John Coltrane and the Debate Over His Best

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.

29 Replies to “John Coltrane and the Debate Over His Best”

  1. 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. 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. 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. “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. 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. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. “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.

  12. 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!

  13. I simply adore all of Cotrane’s music, right back to the four ‘Prestige’ albums he recorded with Miles Davis in the late 50’s. But as for his ‘best’ work, i can only pick my personal favs from the various stages of Coltranes career. From his ‘Prestige’ years i would have to go with ‘Soul Trane & ‘Lush Life’ and also the title track from the album ‘ Bahia’- amazing version!! From the Atlantic period[ which could just be his best time], i would pick ‘Giant Steps’, ‘My Favourite Things’, ‘ Coltrane Plays The Blues’ & my fav ‘ Ole’ ‘which is worth the price for the incredible ‘indian drone like feel, and the two Bass Players] one of his greatest achievements and tunes in my opinion.
    From the ‘Impulse’ years, it would be ‘Africa/Brass’, ‘Live At The Village Vanguard’ ‘Coltrane’, Ballads, John Coltane & Johnny Hartman’, ‘Impressions’, ‘Live At Birdland’, Crescent[ possibly his greatest album on Impulse], ‘A Love Supreme’ & ‘Transition’. After this i find the remaing albums in the last year of his life, a little too hard to get into[ though i still own them!]
    One other ‘Huge’ album of note should be the ‘Afro Blue Impressions’ Double LP, that came out on ‘Pablo’ records in 77′[ this album contains the best ‘Live’ version of ‘My Favourite Things’ in my own opinion.
    All in all, i’m a Coltrane nut, and i would advise anyone who has’nt heard a lot/ any of his work, to change that right away- The man was a Spiritual Jazz Giant, and still the benchmark for all other performers and Jazz albums!!!

    1. Just a quick second comment, and of course you MUST own his one single album for Blue Note- ‘Blue Train’ a real blowing session highlight, with all musicians on fire!!!

      1. After a bit of deep thought i’ll go for ‘Crescent’ as his best ever album[ all of the classic quartet at a peak of their powers on this glorious LP], its a shame it sometimes gets overlooked because of what was to follow[ A Love Supreme’, but even that Spiritual masterpiece, does’nt match up to ‘Crescent’ as a complete body of work[ buts comes real close!]

        Overall favourite tune of Coltrane[ all periods], would have to be ‘OLE”- a mind blowing near on 18 minutes of sheer brilliance!!

  14. First Meditations (1965) – the final recording by the classic quartet – is in my opinion the greatest coltrane album….. There are also others that i much prefer to ‘a love supreme’ (which seems to be everyone’s favourite) i.e. transition, sun ship, Ole, Crescent, Coltrane (1962), live at the village vanguard, Africa Brass and so on..

  15. I enjoyed the article and find myself torn as well. I enjoy love supreme; however, to me it does seem a bit polished compared to blue train, but that may just be me. Along with My Favorite Things, Blue Train just envokes a raw power that drives me in a way that the others don’t. Not to say they are not wonderful tunes that are not featured extensively on my playlists; they just don’t force me to pause and redirect my day in a different direction.

    This is just my opinion and shows how broad john could reach. His music is just raw emotion that no word can be used to describe. It can only be felt.

  16. The track that best encapsulates Coltrane is ”My favorite thing”. Although he did not compose it, it’s the track he played the most live, stretched it for 45 minutes, sometimes twice a night, 6 nights out of 7, for half a decade. But his masterpiece is truly ”A Love Supreme” because of it’s spiritual depth. You can’t beat that. He certainly never has. But his most beautiful composition (he said it himself) was ”Naima” on the album ”Giant steps”. So, you see, there can’t be a ”Best Coltrane” record. You can’t encapsulate John Coltrane’s ”bestness” in 1 album. It’s like asking what was Mozart or Beethoven’s best album ? What ?!

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