12 Groundbreaking John Coltrane Songs

John Coltrane is one of the most revered and influential jazz saxophone players in history. Known for his both technical virtuosity and deeply spiritual musical journey, he smashed the boundaries of jazz more than once in his all-too-short 40 years on the planet. In this article we take a look at 12 of the most essential John Coltrane songs for any fan to discover.

Born in North Carolina in 1926, John Coltrane got started with the saxophone relatively late, receiving an alto sax for his 18th birthday. By this time living in Philadelphia, he threw himself into the study of the instrument and music in general. In fact, such was his obsession with jazz that he was known to practice so much he fell asleep with the sax still in his mouth.

But how did a musician who started out idolising early jazz saxophone greats like Lester Young and Sidney Bechet end up pioneering a whole new world of sound?

The following songs – listed in chronological order – not only provide some excellent listening from some of the most famous jazz albums of all time, they also give a snapshot of the evolution of John Coltrane.

Ko Ko

From a compilation of Coltrane with the US Navy band (Rec: 1946)

In 1945, the 19 year-old John Coltrane saw Parker play live for the first time. Talking to Downbeat magazine in 1960 he was quoted as saying that “the first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes.”

His obsession with Parker and the bebop style is evident in a fascinating set of recordings which document his time with the US Navy band which coincided with the end of World War 2.

Still on alto, he delivers a range of glittering solos on a mix of jazz standards and bebop originals, including the Parker favourite Ko Ko.

This recording won’t make many ‘best Coltrane songs’ lists, but it is a crucial recording in charting the development of the musician and shows why he went on to close the 1940s working with groups led by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and even Parker himself.

Blue Train

From the album Blue Train (Blue Note – Rec: 1957)

After switching to tenor saxophone in 1947, Coltrane spent several years practicing, working and developing as an artist. This culminated in an invitation to join Miles Davis’s “First Great Quintet” in 1955 which gave us the hard-swinging and relatively straightahead albums Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’.

His spell with Miles ended in 1957, reportedly due to his spiralling drug habit.

Whatever the reason, it opened the door to a contract with Blue Note and one of the the most famous Hard Bop albums in jazz history.

Whilst some of the soloists don’t seem to be at their best that day, the title track captures the saxophonist’s first major solo: a relentless rollercoaster, full of interest. The first thing to hear is the iron-clad saxophone sound and then the logical order in which the notes pour out of the bell of the tenor.

Whilst Coltrane still working very much within conventional jazz harmony of the day, his solo already seems to be hinting at new avenues of exploration.

Giant Steps

From the album Giant Steps (Atlantic – Rec: 1959)

1958 Sheets of Sound wit Miles >>

Coltrane’s time with Miles Davis seemed to allow him freedom to explore, leading to a style of playing that was described by critic Ira Gitler in 1958 as “sheets of sound“.

A year later and this style of playing was on full display, with his biggest breakthrough to date: Giant Steps.

The Coltrane composition was so difficult at the time that the initial session yielded nothing usable, with much of the album recorded at a second attempt just two weeks.

Interestingly, this took place just after Coltrane had taken part in the iconic Kind of Blue album with Miles Davis. Listen to them side to side – Kind of Blues open modal style versus the fast-moving cyclical structure of Giant Steps – and it’s hard to believe!

What is sure, though, is that it put Coltrane on the map as something more than just a tenor saxophone great; a true jazz innovator.

Mr P.C.

From the album Giant Steps (Atlantic – Rec: 1959)

As one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, we couldn’t include just one track from this recording…

Composed by John Coltrane in tribute to bassist Paul Chambers, Mr P.C. has become soemthing of a jaz standard, played by countless musician the world over. Whilst it’s fast, it doesn’t have the same complex structure as the album’s title track.

This John Coltrane tune has been discussed in detail by writer and researcher Lewis Porter who draws attention to the melody’s similarity not just to a 1931 song by Robert MacGimsey entitled ‘Shadrack’ but from even early traditional folk songs.


From the album Giant Steps (Atlantic – Rec: 1959)

The Giant Steps album also spawned Coltrane’s best known ballad, composed for his first wife, Naima.

Play the first few seconds and just check out that sound!

This version was recorded at the third and final session for Giant Steps on December 2, 1959, and features the rhythm section that ‘Trane was used to playing with in Miles’s band: with Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and drummer Jimmy Cobb.

Coltrane’s statement of the melody is tender and expressive and, following Kelly on piano, Coltrane delivers a solo that is both restrained yet full of passion.

My Favorite Things

From the album My Favorite Things (Atlantic – Rec: 1960)

The album My Favorite Things was another breakthrough for the saxophonist and one of a handful of John Coltrane songs which seem to have transcended the jazz world, into widespread public consciousness.

Historically, it’s notable for the fact that Coltrane is making his debut on an album playing soprano saxophone. Whilst a well-known jazz instrument today, it was at the time thought of as an old-fashioned choice.

Coupled with the fact that the title tune was a popular song from the musical The Sound of Music, it didn’t seem at first glance like an obvious pairing for Coltrane.

However, in the saxophonist’s hands, it becomes something much deeper than a simple show tune, with the 13-minute epic taking the band through deep, searching modal improvisations.

So convinced were Atlantic that they had something special, they also produced an edited version as a single for radio and jukebox play as ‘My Favorite Things – Part 1’ (single A-side) and ‘Part 2’ (single B-side).

Central Park West

From the album Coltrane’s Sound (Atlantic – Rec: 1960)

Whilst Coltrane left the Atlantic record label in 1960, they put together the album Coltrane’s Sound for release in 1964 to capitalise on the artist’s growing fame and commercial saleability.

Coltrane’s sound uses tracks left over from the sessions that yielded My Favorite Things and, while this may not have been with Coltrane’s knowledge or consent, it does bring to prominence what would become one his most popular ballads, ‘Central Park West’.

The tune is unusual in that it has a 10-bar form, and while in the key of B major, and uses substitute chords over more commonly used jazz progressions.

This use of substitutions would be a regular device used by the saxophonist and would become known as Coltrane Changes.


From the album Impressions (Impulse! – Rec: 1961)

Coltrane’s rapid development in the early 1960s was in part thanks to an extensive residency at New York’s Village Vanguard jazz club.

Along with what we now call his ‘Classic Quartet’ and the addition of bass clarinet player Eric Dolphy, this version of India was one of several recorded live at the venue.

The influence of the Indian subcontinent had often been audible in John Coltrane’s soprano saxophone playing, and no more so than on this track. The playing is fierce and matched by Dolphy’s work on bass clarinet.

A piece that would remain in the saxophonist’s repertoire until his death, albeit with various alterations, it influenced a whole generation of soprano saxophone players. Renowned saxophonist Dave Liebman, for example, adopted the piece as a part of his live sets and has recorded several versions with his own groups.


From the album Impressions (Impulse! – Rec: 1961)

The high-octane Coltrane song Impressions may have only been recorded twice – including this version as the title track of his 1961 Impulse album – but it was a mainstay of his live gigs.

The tenor saxophonist gives an exhaustive exploration here, spurred on by Elvin Jones’ polyrhythmic drumming.

Is the structure sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a contrafact of the Miles Davis composition So What which Coltrane recorded as part of Kind of Blue back in 1959.

And what about the second studio version of Impressions? Thrown away by the label at the time to save space, it was eventually released in 2018 on the posthumous album, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album – with no fewer than four takes of the tune for us to discover!

In A Sentimental Mood

From the album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse! – Rec: 1962)

Whilst John Coltrane’s pioneering jazz spirit is celebrated today, it did come in for criticism from some parts of the jazz community at the time.

Possibly as a reaction to this, Coltrane recorded a much more traditional album in 1962 which produced a beautiful rendition of one of the great Duke Ellington songs In a Sentimental Mood – with the man himself on piano.

An unlikely pairing maybe, but one that has surely produced the definitive version of this classic jazz ballad.

Along with bassist Aaron Bell and drummer Elvin Jones, it’s a meeting of giants and two different musical styles that were able come together to make music of exquisite beauty.

In the liner notes to the album Coltrane says that “I was really honored to have the opportunity of working with Duke… He has set standards I haven’t caught up with yet.”

And, typifying his ever-searching style, he commented that “I would have liked to have worked over all those numbers again, but then I guess the performances wouldn’t have had the same spontaneity. And they mightn’t have been any better!”


From the album Live At Birdland (Impulse! – Rec: 1963)

Like the earlier Impressions album, Live at Birdland comprises live performance and studio cuts.

Recorded in the studio on November 18, 1963, can there be any more purely emotional playing by Coltrane than on ‘Alabama’? The song was written in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four girls, and seriously injuring others.

The sheer emotion that can be heard in the music is breathtaking from anger and grief to tenderness and loss. There can be very few performances more heartbreaking and harrowing, with Coltrane’s playing saying so much more than simple words.

A Love Supreme

From the album A Love Supreme (Impulse! – Recorded 1964)

Released in January 1965 just a month after it’s recording, A Love Supreme is widely regarded as one of the best jazz albums of all time.

No list of John Coltrane songs would be complete without referencing the title track of this masterpiece.

Now fulling immersed in the spiritual side of music, the song is part of a through-composed suite built upon a simple 4-note theme.

With deep religious undertones, it marks the culmination of Coltranes evolution as an artist and tracks his journey from heroin addict to an enlightened being who told of ‘hearing God’ during his time quitting drugs cold turkey.

Concept aside, listening to A Love Supreme next to his early recordings showcases an incredible journey not just of John Coltrane, but jazz as a whole.

John Coltrane Songs – Deeper Listening Guide

With more than 50 albums as a bandleader – not to mention his work as a sideman – the John Coltrane discography is rich and varied.

As one of the major innovators and most famous jazz musicians to have ever picked up a saxophone, any attempt to round up a selection of the best John Coltrane songs is of course futile.

But we hope that this introduction will not just provide some great listening tips, but act as a springboard to discover more of his music.

Not sure where to head next? We zoomed out for this guide to the most essential John Coltrane albums, and zoomed in for individual album reviews including with Duke Ellington and his classic recording Lush Life.

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