John Coltrane‘s Sun Ship is an album that’s tended to fall through the cracks. Recorded in 1965, it was one of the final sessions with the so-called “Classic Quartet” with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, but it remained unreleased until 1971. Nevertheless, it’s one of his most powerful albums, and very much worthy of re-discovery—even if the new two-CD set Sun Ship: The Complete Session (Buy it from Amazon; also soon to be available as a 3LP box from Mosaic Records) isn’t the best way to hear the material, at least not for the first time.

The original album contained five tracks – “Sun Ship,” “Dearly Beloved,” “Amen,” “Attaining” and “Ascent.” The title track launches the album with a quick, staccato figure, repeated with slight variation in a way that blurs the line between melody and fanfare. Tyner gets the first solo, dancing across the keys with ferocious energy, and Jones hits his drums like he’s wielding hammers, not sticks. Coltrane’s solo is blisteringly intense, chewing over brief phrases again and again with an almost canine relentlessness, but building up to the shrieks and roaring cries that would be trademarks of his final two years as a performer. From there, the album alternates between uptempo pieces (the title track, “Amen”) and slow, free-form ballads (“Dearly Beloved,” “Attaining”). The final cut, “Ascent,” gives over more than half its running time to a solo from Garrison, before embarking on an incantatory, swinging journey of the type Coltrane and the band perfected on A Love Supreme.

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Sun Ship: The Complete Session does what its title implies, gathering every take (including false starts) and much of the in-studio dialogue between the bandmembers and engineer Bob Thiele and in the process creating a vivid portrait of these master musicians at work. It does not offer the original album plus alternate takes, as so many jazz reissues do, because the material on Sun Ship was subject to editing. The title track had Elvin Jones‘s drum coda chopped off; the studio dialogue which opens “Dearly Beloved” was actually from a different take of the same tune; “Attaining” was spliced together from two different recordings; and nearly two minutes of Jimmy Garrison‘s bass solo was cut out of the take of “Ascent” that was used. The only track from the sessions that made it to the original album unaltered was “Amen.”

There aren’t very many complete alternate takes, either—only one each for “Sun Ship,” “Dearly Beloved,” “Attaining” (though this one is nearly three minutes longer than the released take, and very much worth hearing) and “Amen.” The released version of “Ascent” was the only complete recording, and it was the first of eight takes. There are plenty of false starts, and a few inserts (passages where the band picks up in the middle of a tune, as though they’d been playing all along, and goes through to the end). And there’s some studio dialogue, which at times punctures the overly pious image of Coltrane, and jazz musicians in general—much fun is had referring to “Ascent” as “Ass End,” for example, and carefully spelling it out for Thiele, who’s keeping records of what’s recorded.

All together, there’s only about two hours of music on Sun Ship: The Complete Session, so it’s a relatively easy listen, nothing like wading through the infamous Stooges box 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions, which stretched a 40-minute album to seven CDs. This is more like spending a pleasant afternoon eavesdropping on John Coltrane and his bandmates from the control room, as they get closer and closer and finally manage to create an amazing album. It’s not a substitute for Sun Ship; it’s a companion piece, intended for long-time, devoted fans.

Phil Freeman

Stream the whole set on Spotify:

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