John Coltrane and the Debate Over His Best

25 Apr

Every time I make the mistake of suggesting that one of John Coltrane’s albums is his best, no matter which album I choose, I am usually informed that I am crazy and I have no idea what I’m talking about. In fact, I don’t think that I’ve heard more debate over a particular artist or group and what their best album might be than Coltrane (with the exception perhaps being The Beatles).

If I suggest the best is Blue Train, I am told “no way, it is A Love Supreme“. If I spend the next two weeks listen to and analyzing A Love Supreme, and then concede that A Love Supreme is in fact the best, someone else tells me that the best is John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. You get the idea.

So which one is it? Rather than me offering my personal opinion on which album is Coltrane’s best, I will offer up a handful of albums by Coltrane, and ask you to decide with your responses and a poll. Which one do you think is Coltrane’s best?

Giant Steps

giant-steps1Highlighted by the title track and Naima, we get to hear Coltrane tear through this album with legendary improvisation. It is clear on this album the influence that working on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue had on him.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

hartmanOne of two albums that Coltrane released following heavy early ’60’s criticism that Coltrane had gone off the jazz deep end. If there were still doubters that felt Coltrane couldn’t play music slowly and sweetly, this release should have done away with those doubts. Hartman’s voice is a wonderful pairing with Coltrane’s sax.

A Love Supreme

love-supremeThis album remains one of the best selling jazz albums of all time. It also remains Coltrane’s definitive spiritual release. It boasts one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time (McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones) playing at their finest.


balladsThis was Coltrane’s first response to critics who said he couldn’t play, or had abandonded the slow, sweet stuff. Not only did he prove that he could, but he rose to be considered one of the best player of ballads in jazz history.

Blue Train

blue-trainWhile I might have said that  I wasn’t going to offer my opinion, I must say that Blue Train over the course of time has regularly risen to the top of my list. Maybe not as flashy as some of his other albums, but this one really connects with me, and as far as I am concerned, is the best Blue Note release ever (read up on my Top 10 Blue Note recordings here).

My Favorite Things

favorite-thingsMy Favorite Things strikes me as Giant Steps on steroids…and with a soprano sax. The songs and solos are longer and more complex, offering a wonderful intensity.

Let us know which album you think is best with your comments, and take our poll below.

17 Responses to “John Coltrane and the Debate Over His Best”

  1. Peter April 25, 2009 at 12:43 pm #

    It’s hard to pick a favorite. It’s more a mood thing for me that dictates which I’m into at any point.

    Hard to have a list though without Afro Blue Impressions.

    Thanks for all the good music.


  2. Andrew April 25, 2009 at 8:43 pm #

    This one is kinda easy. I can tell by the number of people who picked A Love Supreme. This album is just a total statement from beginning to end…absolutely magical. It’s not really a blowing session like Blue Train(which I totally love, by the way), and it’s not an exercise on patterns like Giant Steps. It’s just beautiful, spiritual music.

  3. Lauren April 27, 2009 at 1:21 pm #

    Giant Steps is a classic that was very influential, but I can’t help but love A Love Supreme. It just feels more heartfelt than Giant Steps.

  4. caff April 27, 2009 at 5:44 pm #

    “Alice Coltrane has said that on one day in the late summer of 1964 he came downstairs in his new house ‘like Moses coming down from the mountain,’ holding the complete outline for a new suite. No other Coltrane music would be so formally prepared.”
    -Ben Ratliff, “Coltrane”

    There are always favorites, but A Love Supreme is really Trane’s magnum opus.

  5. Oscar April 27, 2009 at 8:50 pm #

    Dear Kevin,

    John Coltrane is the first jazz musician I heard in my life. I was in an southamerican country and a friend of mine had just come back from New York City. He asked me to listen to an LP he’d picked up there: “Blue Train” of course. It was some introduction to jazz music for me: the most spectacular sound I had heard for some time. It just embodied itself and set roots in my brain.

    I have of course, great affinity for all music, but with due respect to “A Love Supreme”, for me, “Blue Train” does it. Over time, it has refused to fade away from me. I suppose it never will. And if it tries to one day, I am quite sure the musical part of my brain will bounce back instantly reminding me it is still there. Quite fascinating really. It’s like some sort of “automatic self therapy”. I always go back to it. So, yes, I gladly agree with you that it tops my list as well.

    Best regards,


  6. caff April 30, 2009 at 10:08 pm #

    oscar: I thought you said “aromatic self-therapy”. Like smelling your own farts.

  7. diembe May 1, 2009 at 5:04 pm #

    a fool’s errand indeed to say which is best–i like the comparison with the beatles (equally tough call to make), and i definitely appreciate swapping the notion of “best” with one of “(personal) favorite.”

    that said, it’s *still* not easy.

    i think for sentimental purposes, as it served as my introduction to coltrane, i lean toward blue trane.

    for lack of a better descriptor, i find the duet album with johnny hartman to be the most beautiful.

    and i find a love supreme the most poignant–a deeply personal spiritiual quest undertaken through his horn, and hinting at what may have transpired had he not left us so soon.

  8. Luigi July 24, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    Ascension should be included. This album shows fans attention span.

  9. Paul Rauch December 16, 2009 at 4:08 pm #

    Coltrane told his wife Alice before the Love Supreme sessions that it was the first session that he knew exactly what they were going to play beforehand. It was visionary, his gift to God. The influences were seen in jazz certainly, but also in the jamm formats that inhabited rock in the years later, such as the Grateful Dead’s experimentation in modal improvisation. I love all of his work, but A Love Supreme was, and is, truly a gift.

  10. Juank December 31, 2009 at 11:57 am #

    Its hard to pick one, they are all diferent so, everyone must have a favorite one. My personal favorite is not on the list. Its Soultrane. From the list i think maeby Giant steps is the best

  11. Christo May 7, 2010 at 10:45 pm #

    The question is not “what is your favourite” album, but what was his best. For me his best was Ascension. My favourites? Between the popular choices: My favourite things and A love supreme.

  12. Brown May 19, 2010 at 3:55 pm #

    How has your life been different than what youd imagined?

  13. Oscar October 2, 2010 at 4:36 am #

    His best: A Love Supreme.

    Peek perfomance: Live in Seattle (though that’s Pharoah Sanders too) and Live in Japan (the solo on MFT could very well be the best of his career. Check them out!

  14. Christian Hargrove October 11, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    “My Favorite Things” is the best of the 7 choices for “Summertime” alone. Play that loudly and tell me it isn’t Coltrane’s best outside of the 1961 Village Vanguard material, which to me is the greatest Coltrane recording.

  15. Jeff Keith January 28, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    I voted in the ‘other’ category for “Liver in Seattle”…Now, I’m aware that is a controversial choice, but, oh man, the colors, textures and amazing group interplay…When I first heard the album back in the early 1970s (I was in high school) I thought, “No way! That is just chaos! There is no ‘music’ there! These guys are just faking playing the saxophone!” But as I’ve grown familiar with it over the years, and have the more complete cd set, I’ve grown to love it! It is truly an amazing album!

  16. Jim August 22, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    I would add “Crescent” to this list! It’s outstanding.


  1. Call and Response – My Thoughts on Your Thoughts Volume 1 « Groove Notes - June 20, 2009

    […] a similar note, my April 25th post “The Debate Over Coltrane’s Best” ask readers to vote on what they think John Coltrane’s best album was in a poll, and […]

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