In 1962, John Coltrane found himself at the centre of a storm of controversy, his tumultuous, searching music branded 'anti-jazz' by one virulent critic. While Coltrane would continue along that exploratory path for the remaining years of his career, part of his response to the critical venom was to record some of the most sweetly lyrical music in jazz history. 'Ballads' established him as one of the great lyric players and set the tone for his collaborations with Johnny Hartman and Duke Ellington.
It maybe that commercial and audience interests were a motive behind this album, coming off the relatively demanding exploration and hard work of 'Giant Steps' but Coltrane rises to the challenge by not sounding chafed or restrained. There's quite a few of his hallmark fills and compressed runs on the tenor's middle range and sufficient creative expression to show that exploration hasn't left him on this classic collection of both well known and obscure ballads.
Critic Gene Lees stated that the quartet had never played the tunes before;"They arrived with music-store sheet music of the songs" and just before the recordings, they would discuss each tune, write-out copies of the changes they'd use, semi-rehearse for a half hour and then do it". All the pieces were recorded in one take, except for 'All or Nothing at All'.
'The Ballads album by John Coltrane has long been amongst my favourites. Coltrane's playing is superb throughout, showing great control and a really concise style in his presentation - quite different from his usual garrulous nature. The rest of the quartet is, as always, sheer perfection. It is impossible to select tracks as the standard is absolutely consistent and the choice of material superlative. To sum up this is one of the essential albums in Jazz.' MusicWeb International
'Throughout John Coltrane's discography there are a handful of decisive and controversial albums that split his listening camp into factions. Generally, these occur in his later-period works such as Om and Ascension, which push into some pretty heady blowing. As a contrast, Ballads is often criticized as too easy and as too much of a compromise between Coltrane and Impulse! (the two had just entered into the first year of label representation). Seen as an answer to critics who found his work complicated with too many notes and too thin a concept, Ballads has even been accused of being a record that Coltrane didn't want to make. These conspiracy theories (and there are more) really just get in the way of enjoying a perfectly fine album of Coltrane doing what he always did -- exploring new avenues and modes in an inexhaustible search for personal and artistic enlightenment. With Ballads he looks into the warmer side of things, a path he would take with both Johnny Hartman (on John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman) and with Duke Ellington (on Duke Ellington and John Coltrane). Here he lays out for McCoy Tyner mostly, and the results positively shimmer at times. He's not aggressive, and he's not outwardly. Instead he's introspective and at times even predictable, but that is precisely Ballads' draw.' AllMusic.com
John Coltrane - tenor saxophone/soprano saxophone
McCoy Tyner - piano
Jimmy Garrison - bass
Elvin Jones - drums
Rudy Van Gelder - recording engineer