A young jazz enthusiast who made illicit recordings of John Coltrane's live sets in the 1940s harnessed the spirit of a movement. That pursuit of spontaneity is what makes a new jazz CD collection so covetable.
Modern jazz has its own Dead Sea Scrolls. During the mid-Forties an obsessed young be-bop neophyte called Dean Benedetti trailed the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker around the jazz toilets of North America and recorded his solos. Hour upon hour of them.

He'd arrive at a club up to 24 hours in advance of his quarry and set up microphones wherever he could get away with it - in potted palms, picture frames, behind piano legs, in holes drilled through ceilings - and would then monitor the recording from an adjoining toilet cubicle, on the door of which he'd hang an "Out of Order" sign. He recorded only Parker's solos, never ensemble passages or the improvisations of accompanying players. These he would trim like fat from bacon.

A player himself, Benedetti's aim was to learn everything he could from the writhings of genius in the flush of spontaneous creation. In doing so, he formalised the principle that the real stuff of jazz is best captured on the hoof, where it's played in front of an audience, rather than in the relatively sterile seclusion of the recording studio.

Benedetti's was a remarkable, if odd, achievement. But what made it important, beyond the recordings' archival value, was the way the "Benedetti tapes" represented jazz as a process rather than a product. Which is modernism all over.

By the time John Coltrane arrived in Greenwich Village to perform at the Village Vanguard in November 1961, it was generally accepted that the true crucible of jazz creativity was the extended club residency. In such dedicatedly sepulchral circumstances, a great voice might pursue its muse over consecutive nights, in intimate surroundings, supported by a small cast of committed co-dedicatees, rather than with a pick-up band of jobbing sidemen. Furthermore, it was now the rule rather than the exception for top soloists to be trailed into the clubs by keen young men brandishing tape recorders, whether officially or not.

Sonny Rollins had been taped at length by Blue Note at the Vanguard in 1957, the same year that Thelonious Monk had appeared famously at the Five Spot Cafe in New York, with Coltrane as his chief sideman, in one of the groundbreaking residencies of the period. More recently, in July 1961, the celebrated saxophonist/bass clarinettist Eric Dolphy had made a brilliant set of recordings at the Five Spot, only a couple of months after Miles Davis's sets were captured from the stage of the Blackhawk club on the opposite coast, during one of the trumpeter's far-from inconsequential "transitional" periods.

So, in the context of its time, Coltrane's Vanguard epiphany would have been one of the grand events of the jazz calendar, and will have been anticipated as such by the great and the hip.

In those days your hardcore jazzer didn't just turn up for a single night's performance; that would have been idly consumerist. The cool thing to do was to book yourself in for as many sessions as possible, by whatever means available, there to follow the journey's progress and to observe the way in which the random and the divine would intervene to make the artist's efforts more resonant to those who had ears to hear. In 1961, Coltrane was already showing signs of being a committed spiritual pilgrim, inclined to look east for inspiration. How juicy must have the prospect seemed to a growing cabal of New York Coltranologists, tanked up on modalism and soul food?

It's apparent that the saxophonist was an active participant in the recording process, not just the passive subject of it. There was nothing chancey about the material he chose to play, nor about the way he augmented his basic quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Reggie Workman. Eric Dolphy was enlisted as a "probing" frontline foil to his leader's own heated pursuit of the ineffable. But it was the addition to some numbers of another bass, plus oud and oboe or contrabassoon that lent the sessions extra authorial gravitas. The Village Vanguard sessions were evidently meant to be experienced not as a series of snapshots of a combo doing their stuff but as a coherent work of jazz art in which - never mind the classical unities - the process is of such intensity that it obviates the need for any kind of product at all.

The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings are released next week in their entirety for the first time in a four-CD set on Impulse. Most of the material has been available before in some shape or form notably on the great Impressions album but also on a wide variety of other releases in Japan and the West - but never all of it (here are previously unissued versions of "Miles' Mode", "India" and a beautiful bass clarinet-dominated "Naima") and never, crucially, all at once.

An obvious comparison would be Miles Davis's "Plugged Nickel" live set from 1965, released in full, unabridged, eight-CD form a couple of years ago. That package is justifiably revered as a protracted, if slightly arduous, insight into the dynamics of one of the great jazz groups as it operates fitfully under the dominion of its leader's steely musical personality. "Plugged Nickel" tells us a lot about the relationships of its protagonists and includes some extraordinary playing. But what it lacks, and what the Village Vanguard Recordings have in abundance, is consistent unity of purpose. One suspects that, psychologically at least, Coltrane at the Vanguard was after something much less complicated than Davis in Chicago. It's possible that `Trane was chasing something that even Dean Benedetti might have understood, - which is something to do with what it's like to be here, now and nowhere else.

The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings are released on Tuesday (distributed by New Note)

Jazz FM will broadcast a week of concerts from the Village Vanguard Recodings in tribute to John Coltrane, and featuring Dianne Krall, McCoy Tyner, Danilo Perez and Michael Brecker, starting on Monday 29 September

coltrane in the studio: five to grab you

1. Steamin' (Prestige) 1956 (Miles Davis Quintet)

The young Coltrane was the big voice in Miles Davis's first great quintet. He was unruly, boisterous, rough-hewn and did not subscribe to Davis's view that what you left out was as important as what you put in. But, unequivocally, he steamed.

2. Blue Train (Blue Note) 1957

Trane's only session as leader for the Blue Note label. His classic hard- bop sextet featured Lee Morgan's jubilant trumpet and Miles's old drummer Philly Joe Jones in explosive form, helping to make the music hard, fast and to the point.

3. Coltrane Plays The Blues (Atlantic) 1960

All of Coltrane's Atlantic quartet recordings are great. They reveal a scintillating soloist turning himself into a full-blown jazz auteur. This finds Coltrane riding the oldest chord structures in the book, transforming the blues into music of simple grandeur.

4. Africa/Brass (Impulse!) 1961

Much more complex but equally grand, Africa/Brass finds our man delving into his cultural roots in front of a wind orchestra led by Eric Dolphy, round about the time of the Village Vanguard residency. Another mighty recording, although it's sad to see that swingin' Henry VIII does not get a writing credit for his interestingly anomalous contribution, "Greensleeves".

5. Crescent (Impulse!) 1964

One of the last truly accessible Coltrane albums. A year later, he blasted off into the improvisational outer cosmos and never came back. Crescent, which finds Trane making an inward journey, remains the most warmly introspective of all his works.