Bags and Trane (1961): Creative Dissonance

John Coltrane and Milt Jackson

First and foremost, my most favourite picture with Jazz musicians and composers I absolutely love and adore- ‘A Great Day in Harlem’. Who are they?

A Great Day in Harlem (http://www.seewah.com/a-great-day-in-harlem/)

Before venturing into this album review, have a listen here:

Bags and Trane 1961 (1988 reissue)

Song list:

1. Stairway to the Stars
2 . The Late Late Blues 
3. Bags & Trane 
4. Three Little Words 
5. The Night We Called It A Day 
6. Be-Bop 
7. Blues Legacy 
8. Centerpiece


This spectacular album with the John Coltrane and Milt Jackson duo showcases them at their best, channelling their electricity and experimentation to produce a revolutionary sound that will most definitely fascinate you. Jackson, the most prominent vibraphonist who equals skill to sensitivity and Coltrane, the revolutionary tenor saxophonist challenging our idea of jazz and of the importance of feeling the music in whatever context, have a conversation in their album both lyrical and rich in emotion and invite the listener to accompany them through the different performances they have in store.

Coltrane’s deep, rousing sound, a surprising complement to Jackson’s light and stylish method of improvisation makes this album a compelling one for its diversity and sophistication. Featuring two of Jackson’s original compositions (The Late Late Blues and Blues Legacy) as well as three classic jazz standards and accompanied by the talented Hank Jones on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Connie Kay on drums, Coltrane and Jackson’s ‘Bags and Trane’ is an album meant for all occasions and serves to express a myriad of emotions, not only through the material played but also through the strong individual character that is represented through their instruments. Furthermore, the tracks also contain solos from the piano and bass, adding a certain depth and wholesomeness to the pieces that make it sound united and complete.

The title track ‘Bags and Trane’ is especially striking for its use of minor chords as well as the haunting melody, echoed by call and response between the tenor saxophone and Jackson’s vibraphone. Coltrane’s provocative sound is beautifully contrasted by Jackson’s playful and mellow improvisation, establishing a balance within the piece and the creative dissonance that sparks from it.

Coltrane’s calibre continues to show itself through several iconic yet versatile solos, giving listeners a rare chance to look into his mind and understand the decisions behind the notes he chooses to plays. More importantly, it also gives listeners the ability to experience the emotions he conveys very skilfully with his improvisations or through the melody. His ability to switch techniques, as though switching faces, from earlier playing a tense and urgent series of riffs in the ‘Bags and Trane’ solo to the laidback, nonchalant attitude reflected in the ‘Blues Legacy’ melody, and then once again returning to his iconic and experimental style of improvisation later in the track, shows his ability to use restraint and control of not simply skill but also emotion and thought. His clever use of stoptime is crucial in his ability to control his sound and dynamics, really giving Jackson a chance to shine in his own[1] original composition. Coltrane’s versatility is further reflected in the first track to the album, ‘Stairway to Stars’ as he casts aside his usual improvisation for a more romantic and extremely lyrical performance.

On the other hand, if not in tonal quality, Jackson’s part is almost provocative and rebellious in spirit. Milt Jackson uses this album as his opportunity to showcase his talent for jazz compositions as well as the prominence that a non-standard jazz instrument- the vibraphone, can have in a jazz quintet, and how remarkably well it can fit in. However, Jackson doesn’t just ‘fit in’, he stands out. The airy and childish sound given off by the vibraphone serves to refine the quintet’s texture, giving it more clarity and sophistication. His liking for call and response as well as the notorious minor chords and notes can be easily heard and more importantly, remembered, in several of these tracks including one of his own (Blues Legacy). Furthermore, Jackson marvellously manages to show restraint with his ability to not only control how ‘playful’ of a sound he generates but also how playful he is with the dynamics of the vibraphone. This is clearly evident towards the end of ‘The Late Late Blues’, which is also remarkable for his clever syncopation of notes giving them a certain bounce contributing to the airy feel of the instruments.

The final three jazz standards in the album are a moment where the duo invite the listeners to join in for the experience. It is a more accessible segment to their album and covers a variety of different moods from the subtle ‘Three Little Words’ to the energetic ‘Be-bop’ by Gillespie. Influence is everything to the player and the listener, and the selection of tracks in this album is nothing short of an appreciation of the past in the representation of jazz standards but also of the self through the stunning confidence with which Jackson and Coltrane, the two leading men of the quintet, take everyone listening on an adventure.

Overall, the Coltrane and Jackson duo bring the electricity to current day jazz music through their collectiveness, the energy brought by every individual member of the quintet and more importantly the powerful character they bring to it as well. It is an interesting and enjoyable experience, a wonderful chance for the listener to experience jazz in the minds of Coltrane and Jackson, never once finding themselves bored nor weary.

[1] Blues Legacy is one of Jackson’s original compositions.