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Dear John: 5 Naimas

Written as a love letter to his first wife, Naima Grubb, of all the compositions on John Coltrane’s mighty “Giant Steps”, “Naima” is the one that would become an essential part of his repertoire. Trane went on to record it over 10 times, whereas he’d never revisit “Giant Steps” again.

“Giant Steps” complicated harmonic progression and rapid tempo make it a difficult piece to play, so it isn’t too surprising that “Naima” has proved the more popular pick among jazz musicians. The flip side to this is that “Naima” is a near perfect piece of writing, so consequently poses the same challenge to each of its suitors: “Can you bring something new to the table without spoiling the entire meal?”

Here are 5 to hear:

1. Eric Dolphy/Donald Byrd from the album "Eric Dolphy/Donald Byrd'' (1964)

Eric Dolphy (Alto Sax, Bass Clarinet);

Donald Byrd (Trumpet);

Nathan Davis (Tenor Sax);

Jack Diéval (Piano);

Jacques Hess (Bass);

Franco Manzecchi (Drums);

Jacky Bambou (Congas)

This live date, in Paris’ Le Chat Qui Pêche, turned out to be Dolphy’s last recording. Eighteen days later he collapsed on stage in Berlin, falling into a diabetic coma that was misdiagnosed by doctors, resulting in his tragic death.

How fortunate we are then, to have Dolphy’s stellar rendition of “Naima”. It features Nathan Davis on tenor sax, Donald Byrd on trumpet and a very capable European rhythm section, but its Dolphy time really, and the most convincing crying bass clarinet I’ve ever heard. I can’t say enough about how utterly mesmeric Dolphy’s playing is here. The way he sequences his lines, accelerates the tempo, so we have the sudden doubling up of tempo in the middle of his phrases. It’s mastery.

Of course, Dolphy is a fine musician. Maybe just a little over-praised but because he’s so adventurous - as you can hear right here – and in more cases than not, comes up with something genuinely fresh, I have no reservations in placing him and his "Naima" in the top tier.

2. Gary Bartz, Eddie Henderson, Norman Connors from the album "Dance of Magic: Live at Nemu Jazz Inn" (1975)

Gary Bartz (Alto Sax),

Eddie Henderson (Flugelhorn), Norman Connors (Drums),

Reggie Workman (Double Bass),

Elmer Gibson (Piano)

Just 500 (!) copies of this live set were released, and only in Japan.

Bartz introduces the theme at dirge tempo, Henderson picks it up with authority, Bartz -this time with some of his most inspired playing- returns to the fore, before he and Henderson double up all the way to the finish line.

This isn’t anything like as sunny as Coltrane’s yet I think he would absolutely have enjoyed It. As I’ve said, “Naima” is one of Trane’s most captivating and lyrical melodies, and any abstraction of a melody THAT beautiful is immediately of less interest to me than hearing the melody itself.

Although this is a dark-hued Naima, its overall effect is still uplifting (in no small part down to Connors’ improbably spellbinding Elvin Jones turn) and all its embellishments are in close vicinity to the main melody. It is to Bartz’ and Henderson’s credit that they manage to sustain such a high level of creativity and excitement within such a narrow space.

3. Stanislaw Sojka from the album "Blublula'' (1981)

Stanislaw Sojka (Vocals)

Wojciech Karolak (Piano)

Zbigniew Wegehaupt (Double Bass)

In the years directly preceding this, Sojke was pitching up alongside popular Polish singers like Maryla Rodowicz and Andrzej Zaucha and knocking out “You’re the one that I Want” covers.

The same period saw his former group, Extra Ball, record “Naima” (a light heist of the Santana/McLaughlin “Naima”). That must have irked Sojka some because he out-Naimad them the following year with this one, taken from his second solo album “Blublula”.

Sojke is hardly the perfect balladeer but he seems pretty comfortable in this setting, he’s clearly harmonically oriented - his sensuous, whispery vocal style recalling Steve Kuhn’s “The Meaning of Love”. Pastoral.

4. Carlos Santana & John McLaughlin from the album "Love, Devotion & Surrender" (1973)

Carlos Santana (Guitar)

John McLaughlin (Guitar & Piano)

An explosive “A Love Supreme” followed by this slice of celestial bliss. Two very different approaches to Coltrane and I can’t imagine any other album has opened with two such polar extremes.

I have difficulty enjoying 'A Noise Supreme' but "Naima" - a stark number that's notably more contemplative than what precedes it - as an acoustic guitar duet is a wonderful thing. McLaughlin’s intricate phrasing plays nicely off Santana’s more fluid lines, and it's not as wanky as the either the personnel or the beginning of this sentence would suggest.

In fact, this is a wonderful example of two players beautifully attuned to each other, listening closely to one another and making great music through the process of their interaction in the moment.

You cannot have it all though, and that album cover is a first degree crime.

5. The Visitors from the album"Neptune" (1972)

Carl Grubbs, Earl Grubbs (Saxes)

Elmer Gibson (Piano)

Sid Simmons (Piano)

Ron Burton (Electric Piano)

Edward Crockett (Double Bass)

Richard Lee Wiggins (Drums)

Robin Kenyatta (Congas)

Sherman Ferguson (Percussion)

Worth knowing that the two front-line members of this Philadelphia group, Earl and Carl Grubbs, were cousins of Naima and, supposedly, Trane gave them lessons when he first started dating her.

Unlike the majority of Naimas on this list, The Visitors’ take doesn’t contain any sophisticated compositional elements in it. In many ways, this is just fine as “Naima” isn’t some vamp with a redundant melody. It is a piece so well developed that fancy ‘improvisation’ or radical restructuring needs to be handled extremely carefully. It is, and it’s an absolute burner.

Dissonance-free “Spiritual Jazz” (could somebody please coin an alternative term?), with an airtight groove, which the percussion-biased rhythm section lays down early and never strays too far from. Perfect production too, but that's business as usual for Muse Records.


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