To think of this late September 1962 session as a novel meeting of “old” and “new” is to misunderstand what Duke Ellington means in the jazz canon. Tenor sax giant John Coltrane was revered for the way he pushed past harmonic boundaries, but Ellington had been doing that since the mid-’20s, and he continued doing it until his death in 1974. Coltrane knew full well the heaviness he’d contend with meeting Duke in the studio, yet he seems to approach it like any encounter. Which is to say he shreds mightily, with his own rhythm section of bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones on a few cuts, Ellington’s bassist Aaron Bell and drummer Sam Woodyard on the others. To hear Ellington at the bench in place of McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s groundbreaking pianist of this period, makes the album all the more striking.
On the tone-setting “In a Sentimental Mood,” an Ellington signature ballad, Coltrane’s entrance is “as though out of a mist, or another world, or maybe just the apartment next door,” as critic A.B. Spellman once said. That aura persists on Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book,” which ranks as one of Coltrane’s finest ballad performances. The bulk of the material is Ellington’s, though Coltrane offers the roiling midtempo swinger “Big Nick,” his one soprano sax feature. “Take the Coltrane” and “Stevie” are blues lines quickly conceived for the date, but “The Feeling of Jazz” appeared the following year on Duke Ellington’s Jazz Violin Session. And “Angelica,” an impossibly catchy calypso, appeared under the title “Purple Gazelle” on Ellington’s Afro-Bossa, recorded just months after the Coltrane date.
Coltrane was early in his adventurous Impulse! period, the one that would soon yield A Love Supreme, when he convened with Ellington (an idea sought by the label to position Coltrane closer to the mainstream tradition). Duke, meanwhile, was as relevant and risk-taking as ever, collaborating just a week earlier with Charles Mingus and Max Roach on Money Jungle. Though they promptly returned to their respective projects, these two unrivaled innovators came up with a statement far more lasting than they might have expected.