First things first: let’s take it as read that this is a classic of the 20th century jazz canon and an essential point of reference in Coltrane’s own tumultuous career. 1958 found Coltrane recording for Prestige as a leader, having left Thelonious Monk’s quartet and before heading back to Miles Davis’ band to make history on Kind of Blue the following year. Here, he’s hunkered down with the Red Garland Trio (Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Arthur Taylor on drums), enjoying the easy interplay that had developed between the musicians over years of playing together, and taking the opportunity to throw out his newly-honed chops. Yes, this is the album on which Coltrane first emerged as the primary innovator of the jazz world, wielding an astonishing technical virtuosity and a blinding vision of the possibilities of the tenor sax.
That said, it’s striking to hear just how conventional the settings sound. This is ‘50s jazz, coming from a world of standards, hard bop and the great American songbook. Tellingly, none of the tunes here is composed by Coltrane. And yet, in almost every bar one can hear just how hard Coltrane is straining at those boundaries, reaching out in pursuit of the moments of pure transcendence and elevation to which he single-mindedly devoted the later years of his career. In this way, it’s hard not to hear this album with those later wild experiments in mind, looking for the seeds of the great avant-garde statements he made in the following decade.
So, with the benefit of historical hindsight, it’s truly fascinating to hear this earlier stage in Coltrane’s career as a preamble to the discoveries he was yet to make. For one thing, he sticks exclusively to the tenor saxophone—contemporary music’s principle ‘weapon of choice’ at the time, having superseded the trumpet earlier in the ‘50s. Within a decade, the tenor itself would give way to the electric guitar as the prime voice of musical innovation, but here Coltrane is riding the crest of that instrument’s most important period—without recourse to the soprano that later became such a staple of his repertoire. Moreover, this album was recorded in what might now seem like a peaceful age of innocence, before the great upheavals of the ‘60s—before Coltrane’s experiments with LSD and before his life-changing exposure to Albert Ayler’s earth-shaking innovations. Consequently, Coltrane plays it straight: no extended techniques, no abrasive over-blowing, no shrieks, no cries; just a mellow, clean tone coming right out of the heart of the horn.
But, oh, the notes he plays. The opening track, “Good Bait”, is a bluesy, boppish, mid-tempo swinger penned by Tadd Dameron and Count Basie, but just moments into his first solo, Coltrane is unleashed, transforming the tune into a wildly angular search for new shapes. It is here that he first demonstrates his trademark multi-phonic dexterity, impatiently pouring out great gouts of notes in the search for the ultimate combination—a technique christened by Ira Gitler in his original liner notes as “sheets of sound,” an utterly apt and incisive appellation that stuck with Coltrane for the rest of his days. Coltrane stretches this simple vamp out to an astonishing 12 minutes of endless extrapolations, packing more ideas into each bar than most of his contemporaries could manage in an entire tune.
But anyone who thinks Coltrane is all bluster and aggression would do well to hear “Theme for Ernie”, a plaintive and elegiac ballad written by Fred Lacy in memory of Ernie Henry, the alto saxophonist who died aged 31 in 1957. Here, Coltrane is pure emotion, displaying the same heartfelt intensity of feeling that would so often be mistaken for anger in his later years.
The rest of the album features some equally timeless performances: “I Want to Talk About You”, a classy Billy Eckstine ballad given an exhaustive 10-minute investigation; “You Say You Care”, a high-spirited, finger-snappin’ swinger; and—best of all—“Russian Lullaby”, a blistering, frenzied rendition of an Irving Berlin tune preformed at the very limits of up-tempo possibilities. It’s also on this final number that we can appreciate what a fantastic job Rudy Van Gelder—the engineer on the original 1958 sessions—has done on this remastering: when Coltrane takes his final, unaccompanied sax break, the echo is so clean and crisp it almost sounds like you’re in the room with him.
Given a time machine and the right connections, this reviewer surely would be.