Acoustic Sounds

John Coltrane with Eric Dolphy

Evenings at the Village Gate



Evenings at the Village Gate John Coltrane with Eric Dolphy

Label: Impulse!

Produced By: Ken Druker

Engineered By: Richard Alderson

Mixed By: N.C.

Mastered By: Kevin Reeves

By: Fred Kaplan

August 14th, 2023



Coltrane & Dolphy's First Outing

The much-ballyhooed newly discovered '61 sets at the Village Gate

Every few years, it seems, someone discovers another stack of long-lost tapes from a long-forgotten John Coltrane session and puts them out on CD, LP, or both. The resulting albums garner lavish praise and sell very well, but, really, they’re deep disappointments, textbook cases of hype—the allure of the new, the unknown, the never-before-heard-until-now!

 The first of the recent excavations, in 2018, was Both Directions at Once, a 1963 date at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. (Its distributor, UM, heralded it in ads as “The Lost Album!”) Then came A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, a ’65 concert twice as long as the classic album with Pharoah Sanders joining Trane’s quartet. Now there’s Evenings at the Village Gate, live sessions from ’61 in the storied New York club of yore, with Trane frontling the line alongside Eric Dolphy.

 This latest is the only truly notable discovery, the best of the bunch musically, but the bar is low, the extent of puffery dismaying.

 A quick look back. Both Directions, retrieved from the Coltrane family archive, was billed as a complete album that Trane’s label at the time (Impulse!) strangely never released. In fact, though, there’s no mystery here. It’s a lackluster session. Trane was having dental problems at the same time, and his embouchure is wavering. The bandmates sound tired, and they probably were: the session came in between club dates and other recording sessions. (His collaboration with Johnny Hartman—slow ballads, perhaps to ease the pressure on his teeth—took place the next day.) It consists mainly of standards, and there are better versions of each one on other albums, released either before or after. The sound quality is quite good. No surprise there.

 A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle is a wreck. It goes on too long, Sanders gets lost, the sound is terrible, really unlistenable. This one wound up on a lot of Best Reissue of the Year lists; some critics said the sound quality was good. Track down these critics; don’t listen to them on sonic matters ever again.

 Evenings at the Village Gate is another matter. Lost, found, lost again, then found at the New York Public Library, it is at least an album of historical import—the first known recording of the Trane-Dolphy collaboration, against an early backdrop of what came to be called Coltrane’s “classic quartet” (pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Reggie Workman, who was soon replaced by Jimmy Garrison).

 Coltrane had recently left Miles Davis’ band and was exploring new directions from infinite angles of staggering complexity and supersonic speed. (He was already beginning to do this on his last European tour with Miles, as captured on the 4-CD The Last Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6.) Dolphy had been probing similar paths on such albums as Outward Bound, Out There, and At the Five Spot, the last of which was recorded just a month before the Village Gate sets.

There are thrills aplenty on this 70-minute album, stretched out on 2-LP (or compressed onto a single CD). A few years earlier, the critic Ira Gitler had described Coltrane’s new style as “sheets of sound.” Here he’s pouring down blizzards of sound, explosions of pure energy. But the album starts with Dolphy, on flute, blazing through the choruses of “My Favorite Things”—gorgeously melodic and riotously discordant at once. (How? Beats me.) Back and forth the two leaders go, tearing up the subsequent four tracks (“When Lights Are Low,” “Impressions,” “Greenleaves,” and “Africa”), Trane on tenor or soprano sax, Dolphy switching from alto sax to flute to bass clarinet.

This must have been exciting or bewildering or both to the audiences at the Village Gate, who had doubtless come expecting to hear the standards-leaning Trane of Lush Life, Coltrane Jazz, and the somewhat gentler cover of “My Favorite Things” that was a huge jukebox hit. The music he and Dolphy were playing was bristling, radical stuff, way outside the orbit traced by even the day’s most dissonant harmonies.

All these decades later, it’s still bristling and radical, but it’s also at times a mess. Coltrane and Dolphy both told interviewers at the time that they were still experimenting, didn’t always know where they were going; Coltrane said he wanted to try everything, and some tries, he acknowledged, wouldn’t go so well. “Africa” is particularly sloppy, the two horns overlapping, the bass players (it’s the one track with two bassists, Workman and Art Davis) given a long solo and not knowing what to do with the time at all.

Three months later, in November ’61, a few blocks northwest, the same quintet played at the (very much still functional) Village Vanguard. To our great fortune, these sets were also recorded—and released, both at the time (as Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions) and, 36 years later, as a much-expanded, 4-CD Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings). By the time of the Vanguard sets, Trane and Dolphy had worked out their pacings—the music was no less thrilling, but it was more fully structured—and the bandmates had learned how to keep up while stepping out on their own now and then.

More than that, the Vanguard sessions were recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, so the sound is stellar. (The reissues, including some excellent vinyl pressings by Acoustic Sounds, are mastered from 2nd-generation tapes, as the originals were lost, but they still sound very good. The 4-CD edition sounds good, not great; I wish someone would reissue it on vinyl. Are you listening, Chad Kassem?)

Here is where the newly found Village Gate sessions really fall apart. Not only by comparison but on its own terms, the sound is dreadful. According to the liner notes, the house engineer strapped a single RCA microphone to the ceiling, ran a cable to a Nagra III reel-to-reel recorder in the basement, and turned on the switch. (The set-up was part of a test; the results were never intended to be released.) The mic must have been placed right over Elvin Jones’ head, because the drumkit sounds pretty clear. If you want an album that shows off Elvin Jones’ brilliance with staggered dynamics and polyrhythms, this one is more useful than most. But the horns sound like they’re in the next room; the piano sounds like it’s in the next apartment building; and the bass can barely be heard at all. (The jazz critic Nate Chinen reported, just before the album’s release that Workman, the session’s bassist and sole survivor, complained about this when he was given a listen. The producers promised they’d fiddle with the knobs to boost the bass. Sorry, Mr. Workman. They didn’t. There’s only so much you can do with inaudible scratches on a one-track tape.)

There are live jazz recordings worth having, despite their poor-to-wretched sound. For instance, there’s Charlie Parker’s 1950 Bird at St. Nicks, because it shows him flirting with Ornette Coleman-style free jazz nearly a decade before Ornette Coleman. There’s Sonny Rollins’ 1967 In Holland, because it’s from a year when he’s otherwise undocumented and has him playing with the great Dutch drummer Hans Bennink, who pushes him back toward avant-garde leanings that he was thought to have abandoned.

But Evenings at the Village Gate is superseded, for its music and especially for its sound, by Live at the Village Vanguard. Coltrane is always worth a listen. Compleatists will want both. But most jazz fans, even the fairly intrepid ones, needn’t open the gate; stick with the Vanguard.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: B0037785-01


Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 140 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Mono

Presentation: Multi LP


  • 2023-08-14 10:50:09 PM

    Jonti Davies wrote:

    Thanks for the caveats, Frank, and the detailed context you provide. I must say, I enjoyed--and was quite impressed with the sound of--last year's Mingus opus The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott's, but these projects are inevitably hit and miss.

  • 2023-08-16 09:46:49 PM

    HiFiMark wrote:

    As I mentioned on another website, which shall not be named, I am baffled by the very low score on sound. Yes, it's far from the standards we jazz fans and audiophiles desire, but I would give it much above a 3. I can't get enough of Dolphy, and love Coltrane almost as much. In the end, I find this record very enjoyable and simply imagine myself at a table in the club too close to the great EJ on drums while getting insufficient sound from the front line, nevertheless soaking in the work of these great artists as they explore and work out their new directions. Perhaps my VPI / EMT / Shindo / Falcon system is on the euphonic side and makes this record sound more inviting than it really is? Oh well, shrug. I am so glad I purchased this before reading reviews that might have otherwise pivoted me away...

  • 2023-08-17 10:08:27 AM

    Joe Taylor wrote:

    I'm so pleased to read your comments about the previous recent releases from Coletrane's archives. I bought the Seattle Live release and really wanted to like it. I even told a friend I liked it. But I really found it wearing after a couple of listens, as opposed to some Coletrane recordings that, difficult as they were, became more accessible to me. I think some of the archive releases by many musicians are perhaps best left in the vaults. I look forward to hearing this new one.

    • 2023-08-17 10:11:18 AM

      Joe Taylor wrote:

      Damned if I didn't misspell Coltrane.

      • 2023-08-18 07:13:17 AM

        Anthony J Russo wrote:

        Joe check out Coltrane Live at Temple also .