John Coltrane: Fearless Leader
This six-CD set of all of the original Prestige albums led by John Coltrane comes as a relief after the previous sixteen-disc box of every one of his preserved recordings on the label, as leader or sideman. Putting aside the daunting cost of that huge collection, there was a fair amount of dross, at least to these earsthe session under Kenny Burrell's name and blowing sessions with Al Cohn and friends. (Those who feel otherwise can look forward to two future Prestige boxes with a half-dozen discs, each focused on these sessions). Meanwhile, here is a well-produced summary of Coltrane's sessions from 1957 and 1958.
What can be said that hasn't been said before about Coltrane's pre-Atlantic, pre-Impulse! recordings? The remastered sound in this set gives Coltrane's emergent voice more heft than previous CD issues. Since blues and standards were the general fare for these speedily produced sessions, you can admire Coltrane's mastery with both forms in better-than-ever sound, particularly on "Chronic Blues," accompanied by pianist Mal Waldron (who appeared, alas, on only three numbers during these years), and the ranging, raging "Sweet Sapphire Blues" that foreshadows "Chasin' The Trane" from the Village Vanguard sessions in 1961.
Perhaps a cipher to appreciating these recordings is to tune pianist Red Garland and drummer Art Taylor completely out and concentrate only on Coltrane and bassist Paul Chambers. However much a listener may want to attribute a lack of majesty or genius to these recordings, I think there are plenty of moments of intensely inspired playing by Coltrane, sometimes in spite of Garland and Taylor. And this is not to imply that Taylor was ever less than workmanlike. Garland, on the other hand, did occasionally get lost in the thicket of Coltrane's eloquence, but he never had the harmonic sophistication to go with Coltrane that far. That's why there's a pathos in hearing Waldron's more simpatico thinking on a handful of tunes.
But Garland's limitations are small matters compared to the lack of ideas from the prosaic Taylor. Just imagine what Elvin Jones or Rashied Ali would have done with the locomotive energy of "Russian Lullaby" (which Coltrane laughingly and accurately called "Rushing Lullaby" in the studio). Think of strong layers of polyrhythms driving the saxophonist forward on a burning number like "Bahia." Instead, Taylor chugs along reliably, replaced on a few selections by more imaginative, but hardly inspiring, drummers like Louis Hayes and Al Heath.
That said, listen to "Russian Lullaby" and "Bahia" tuning the drums out and you can hear Coltrane searching seeringly for a way out of any bop trappings, well on his way to becoming himself, a school of one. His dazzling leaps between the high and low registers of his saxophone are astonishing even at this early date, as are his profusions of ideas lifted from flinty shards of blues and standards, occasionally infused by gospel-like conviction and fury.
There is an evolving daring in Coltrane's playing, despite the relative timidity of several of his sidemen. Although Freddie Hubbard sounded awkwardly young in 1958, he had more daring, if less spit and polish, than a dull Donald Byrd who winged his way listlessly through most of these sessions. One of the few sidemen who stood up to Coltrane here was the shamefully neglected trumpeter Wilbur Harden. On a very moving cover of "Stardust," Harden coaxed a tone from his trumpet that's strangely world-weary and sturdy simultaneously, and inspired Coltrane to offer the same.
Since these six discs are sequenced in chronological order, I strongly advise working backward. In the case of early Coltrane, what a difference a year makes. He was learning to hoarsely cry, squeal and shout more by 1958, and knew how to heed the drummer in his imagination, who would soon materialize in the flesh as Elvin Jones. Discs three through six are worth the price of admission, but if purchased separately, you'd miss Lewis Porter's Coltrane essay, and that is too ear-opening to pass by. Porter, author of the most authoritative book on Coltrane (John Coltrane: His Life And Music, University Of Michigan Press), offers a primer on how to listen to early Coltrane that has long been needed, and serves to deepen comprehension of Coltrane's later music too. And the vintage photographs throughout the box are superb.
This is a minor quibble, but the box title is as fatuous as Rhino's The Last Giant and The Heavyweight Champion, though we can only hope Impulse! doesn't do a box of outtakes entitled "Trane's Off Tracks." In interviews as well as in musical performances, Coltrane honestly acknowledged his fears as well as his hopes. And as these early recordings demonstrate, he was an artist who could sound uninspired and anything but fearless when not accompanied by inspired players or the right studio conditions. Luckily, Atlantic and Impulse! gave him the right setting, and by 1960 he had discovered the first sublime incarnation of his band. But this solid contribution to the Coltrane legend is well worth your time.
CD1: Straight Street; While My Lady Sleeps; Chronic Blues; Bakai; Violets For Your Furs; Time Was; I Hear A Rhapsody; Trane's Slo Blues; Slowtrane; Like Someone In Love; I Love You.
CD2: You Leave Me Breathless; Bass Blues; Soft Lights And Sweet Music; Traneing In; Slow Dance; Lush Life; Believer; Nakatini Serenade.
CD3: Come Rain Or Come Shine; Lover; Russian Lullaby; Theme For Ernie; You Say You Care; Good Bait; I Want To Talk About You; Rise 'N' Shine; I See Your Face Before Me.
CD4: If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You; Little Melonae; By The Numbers; Black Pearls; Lover Come Back To Me; Sweet Sapphire Blues.
CD5: Spring Is Here; Invitation; I'm A Dreamer, Aren't We All?; Love Thy Neighbor; Don't Take Your Love from Me; Stardust; My Ideal; I'll Get By.
CD6: Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?; Then I'll Be Tired Of You; Something I Dreamed Last Night; Bahia; Goldsboro Express; Time After Time.
Personnel: John Coltrane: tenor saxophone; Paul Chambers: bass; Red Garland: piano; Art Taylor: drums; Johnny Splawn: trumpet; Freddie Hubbard: trumpet; Mal Waldron: piano; Sahib Shihab: baritone saxophone; Wilbur Harden: trumpet; others.