Soul Trane

Music - Richard Cook follows the ecstatic, troubled journey of John Coltrane's career

John Coltrane had very little time. He left a huge body of recorded work, but it was almost entirely telescoped into a 12-year span. His saxophone solos could seem to last for hours: when he practised alone, they did. Nobody had ever improvised at such biblical length before in jazz, and it helped to break open the vernacular for much of what has happened in the music since. Yet, in other ways, Coltrane was a peculiarly conservative player. He never truly got to grips with the free jazz of the players who followed him, such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and his epic straining and writhing on the horn could suggest a man trying to break loose from bonds that refused to release him.

His records have been continuously repackaged since his death in 1967, and new editions of two of his early Atlantics and some of his final Impulse! albums have arrived simultaneously. Coltrane's sound on the saxophone has a sort of embattled majesty about it. He never sounds much like a bebopper - his apprenticeship was actually in rhythm-and-blues bands, where he had to play honking solos for dancing - and he never cracks any kind of musical joke. There's nothing of Sonny Rollins's irony or Coleman's impish wit. Coltrane plays everything darkly. Even when there's a pop tune to hand - he was the one who introduced "My Favourite Things" and "Chim-Chim-Cheree" into jazz - he plays it with a sober sense of purpose. He wrote one of the loveliest melodies in the music in "Naima", dedicated to his first wife, but his versions of it have a cool serenity about them, rather than any kind of tenderness.

His Atlantic records are pivotal to his art, coming after his period with Miles Davis in the Fifties. Fascinated by harmony, Coltrane tried to think in groups of notes, the famous "sheets of sound", but, by 1960, he was mollifying that approach and looking at more abstract matters. The results were uplifting and astonishing. I think Coltrane Jazz is the record I've returned to more often than any of his others, with its standards, blues and originals all handled with a peerless blend of grace and intensity. The slightly later The Avant Garde, with some of Coleman's sidemen, wasn't originally released until 1966, which may reflect Coltrane's uncertainty when he entered these uncharted waters. Adrift from any harmonic base, he still sounds imperious, but unbalanced by the open surroundings.

The Impulse! albums are a remarkable sequence, but they do underline why jazz lost so much of its popular audience in the Sixties. Ascension, a 40-minute squall for 11 players, must have stunned those who had followed the early Coltrane. New Thing at Newport matched Coltrane's group with that of Archie Shepp, a saxophonist who was like a spiritual successor to the great man, but a corrosive and bitter version. Kulu Se Mama is a percolating mixture of jazz and a sort of prototype world music, with the dense layers of percussion clattering around the horns. Coltrane didn't progress so much as go questing after something that he struggled to articulate. In the process, he distanced himself from his past, and a mystique grew up around him. Max Gordon, the owner of the Village Vanguard, where Trane set down some of his finest work, said: "I loved Coltrane's music, but I never said three words to him."

In the final album of this sequence, Interstellar Space, the music came down to a series of duets between Coltrane and his drummer, Rashied Ali. The instruments clash and the sound moves in great stately waves. Within ten years, Coltrane's sojourn had taken him from clubland bebop to the spaces between the planets. His death a few months later left the quest unfinished: but where else was there to go? Ever since, everyone who followed Coltrane has pondered over where he might have taken his music after this, but it's a question that needs no answer. The journey - ecstatic and troubled in perhaps equal measure - was everything.

Coltrane Jazz and The Avant Garde are on Atlantic Jazz. Kulu Se Mama, Ascension, New Thing at Newport and Interstellar Space are on Impulse!