When Bob Weinstock, head of Prestige Records, first heard John Coltrane in Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey recording studio in the mid-1950s, he flipped. He went to Miles Davis, the sessions’ leader, for explanation: “Who is that out there playing saxophone?” Davis, a man with little time for the bewilderment of others, responded, “Man, just record the shit. You want us to play, we’ll play. If not, we’ll go home.” Almost 30 years later, however, he would sympathize with Weinstock’s natural reaction to an initial encounter with Coltrane’s style: “Trane was a big thing to be dropping on people! That was hard shit to just think of!”
“Hard shit to just think of”: such was the stuff of Coltrane, the circular path of footsteps upon footsteps that his saxophone trod, the flurry of data sopped up by reeds and sent in eddying nosedives through brass tubing. Coltrane’s lyricism was romantic, but his coil of exploding ideas was like a bursting heart. Imagine the arithmetic of a gut-level sensation, or the implosion of a pragmatic consciousness, and you’re almost there—Coltrane contained multitudes that crissed and crossed and knotted up and were sprung loose. He often had a hard time bringing his extensive solos to a close (“try taking the horn out of your mouth,” Davis once gruffly recommended), most likely because they were so deeply felt, and if you played with him, you’d have no choice but to feel them too.
In the mid-to-late-‘50s, Coltrane was still figuring out how to fully unleash the transcendental heroics he bottled within. He played in Davis’s band from 1955 to early 1957, when he was finally kicked out for his unreliable junkie ways, and with Thelonious Monk during the second half of ‘57. After Davis gave him the boot, Coltrane kicked heroin and underwent a spiritual awakening; clean and sober and incredibly focused on music, he rejoined Davis’s band in early ‘58 to play on seminal Columbia recordings like ‘Round About Midnight, Milestones, and Kind of Blue. Coltrane’s self-discovery throughout the ‘50s, both as a band leader and sideman, would pave the way for the inner-galactic bang he’d chase down with his “classic” quartet in the ‘60s on the Impulse! label.
Coltrane was signed to Prestige during the latter part of the ‘50s, a period of intermingling and collaboration with a variety of combos. In addition to his work with Davis and Monk, Coltrane participated in a wealth of Prestige sessions as leader and accomplice, the latter of which are collected on Interplay, a five-CD box set spotlighting the period between September 1956 and March 1958. Interplay, a companion piece to last year’s Fearless Leader, is comprised of material from nine previously released albums, all of them taken from label-organized jam sessions (or “blowing sessions”, as they were colloquially referred). A veritable buffet of ‘50s jazzmen get in on the action, including a handful of sharp saxophonists (Al Cohn, Hank Mobley, Paul Quinchette, Zoot Sims), pianists (Red Garland, Tommy Flanagan, Mal Waldron), and some of the most wicked rhythm-section aces of the time, like bassist Paul Chambers and drummers Jimmy Cobb and Art Taylor.
Coltrane’s solos are crushingly obvious throughout (though jazz scholar/Trane biographer Lewis Porter offers track-by-track instrumental details in the set’s liner notes); they’re brawny and brainy, his tone sticking its elbows out amongst the more rational sounds of players like Cohn and Sims. These blowing sessions were good for hashing out ideas, and Coltrane’s full of them, exploring phrasing techniques, quotes, and horn syntax that he’d revisit in later years. The big group blowing sessions, like the September 1956 date with Cohn, Mobley, and Sims that yielded the Tenor Conclave album, suffer from too-many-cooks syndrome (so many tenor saxes at once!), while the smaller ensembles, like “The Cats”, a group featuring Flanagan, trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Doug Watkins, and drummer Louis Hayes, accentuate the space afforded by different instruments’ complementary patterns.
The April 1957 sessions that produced the album Dakar (released much later, in 1963, under Coltrane’s name to take advantage of his increasing notoriety) are shaded in noirish hues and something of an impish spirit, thanks to the two baritone saxophones (Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne) that buttress Coltrane’s tenor. Tracks like “Dakar” and “Witches’ Pit” are awash in thick-reeded atmosphere, while the uptempo cooker “Route 44” gives Coltrane carte blanche to unleash the tender fury of his notion-addled psyche. It’s unique to hear Coltrane play in a combo with baritone saxophones. Likewise, the rare opportunity to hear him solo alongside a flautist who isn’t Eric Dolphy (Frank Wess, in a September 1957 session that produced the albums Wheelin’ and Dealin’ and The Dealers) is something to relish in.
Interplay offers plenty of unexpected moments like these, full of a confluence of instrumental eccentricities that provide more intriguing contrasts than mere tenor-upon-tenor-upon-tenor. Perhaps the best is the collection’s final disc, a March 1958 session with guitarist Burrell, Flanagan, Chambers, and Cobb that would make up the album Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane. These tracks offer some of Coltrane’s most compassionate playing this side of his collaboration with Johnny Hartman, most notably on “Why Was I Born?”, a solo duet with Burrell, while “Lyresto” has that snap-footed spring that would define not-so-distant-future efforts like Blue Train. Burrell, while not a canonical name like Charlie Christian or Wes Montgomery, is nevertheless tack-sharp and coolly supportive. Coltrane blows, man, blows, without tramping down the ground laid by the tenured players below him. Hard shit, perhaps, but more like hard shit-in-training, a pair of hands rubbing together, calmly scheming, poised to ignite a personal consciousness in the waiting headspace of the collective.