Through no fault of his own, John Coltrane’s discography is kind of a mess. The compilations outnumber the proper albums and there is just too much overlap. At least The Definitive John Coltrane on Prestige and Riverside has a clear goal; to introduce Coltrane as a sideman and end the program with him as a leader. The music here stretches only from 1955 to 1958, but the late ’50s were a musical era where musicians and engineers all wore ties to work and produced records at a feverish pace. If you find yourself doing some of your own cross-checking between this collection and Coltrane’s records of the time, you will find that not all of it adds up. The title, The Definitive John Coltrane on Prestige and Riverside, is misleading. John Coltrane helped out with projects outside his own label at the time, but the time line remains intact. And a productive time is a productive time, no matter how you slice and dice it. In ’55, Coltrane arrived in New York to play with Miles Davis’ band. Two years later, he stole away Red Garland and Paul Chambers to make his own records. Does anything like that happen today?
John Coltrane’s Prestige outings have been packaged before…in a 16 CD boxset. The Definitive John Coltrane on Prestige and Riverside has the impossible job of pruning this era down to 21 tracks spanning two-and-a-half hours. The first two tracks of the album are “The Theme” and “Oleo,” representing, in hindsight, the conventional sound of pre-Columbia Miles Davis. Moving on from Coltrane’s alleged firing from Davis’ band due to heroin use, he takes the step from sideman to collaborator alongside Kenny Burrell and Thelonious Monk. Imagine, getting fired by Miles only to work with Monk! I guess it drives home that adage of windows of opportunity opening for every door closed shut, huh?
Other diversions from the path to bandleader include “Minor Mishap,” a recording billed to The Cats, and a brief collaboration with Tadd Dameron titled “Mating Call.” “Trinkle, Tinkle” is plucked from the joint-venture Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane; again, not a Prestige/Riverside recording, but some people would swear the truth of their testimony in the court of law with one hand upon this record. Thelonious Himself appears to be released under the Riverside umbrella, and here you get the one cut from the album that isn’t Monk by “himself.” Kenny Burrell appears again on a 1958 record that is, once again, on a different label. Still, their duet “Why Was I Born?” is a more than welcome way to usher jazz out of the be-bop era.
By 1957, the bandleader leg of Coltrane’s career was in full swing. Coltrane, Lush Life, and Soultrane are well-represented here, though the pickings start to taper off as you approach Black Pearls and Stardust. A website like Allmusic.com considers Bahia a compilation album, so I guess you’re lucky that the title track is included on the end (though it’s already seen the light of day about a dozen times by now). For those with extensive knowledge of John Coltrane’s early career, everything here is old news. For those only familiar with the stuff he made after signing to Atlantic, The Definitive John Coltrane on Prestige and Riverside might feel more like a history lecture than a mind-blowing listening experience. For me, it shows just how fast the jazz world moved back then. In the amount of time that it takes the average schlub to cobble together a high school diploma, guys like Miles, Monk, and John Coltrane were forging sounds that would forever change the face of jazz. It’s unreasonable to think that listeners can relate to that kind of thing today, which is what The Definitive John Coltrane on Prestige and Riverside is probably banking on. There is no inside edge to make up for this, no bait tracks boasting to being “previously unreleased.” What’s here has been out there for a long time. But good, expressive music remains just that. Plus it helps when someone does the dirty work of distilling it down to two CDs for you.