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John Coltrane: Coltrane 58: The Prestige Recordings

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Some fifty-two years since his death, the shadow of John Coltrane looms large in the minds of many jazz fans and musicians. Over the past few years this has been aided and abetted by the fact that his music continues to be repackaged. In the case of last year's Both Directions at Once, some previously unissued sides even brought further clarity to the saxophonist's development at Impulse Records in the mid '60s.

Concurrent with the fascination of all-things-Coltrane has been the resurgence in popularity of vinyl records. This led to his Atlantic sides getting the vinyl treatment in monaural sound and Craft Recording's recent examination of a key period when Coltrane was under contract to Prestige Records. Lavishly presented in a large-format package housing eight LPs, Coltrane 58 sheds new light on a formative period in more ways than one.

While this new packaging might seem to smack of financial opportunism, the fact is that the music Coltrane recorded for Prestige over the course of 1958 was spread out over ten albums that were released from the years 1958 to as late as 1966. To have them gathered in one place and in chronological order does a great service to music that has unfairly seen a disjointed past.

Much of this music found Coltrane in the company of pianist Red Garland and bassist Paul Chambers, two colleagues from his tenure with Miles Davis. This stability allowed the saxophonist to grow in his own individuality while feeling anchored by one of the best rhythm teams in the business. When trumpeters Donald Byrd and Wilbur Harden make the scene, they add further textures to these classic performances that draw from jazz standards and Coltrane originals.

It would be during this period that writer Ira Gitler would coin the term "sheets of sound" to describe the frenetic manner of Coltrane's improvisational technique. In the extensive notes penned by Ashley Khan, it is mentioned that John's son Ravi has always found this term an apropos coinage for what his father was trying to accomplish. The key breakthrough of this style can be heard on "By the Numbers," a twelve minute tour-de-force that reveals Coltrane's flowing sense of urgency. For those who can read music, the booklet even includes a transcription of this particular solo so that one can watch it go down blow-by-blow.

Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullaby" offers further sustenance in this dramatic new style of improvisation, yet this is just one facet of what makes Coltrane's approach on the collected 37 tracks so beguiling. In terms of ballads, few can rival the tenderness heard on cuts such as "Don't Take Your Love From Me" and "Time After Time." These trinkets are just a hint of what was to come on later Impulse gems like Ballads and John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman. A match made in heaven, the pairing of Trane with guitarist Kenny Burrell yielded five choice performances that also benefitted from the presence of pianist Tommy Flanagan.

In a sagacious decision of inclusion, much is made of the contributions of original recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Text and photos add valuable information to the cannon of knowledge on a gentleman who was elusive and secretive in his personal and professional life. The first several discs are in mono, but the remaining sides are presented in stereo and it is amazing to ponder how Van Gelder obtained such an expansive sound in the living room of his parents' ranch house.

Painstakingly restored and remastered by Paul Blakemore, it is no exaggeration to suggest this is the best this music has ever sounded just short of RVG's original lacquers. However, this labor of love was not without its share of audio obstacles. At first, the master tapes were exhibiting a good deal of distortion on the ride cymbal. Such moments of peak distortion were not uncommon for Van Gelder in his efforts to obtain a lifelike sound.

As Blakemore recently told me, "It took me a while to figure out that the problem was a ton of high frequency energy above 22 kilohertz. I didn't think that those old tapes would have that much high frequency information considering that there were probably three or four transformers between each microphone and the tape machine. After all, this was 1958. When I looked at the output from the tapes on a spectrum analyzer, there was a huge amount of energy between 22 -50 kilohertz."

Through Blakemore's concerted efforts and the lacquer cutting provided by Clinton Holley at Well Made Music, the final results are such that listeners can practically visualize each musician's placement in that iconic Hackensack living room. In tandem with the stellar pressings cut by RTI and the boutique quality presentation, this compilation hits a home run that will be required listening for Coltrane devotees.

Title: Coltrane 58: The Prestige Recordings | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Craft Recordings

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