Since his untimely passing in 1967, countless posthumous releases by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane have seen the light of day, and last year, the acclaimed Both Directions at Once – culled from a “lost” 1963 recording session – climbed to #21 on the Billboard 200 album charts.
Think about that for a second. A jazz artist, deceased for more than a half-century, has an album land in the upper echelon of the 200 most popular albums in the country (of any genre – the album would also be his fourth album to top the jazz charts). It speaks volumes about the appeal and influence of Coltrane, and how much his fans can’t seem to get enough of his music, regardless of the coming and going of other musical genres.
While it’s unclear whether or not it will reach the same heights of mainstream popularity – boxed sets usually don’t fare as well, sales-wise – Coltrane ’58: the Prestige Recordings is yet another entry in the legendary artist’s voluminous posthumous discography, and one that’s obviously been assembled with great care and attention to detail. Craft Recordings – the reissue label responsible for recent releases by everyone from R.E.M. to Thelonious Monk to Creedence Clearwater Revival – has put together a top-notch set chronicling one of the most important phases of Coltrane’s career.
While still largely considered a sideman, by 1958 Coltrane had established impressive credentials working in the bands of artists like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and the previous year he recorded Blue Train, his only Blue Note album as a bandleader (featuring groundbreaking work by trumpeter Lee Morgan and drummer Philly Joe Jones, among others). It was 1958, however, when the “sheets of sound” (to quote journalist Ira Gitler) began to emerge from his recording sessions. This frenetic bebop sound – tempered with exquisite takes on ballad standards – brought hitherto unknown musical prowess and intensity to jazz music in general and Coltrane in particular.
Coltrane ’58 gathers up all of the 1958 sessions Coltrane recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary home studio in Hackensack, New Jersey. While these recordings have been released on a number of albums both during and after Coltrane’s 1967 passing – Lush Life, Soultrane, Bahia, The Stardust Session – this is the first time they have all been assembled in one deluxe set – on five CDs or eight 180-gram records, featuring a lavish book with notes and photos – and are presented chronologically, which gives the listener the opportunity to hear this exciting sound develop throughout a 12-month period.
Grammy-winning jazz historian Ashley Kahn contributed lengthy, detailed liner notes to the set and at one point explains why it can be so hard to get a handle on Coltrane’s discography despite his relatively short recording career: “Coltrane’s comet-like run as a leader lasted only ten years, yet his sound developed so rapidly, covered so much stylistic ground, that his audience was left in the dust, wondering which iteration they’d be hearing on disc or onstage. Understanding the man – really grasping his genius – ultimately requires meeting all the Coltranes.”
Here we meet Prestige Coltrane, and as laser-focused as it is on one specific year, it’s a remarkably productive and eclectic year with a great deal for the listener to take in. Opening with the Billy Strayhorn classic “Lush Life”, things start on a deceptively leisurely tempo, but the intensity of the soloing shows a group of musicians unconstrained by balladry. On McCoy Tyner’s “The Believer”, Coltrane guides his band through lively, melodic bebop, with sidemen taking rich, generous solos (a fiery Donald Byrd on trumpet, in particular).
While Coltrane’s own compositions make rare appearances on these sessions, they provide some of the set’s high points and show a maturity that would later be honed on further sessions. “Goldsboro Express” is a breakneck track that pares down the sound to a trio – with Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums – boiling down the hard bop to its essence. “Black Pearls”, another Coltrane original, takes its cues from the bebop of Blue Train, with Coltrane and Byrd perfecting the melody as a duo before flying off into typically adept individual soloing.
But this is not meant to be a Coltrane-as-Composer set. The treasure trove of standards – Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby”, Hammerstein/Kern’s “Why Was I Born”, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”, among many others – live comfortably alongside more obscure then-contemporary songs like trumpeter Cal Massey’s “Nakatini Serenade”, a bright blast of Latin swing, highlighted by the intricate drumming of Louis Hayes. That Latin feel carries over to other songs, like “Bahia” (from Ary Barroso’s 1938 melody, originally titled “Na Baixa do Sapateiro”), which alternates between ostinato and swing sections with equal grace.
Coltrane’s Prestige era was eventually followed by a fruitful run with Atlantic Records (1959-1961) and seminal works for Impulse! Records, including the trailblazing A Love Supreme and boundary-shattering free jazz albums such as Ascension, Meditations, and the posthumous Interstellar Space. But the Prestige era, as short-lived as it was, is one of the most crucial periods in Coltrane’s relatively brief recording career, and one that seems not only revolutionary but oddly prescient. As Kahn writes, “Coltrane’s vision looked far beyond just sound. He saw the world in a way that predicted the seismic societal shift of the late ’60s long before it happened.”