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Naima (1959)

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“...the melody of ‘Naima’--quiet, sunfilled--is worthy of Coltrane’s reverence, the unsuspected calm in the midst of his storms....”

- John Litweiler

Rank 263
Written by John Coltrane

Saxophonist John Coltrane composed “Naima” for his first wife, Juanita Austin, whose nickname was Naima or Nita. They were married in 1955, and, according to Lewis Porter in John Coltrane: His Life and Music, Coltrane also composed “Wise One” for her and “Syeeda’s Flute Song” for her daughter. Porter also claims that the hymnlike “Naima,” which stayed in his repertoire even after the couple broke up, was considered by Coltrane to be his best composition.


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“Naima” was first recorded in May 1959 for Coltrane’s groundbreaking Giant Steps album on the Atlantic label with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums; however, the session wasn’t released until early 1960.

In The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 John Litweiler says, “The dogged simplicity that usually rushed in violent symmetrical lines now appears in spare form in the long-toned theme of ‘Naima’ as the purest of lyricism; embellishment, activity would violate this precious fragility. His tone is soft, and the setting is as simple as possible, over a one-note bass pedal; the melody of ‘Naima’--quiet, sunfilled--is worthy of Coltrane’s reverence, the unsuspected calm in the midst of his storms....”

During a four night engagement at the Village Vanguard in 1961, Coltrane recorded several versions of “Naima” with a band that included Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, McCoy Tyner on piano, Reggie Workman on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. Litweiler says, “Much of the simple beauty of the original ‘Naima’ was retained in the several 1961 Coltrane-Dolphy versions, but in 1966 Coltrane consciously destroys the song with dissipated floridity and downward plunges. In fact, much of Coltrane’s music in this new free territory sounds anything but free; rather, he dissolves into furious symmetries, wildly, randomly, perhaps vindictively.” The recording, released as Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, featured Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax, Alice Coltrane (John’s second wife) on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Rashied Ali on drums, and Emmanual Rahid on percussion.

“Naima” was recorded in 2002 by pianists Herbie Hancock and Marc Copland and earlier by McCoy Tyner (who recorded it several times) and by Richie Beirach and Walter Norris. It has also been featured on albums by trumpeter Chet Baker, saxophonists Eric Alexander and David Murray, guitarists Kenny Burrell, Ron Eschete, and Larry Coryell, organist Joey DeFrancesco, vibist Cal Tjader, electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, and harmonica player Hendrik Meurkens. Vocalists Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy both recorded it with their own lyrics in 1975, and Karrin Allyson released a wordless vocal version in 2001.

- Sandra Burlingame

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Reading and Research
Additional information for "Naima" may be found in:

Lewis Porter
John Coltrane: His Life and Music (The Michigan American Music Series)
University of Michigan Press

(This book contains two paragraphs on history and structure of song.)
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Jazz History Notes
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Jazz History Notes

A number of live recordings exist of John Coltrane performing his 1959 composition “Naima.” Some of the best include a 1961 recording from the Village Vanguard in New York with Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet along with two of Coltrane’s regulars, pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, and Reggie Workman on bass. The disc features two versions. Another live recording, from his European tour in 1962, is without Dolphy, and Workman is replaced by Jimmy Garrison. It is a wonderful, stark interpretation.

Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp’s sextet recording from 1964 is an altogether different approach to Coltrane’s composition. Shepp’s playing is more reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, and even the arrangement is a bit Ellingtonian in its approach. Their performance includes an a cappella section by Shepp, followed by an up-tempo interlude featuring trombonist Roswell Rudd.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

John Coltrane
The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings
GRP Records 232

Archie Shepp
Four for Coltrane
GRP Records 218

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

John Coltrane

Year Rank Title
1959 254 Giant Steps
1959 263 Naima
1957 576 Moment's Notice
1961 771 Impressions
1960 903 Equinox

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