His work in Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk's bands from the same era feature much more exploratory, innovative, and passionate playing.
Taken from a recording session he attended a few short months after the release of his star-making Blue Train album in late 1957, The Bethlehem Years features John Coltrane in a context that adds nothing to his recorded legacy. The album makes sense for Coltrane fanatics who want to fill a hole in their history records, but as far as the casual jazz fan is concerned, it should be approached as little more than a marketing trick.
That's not to say there isn't any good music to be found here. The first disc of the two-disc set is an all-star recording featuring esteemed players like Philly Joe Jones, Donald Byrd and Freddie Green. The problem is that the album feels as much theirs as it does Coltrane's. It could easily be argued that Donald Byrd's playing on the album is just as vital as the more famous horn man's, but Donald Byrd reissues aren't going to empty many wallets, so we have a new Coltrane album. The playing is of a uniformly high quality, but no one astounds; and apart from one or two tracks ("Late Date" has a coolly bouncing theme and there's a nice run-through of Irving Berlin's "Love and the Weather"), the tunes rarely rise above pleasant. Coltrane pulls of a nice solo here or there, and some of them -- like the one on "Midriff" -- have traces of the lines he would later follow, but his work in Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk's bands from the same era feature much more exploratory, innovative, and passionate playing.
The liner notes tell us that the recording comes from two sessions: an all-star conglomeration of critic's poll winners (previously released as Winner's Circle) and a previously unreleased Art Blakey date where Coltrane sat in with the Jazz Messengers. A more polite Jazz Messengers is a good reference point for the music here -- although Blakey's bands of the time never did anything quite as syrupy as "The Kiss of No Return" (of which we're given three takes). Regardless, it's still kind of a kick to hear Coltrane play with Blakey - a very different drummer than the ones he normally played with -- but the musical results add nothing to our understanding of either musician. They were gathered at the behest of Bethlehem Records in order to market a gimmick. Almost fifty years later, it seems that Shout Factory Records has followed in that spirit.
Coltrane's lasting appeal stems from his musical and spiritual intensity -- the sublime fervor and restless intensity he brought to works like "Alabama" from Live at Birdland or A Love Supreme. His resonance has little, if anything to do with unassuming hard bop; others did it better and more interestingly. It's nice to hear Coltrane playing this kind of music, but only in the same way that it would be nice to hear Kurt Cobain playing in a Cheap Trick cover band. Which is to say that it's lovely to be able to fill in a part of the picture we hadn't seen before, but the music is not significant in itself. To be fair, The Bethlehem Years makes better cocktail party music than most cash-in jobs, and the packaging and liner notes show a fair amount of care, but that's a faint praise for an album credited to John Coltrane.
In the two years after recording the music presented here, Coltrane would cut Giant Steps and My Favorite Things, two works of wide-ranging individual and genre-changing implications. Those albums are complete works of astounding creativity and musical mastery; The Bethlehem Years is nothing more than a curio designed to fill a discographical hole and as such can be recommended to completists only.