Coltrane: Prestige and Blue Note

Coltrane’s formative years aren’t on the same artistic level as the original works done later for Atlantic and Impulse, but they shouldn’t be ignored. The seeds of his future tenor playing are scattered throughout the many appearances on Prestige, not to mention his sole Blue Note session as a leader. Besides, the music is rewarding on its own terms. For Coltrane to get where he did in the ‘60s, he had to have a firm foundation, and the early recordings lay the bricks and mortar upon which he stood later.

May 1957 / Prestige

Coltrane’s debut as a leader remains one of his finest, most enjoyable outings in my opinion. Bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Tootie Heath are the only constants; Red Garland and Mal Waldron swap piano duties, and Johnnie Splawn (trumpet) and Sahib Shihab (bari sax, rather than customary alto) lend ensemble weight. The full team takes part in Cal Massey’s worldly chart “Bakai”, which provides the tiniest preview of Coltrane’s future pan-ethnic jazzscapes. He doesn’t solo in the piece until about the four-minute mark; before then, it sounds like a hell of a Red Garland album. “While My Lady Sleeps” features a provocative bass figure and a heartfelt tenor sound that makes it one of Trane’s more unforgettable ballad performances. “Straight Street” is a catchy tune made up of ii-V changes, which Coltrane treats with melodic sequencing, his patented cries and scalar leaps in place. There’s further variety to be found in “Time Was”, “Violets for Your Furs”, and “Chronic Blues”. Though not one of Trane’s historically feted records, I return to it often, just for the joy and confidence it emits. Recommended.

Blue Train
Sept. 1957 / Blue Note

Coltrane chose the all-star sidemen (including Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones), wrote four of the five tunes, and was allowed rehearsal time by Blue Note (not to be taken for granted), all of which produced a most ebullient, accessible album. The music digs into the prevailing time-and-changes bag of ‘50s bop and also looks ahead in the harmonic department. The group gets off to a classic start with the title track, a cinematic 12-bar tune. It opens up (or falls back, depending on your expectations) by Trane’s second chorus into a standard blues feel with double time and bravura soloing. I prefer the initial mood of a train crossing the plain in the wee hours. “Locomotion” uses a 12-bar form in the A sections, with a bridge of descending seventh chords (the same form as “Traneing In”, recorded for Prestige). The uptempo mazes of “Lazy Bird” and “Moment’s Notice” are where the rehearsal time paid off, and the latter looks forward to the Giant Steps days in its chord movement. Coltrane is puffed up and well oiled in his solos, matched by Morgan and Fuller. In the midst of the high caliber blowing, a ballad was necessary, but Coltrane’s theme reading of “I’m Old Fashioned” isn’t very attractive, and the tune doesn’t quite fit with the others. Nevertheless, Blue Train stands with the best of its time.

Feb. 1958 / Prestige

Five by four: Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Art Taylor. Some folks dismiss Trane’s Prestige years as “boring” (usually the types who are drawn only to his Impulse furies), but how about his tenor madness on “Russian Lullaby”, with that awesome solo coda? This is one of the more striking tracks in his entire recorded oeuvre, and if it bores anyone, jazz probably isn’t their true calling. Note also Coltrane’s extended preoccupations on “Good Bait”, a rhythm-changes special that has solo room for the entire quartet. “Theme for Ernie” is lovely and mournful, and “You Say You Care” is a pithy swinger with Mr. PC quoting “Tenor Madness” in his solo. “I Want To Talk about You” is an Eckstine ballad that Coltrane snagged for himself and reads like a favorite book. Despite all the non-original material, this album was and is a great showcase for the developing leader. It’s interesting to imagine how Sonny Rollins might have stepped up to the mike on “Good Bait”, with the same rhythm section and tempo. For Coltrane, the edges are sharper, the thoughts more directive. Sonny would have spread it out a bit. Forgive that comparison, but just as Rollins was state of the tenor in the mid-late ‘50s, so was Trane, in his own way. Anyway, Soultrane remains a good example of his early playing.

Lush Life
May and Aug 1957; Jan 1958 / Prestige

This disc is made up of five tracks from three separate sessions, the most interesting of which is a trio date with bassist Earl May and drummer Art Taylor. Coltrane’s exhaustive chord-tracing makes up for the lack of piano and creates mild excitement in “Like Someone in Love” and a Latin-tinged “I Love You”. “Trane’s Slo Blues” is actually at medium tempo and he parses steely ideas in the range of an octave or so. Not as epochal as Rollins at the Vanguard, but a mile marker for Coltrane, and fun to hear.

Next comes a 14-minute “Lush Life” done by quintet; Red Garland takes the piano bench, Donald Byrd adds a trumpet solo, and Paul Chambers and Louis Hayes step into the bass and drum roles. It’s not as intimate as the version Trane would later record with singer Johnny Hartman, yet it does have a ballsy romance. The tenor solo dwells on the song’s most sensual chord sequence, and in that respect, it’s sort of a precursor to JC’s vamp-driven “My Favorite Things”. Rounding out the show is a perky “I Hear a Rhapsody” for quartet with Garland still present. Like the rest of the disc, it’s enjoyable if not awe-inspiring.

Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane
Mar. 1958 / Prestige/New Jazz

In which Coltrane’s maturing voice is paired with Burrell’s guitar, two different stylists to be sure, but they have a certain sonic synergy. The downside is that they are sometimes separated by the neutral gulf of Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. I have nothing against the fine Flanagan, yet his piano lacks the spark of the marquee guys, and Cobb often plods along on drums. This comes to a head on the lengthy blues “Big Paul”, a lackadaisical jam. On the other hand, “Freight Trane” and “Lyresto” are more focused and get intelligent solos from tenor and guitar. Another highlight is the short duet on “Why Was I Born”, where Burrell comps the chords and Coltrane stretches the melody in a lovely way. Further preparation and perhaps some rhythm section adjustments might have made this good album a great one.

Fearless Leader
May 1957 – Dec 1958 / Prestige

This six disc set chronicles Coltrane’s leader dates for Prestige, including Coltrane, Lush Life, and Soultrane (each reviewed above), along with Traneing In, Settin’ the Pace, Standard Coltrane, Stardust, The Believer, Black Pearls, Bahia, and The Last Trane. Good value, yeah? Clumping all this material together gives it enough weight to compare, maybe, to his multi-disc Atlantic and Impulse sets. The booklet details all the sessions and contains the original LP notes and two new essays from Ginell and Porter. As usual with Prestige, albums are sometimes culled from more than one session, though thanks to the annotation, there’s no confusion as to what came from where. The remastering values clarity over pumped-up levels; I find the K2 edition of Coltrane (probably out of print now) to be a slightly more visceral listen, while Traneing In sounds better in this box than it has elsewhere. Thumbs up for the package and presentation.

You can either hear this phase of Coltrane as a stepping stone that leads to his advanced future (i.e. historically), or you can just appreciate it as late ‘50s straightahead jazz with a conspicuous tenor saxophonist. By this time, Trane had started his beneficial associations with Miles and Monk, and right from the self-titled debut – which I’ll plug again as a very enjoyable record – Coltrane offers a strong blend of bop-based orthodoxy and harmonic exploration. He’s backed most often by the trustworthy trio of Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Art Taylor (drums, sometimes spelled by Louis Hayes or Jimmy Cobb), with occasional trumpeting by Donald Byrd, Wilbur Harden, and a young Freddie Hubbard. Due to the “get in, get out” nature of Prestige sessions, there are only a few original pieces, two of which come from Cal Massey (“Bakai”, “Nakatini Serenade”). Most of the rest is standards or blues, but let’s not complain – there will be plenty of Coltrane originals to come. In the meantime, the traditional material illuminates the originality of his style.

The blues is Coltrane’s most natural element. In examples like “Slowtrane” and “Sweet Sapphire Blues”, he plays complex lines, soulful calls, and a variety of motivic ideas, always with good feel. At times, it seems as if he’s thinking so far ahead as to be targeting the turnaround of the next chorus. In “Traneing In”, he keeps pouring it on, never at a dead end, and I’d rather hear this than the later “Chasin’ the Trane”, to be honest. There’s a similar geyser-like momentum in “The Believer”, a waltzing blues written by future bandmate McCoy Tyner.

The ballads range up and down in quality. Coltrane would often sit out the slow numbers in the Miles quintet a couple of years earlier, but by this time, he tackles quite a few. When it’s a good tune at a compact length – “While My Lady Sleeps”, or the elegant “Slow Dance” – Coltrane is on the verge of poetry. He can be just as sensitive in the longer tracks, like “Invitation”, “I See Your Face Before Me”, and “Stardust”, although you then have to sit through the other soloists at the same (sometimes lethargic) pace. I dig Paul Chambers as much as anybody, but his bowed bass solos on the slow pieces can try one’s patience. Wilbur Harden’s flugelhorn makes a nice addition to the July 1958 session, while Freddie Hubbard’s off-pitch fumbling from December (disc 6) sours three otherwise stately ballads. Anyway, you can hear the seed of Trane’s future “hymnic” approach in the way he treats these romantic tunes with calm reverence.

The remaining originals and pop songs swing conventionally, except for a few Latin detours (“Bakai”, “Nakatini Serenade”, and “Bahia”, each with passionate playing) and espresso-level bpm’s (“Russian Lullaby”, “Lover”, “Soft Lights and Sweet Music”). I’m not impressed by speed for athletic purpose, which undermines “Lover Come Back to Me”, but when you play fast because you have a lot of genuine musical ideas to cram in, then I’m listening. This is known as Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” period, where he zooms his harmonic microscope on lots of chord substitutions, often at high velocity. In “Black Pearls” and some phrases of “Bahia”, the mix of intensity, timbre, and overtones is electric, and the commanding solo of “Little Melonae” peaks with similar kinetic flurries. In “Goldsboro Express”, Coltrane charges through an extended exchange with drummer Art Taylor, which sort of foreshadows his later “Countdown” workout. If Coltrane at this stage isn’t always transcendent, he is at least exciting.

In addition to the rapid-fire sheets of sound, Coltrane also employs the steady-stream eighth note style that he would use to glide through future pieces like “Giant Steps”. He balances this with dynamic double timing and his favored end-of-phrase leaps. (The two-note capper is actually an old bebop idea, and like other traditional memes, Coltrane makes it his own.) One of my favorite tenor solos in the collection is in “Rise and Shine”, so adventurous and enthusiastic. I also dig the smooth authority Trane brings to “Come Rain or Come Shine”. “Nakatini Serenade” is another highlight, as are some of the tracks I’ve mentioned in above reviews, like “Good Bait”, “Straight Street”, and “I Love You”. I could go on naming more, but apart from a few perfunctory performances, they’re all good.

I love this boxset. I already knew about half of the contents by heart and had a favorable impression of Coltrane’s Prestige days. I imagined listening to all the sessions together might continue to prompt comparisons to what Coltrane would do in the future, or what his giant peer Sonny Rollins was doing in the same time frame, yet the music stands fully on its own. I think the three Coltrane periods (partitioned by label) are all valuable; the Prestige era presents his ambition in a standard context with many great results.

Sept 1956 – Mar 1958 / Prestige

This five-disc sequel to Fearless Leader collects Coltrane’s Prestige appearances in all-star sessions and collaborative co-billings. While the music doesn’t have the same focus as his efforts as a leader, it does contain good performances from Coltrane, Paul Quinichette, Kenny Burrell, Mal Waldron, Idrees Suliemann, and others. Nothing wrong with a label-prodded jam session if the players get in the zone.

Being brief, I mainly want to note which albums the box contains.

9/7/1956. Tenor Conclave, with Al Cohn, Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Zoot Sims, and rhythm section. Kicks off with a bang in “Just You Just Me” and features many smooth exchanges between the tenors throughout. Rather than “battling” each other, all four saxmen play considerate solos, and bars are traded with good humor. From Zoot’s tasty phrases to Trane’s jagged scribbles, you hardly need the liner notes to identify who’s who. My pick is “How Deep is the Ocean”, which runs a little long at fifteen minutes, but it’s nicely laid-back.

3/22/1957. Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors. Tenor-wise, Coltrane is paired with Bobby Jaspar, and the trumpeters are Idrees Sulieman and Webster Young. Mal Waldron contributes piano and some tunes, while Red Garland sits in for “C.T.A.” Apart from likeable compositions such as “Anatomy” and “Soul Eyes” (a Waldron ballad Coltrane would later re-record), this session doesn’t have much purpose beyond putting a few label-mates in a room to generate some product. Coltrane clearly stands out among the soloists. Guitarist Kenny Burrell is in a mostly superfluous role.

4/18/1957. The Cats. Tommy Flanagan is the brains behind this one, providing all four tunes and sounding darn good on the piano. Coltrane, Sulieman, Burrell, Doug Watkins, and Louis Hayes fill out the roster. “Solacium” has the most interesting chord movement, and “Minor Mishap” veers toward hardbop. “Eclypso” overcomes a cheesy theme with fantastic solos. This is a standard groovy mid-50s Prestige date, although the rhythm section isn’t recorded very strongly.

4/20/1957. Dakar. I always thought this was a proper John Coltrane album, but maybe the heavy presence of baritone saxophonists Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne makes it a three-way bill. Good stuff here, like the title track, “Route 4”, and the graceful “Cat Walk” (all written by Teddy Charles), and the twisty “Witches Pit”, authored by Pepper Adams. Flanked by the heftier saxes, Coltrane sounds brave and clear. Unfortunately, the thin recording robs the rhythm section of their full weight.

5/17/1957. Cattin’ with Coltrane and Quinichette. Paul Quinichette, that is. Like the tenor meeting between Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins a few years later, the contrast between Coltrane’s modern lines and Quinichette’s older tradition is of some interest, and sometimes they play in each other’s direction. Unlike Sonny and Hawk, Trane and The Q are more casual about it. Quinichette sounds great on “Sunday”, and Trane does his thing, not afraid to incorporate a common bop lick or two. Tunewise, Mal Waldron is represented by “Anatomy” (based on “All the Things You Are”, which throws Quinichette for some reason), “Vodka”, and “Cattin’”, whose theme has a familiar blues yowl. Not a bad record, minus a few smudges.

9/20/1957. Wheelin’ and Dealin’. Coltrane, Quinichette, and Frank Wess make three tenor saxes – when Wess isn’t playing flute (and playing it very well). Rhythm team is Waldron, Watkins, and Art Taylor. I dig this session a lot, because the group bonds well, the flute adds a nice flavor, the tunes are solid, and the sound is good. The standout “Wheelin’” rotates sax solos over uptempo swing and then makes way for Waldron’s piano musings. Coltrane and Quinichette alternate statements in an acceptable version of Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. “Dealin’” is a straight-out blues and “Robbin’s Nest” provides mellow relief. It’s worth finding the album if you don’t get this box set.

3/7/1958. Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane. As reviewed above, I think this is a good album, if not all it could have been. In fact, my “good” judgment should be reassessed to “very good.” Both Burrell and Trane smoke on “Lyresto” and “Freight Trane”, and in comparing this session to the previous ones, it’s obvious how much Coltrane’s style has grown. A fine finale for the collection.

The booklet is as great as the one accompanying Fearless Leader, with detailed essays, sessionography, original album covers and notes, etc. I don’t like the variable sound quality, though. Why do some 1950s Prestige recordings sound perfectly balanced, while others sound as if the rhythm section (or part of it) is in a distant room? I’m glad that the remastering doesn’t punch everything past the distortion point, but I feel that some of the quieter sessions could have used a boost, like Dakar and parts of The Cats. If I want to adjust the volume every couple of minutes, I’ll put on a classical album, you know?

In the end, this collection doesn’t tell as much of Coltrane’s early “story” as does Fearless Leader. I just think of Interplay as a golden-day Prestige sampler with quality performances. Apart from the box, one should look for Wheelin’ and Dealin’ and the Burrell collaboration at least.

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