[7 December 2006]
Of all the major jazz musicians, John Coltrane had the longest period of development and apprenticeships. Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis, Coleman—each had made their mark as a leader, even as a revolutionary, well before they were 30. Coltrane, however, spent his 20s and early 30s as a pupil—first in Dizzy Gillespie’s bands, then with Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges, then in the first Miles Davis Quintet, and finally with Thelonious Monk. By 1959, when he recorded Giant Steps, Coltrane was a mature talent with a musical revolution under his fingers, but he was 33 years old and less than a decade from his premature death.
Trane’s time with Miles Davis, of course, was exhaustively documented by Prestige and Columbia—so much so that that it often seems that the tenor saxophone player was, on the one hand, a co-leader of that great quintet and, on the other hand, practically born into the quintet from nowhere. Indeed, given the way that Trane’s music often seemed like a more in-depth investigation of the possibilities raised by Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s influence over his greatest reed partner is almost surely exaggerated.
Those who point to Coltrane’s six-month stint with pianist Thelonious Monk have had little to go on until recently. Monk’s quartet with Trane was officially documented only by fewer than a dozen studio tracks on Riverside. Those tracks did not suggest that the Monk/Trane alliance of 1957 was a summit between giants. Monk, in magisterial command, was plainly schooling the tenor player with the metallic, nasal tone. Then, in 1993, Blue Note Records released a shoddy but astonishing bootleg of the quartet, live at the Five Spot. Last year, an even more mind-blowing document appeared: Monk and Coltrane live at Carnegie Hall from the same year. These two discs revealed the Coltrane apprenticeship to be something astonishing and rare indeed: a future master discovering himself under the fingers of a master teacher. Not to play down Coltrane’s time with Miles Davis, but the live dates with Monk were the soundtrack of a corner being turned—Coltrane discovering the power of his own sound and the mysteries he would have to probe in his own approach to melody and rhythm.
The time would be right, then, for Riverside Records to remaster and reissue the 1957 studio dates between Monk and Trane. What had we missed in them years before, when we hadn’t yet heard the live dates? As fine as they were as Monk albums (with his lovely tunes, his hands-off band-leading, and his authoritative oddball style on the piano), would Coltrane’s average-sounding and tentative contributions seem different in light of the “discoveries” of hearing them together live?
The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings, a two-disc look at every squib and squiggle of these dates, teaches us that we pretty much had it right the first time.
This is not to say that Coltrane’s time with Monk was not crucial—the live dates have put that debate to rest. But these studio dates—an April 1957 recording of “Monk’s Mood” with Wilbur Ware on bass, two days in June 1957 with a septet including Coleman Hawkins outplaying Coltrane on tenor producing seven tracks, and a July date for quartet that shows promise but not mastery on three tracks—remain what they always were: fine Monk and so-so Trane, better heard as tasty post-bop work by a major composer and pianist than anything resembling a summit between masters.
The April trio on “Monk’s Mood” starts with a couple-three minutes of naked Monk on solo piano before Trane tiptoes into the melody with utter deference. Coltrane sounds like he is trying to honor the tune but also not make a mistake. His opening cadenza is muted and tame, and the rest of the track is a barely-embellished statement of the melody—literally the sound of a saxophonist with training wheels on. Because Monk plays the melody in a rough unison with the horn throughout, there is a sense in which the track works well indeed—as an exposition of Monk’s oft-repeated query as to why jazz improvisers are so quick to jettison the melody in the first place.
The sextet tunes are fun, with Ray Copeland’s trumpet, Gigi Gryce’s alto, and Hawkins’ tenor supplementing the quartet and lending a jam session vibe to the proceedings. “Crepuscule with Nellie” is delivered in four takes and most other tracks in two takes each. Your patience for listening to the duplication will be a measure of your jazz nerdiness, I suppose, but let’s note that “Nellie” is read here without solos, so the four takes do not even offer the fun of hearing how improvisers vary their ideas and style from take to take. The arrangements vary some, but the distinctions won’t be of much interest outside of some master class at Berklee. You will have some fun hearing the ways that Hawkins—with his brawny tone and brusque way with Monk’s melodies—plays on the alternate takes. On the first “Off Minor” be sounds like Sonny Rollins—modern and sly—while the next take is more from the ‘30s in approach. Coltrane does not solo.
On “Epistrophy”, Coltrane is handed the ball on first-and-ten. He plays pleasantly but somewhat laboriously, winding his melody around Monk’s chords with care but not flair. Ray Copeland sounds more natural, and Art Blakey’s drums solo is joyous, followed by Hawkins impossibly terrific solo that begins dead-on the melody and slowly moves away on a flowing blues tip. To say that he outplays Trane is not the point: he plays like a musician who already knows who he is, whereas Coltrane was still learning.
The last track from the June sessions is a quartet take on “Ruby, My Dear”—Monk’s most affecting melody, I believe—featuring Hawkins. The swing-era champ plays tenderly and wisely, unafraid to take some harmonic risks as he tastes the freedom of the new era without abandoning what made the earlier jazz players so directly expressive. A month later, it was Coltrane on the same tune. It’s apples and oranges, of course, but it’s fair to say that Trane is beginning to become himself more within the Monk style—playing his flurries of scales up and over the tune, softening his tone as appropriate, and beginning to sound more independent of Monk’s guiding hand. Side by side, Hawkins’ work is much better, but you’re deaf if you don’t hear a different kind of modern mastery taking shape in Coltrane’s approach.
The last tunes, quartet takes on “Nutty” and “Trinkle Tinkle”, are better still, if still not half as good as what the group played at the Five Spot and Carnegie Hall that same year. Maybe it was Coltrane’s legendary self-consciousness being overly aware of the microphones and all that they implied about posterity and history. Did Coltrane have an inkling about where he was headed and about how Monk would help him get there? And surely he must have known that Monk’s work was already a treasure, one that a journeyman tenor player with ideas about the big time shouldn’t mess up, right?
Whatever the reason, these studio recordings remain what they always were: fine jazz if nothing earth-shaking, but plainly the spark behind something that would turn into the jazz equivalent of a 10.0 Richter scale rumble. Jazz fans may already have the one-disc version, and that’s surely enough. Newbies looking for something unforgettable in the union of two famous jazz names would be better off with last year’s Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. Together they could be combustible and magic, but maybe it took some time.