)

The Players

John Coltrane (tenor sax), Milt Jackson (vibraharp), Paul Chambers (bass), Hank Jones (piano), Connie Kay (drums). Recording engineered by Tom Dowd; supervised by Nesuhi Ertegun.

The Pictures

Cover by Lee Friedlander.

The Product

Released on stereo elpee in July 1961* in the US (Atlantic, SD 1368) [blue-green label w/ white fan] and on mono elpee in 1961 in the UK (London Atlantic, LTZK.15232). (*First appeared in 7/24/61 issue of Billboard.)

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1966 in the US (Atlantic, SD 1368) [blue-green label w/ black fan].
  2. Re-issued on elpee in the US (Atlantic, SD 1368) [orange-green label].
  3. Re-issued on expanded compact disc in 1988 in the US (Atlantic, 1368-2) with 3 bonus tracks.
  4. Re-issued on expanded compact disc in the US (Atlantic/Jazz Heritage, 5182565) with 3 bonus tracks.
  5. Re-released on 180g vinyl 45 rpm-mastered 2LP in 2013 in Germany (Atlantic).
  6. Re-packaged with Giant Steps, Coltrane Jazz and My Favorite Things on 4-for-1 2CD in 2014 in the UK (Avid Jazz).

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