Music Review: Becoming Coltrane: Part One

By J. R. Carroll

This review/commentary will focus on Coltrane’s recordings with the Miles Davis Quintet for Columbia (in October 1955 and June and September 1956) and Prestige (in November 1955 and May and October 1956), as well as a variety of sideman dates and nominally leaderless sessions, many of which have recently been reissued by the Concord Music Group in the compilation entitled Interplay (with insightful notes by Coltrane scholar Lewis Porter). Part 2 will deal with the subsequent period of Trane’s emergence as a leader and as a key member of Monk’s quartet and then Miles’s sextet, a period in which his musical development became much easier to follow–and his discography much less.

The evolution of John Coltrane’s music from 1959 through 1967 can be neatly mapped to the output of just two labels, Atlantic and Impulse, augmented by a handful of recordings with Miles Davis — most notably, Kind of Blue — and one anomalous intervening date for Roulette. (Posthumous Impulse releases–supplemented by Atlantic outtakes, a fascinating series of early sixties live dates issued by Pablo, and a motley assortment of bootlegs–have enriched our understanding of Trane’s evolution, but not fundamentally altered it.)

But what of the crucial period between Coltrane’s hiring by Miles Davis in the autumn of 1955 and the coalescing of the Coltrane quartet format (though not its ultimate membership) in the Giant Steps sessions of spring 1959? Beware: Here be dragons. From the comfort of the Atlantic and Impulse years, the intrepid listener is plunged into a miasma of more than fifty sessions–as leader and as sideman–for at least ten different labels.

This would be mere inconvenience were it not for the fact that during this same period Coltrane’s style underwent a transformation and maturation that this muddled discography obscures. Fortunately, Coltrane’s biography does provide a convenient date of demarcation that at least permits partitioning the problem into two mini-miasmas.

In April 1957, Miles Davis disbanded the first of his great quintets, exasperated with the impact the continuing drug problems of Coltrane and drummer Philly Joe Jones were having on their performances. (Miles had gone cold turkey in 1954, so he knew it could be done.) The following month, Coltrane experienced what he later described as a “spiritual awakening” that gave him the strength to kick heroin for good, and then, at the end of May, Trane recorded his first session (for Prestige) as a leader. Shortly thereafter he began working regularly, first in private, then in the studio, and finally in public, with Thelonious Monk, culminating in the recently rediscovered Carnegie Hall concert.

The classic status of the quintet’s Columbia debut, ‘Round About Midnight, is well justified, but it has also proven a notable impediment to understanding Coltrane’s development during this turbulent phase of his life. Released, due to Miles’s contractual obligations to Prestige, only in March 1957 — ironically, on the eve of the quintet’s demise — it contained performances that were then anywhere from six months to a year and a half old, and that very consciously emphasized Miles’s cooler side at the expense of the blistering bebop numbers and up tempo standards that then dominated his set lists (and the Prestige dates, as well as some Columbia outtakes).

Columbia Records, with the deep pockets and sophisticated promotional machinery of CBS behind it, embodied a recording philosophy that differed from most other jazz labels in the 1950s. Employing carefully rehearsed arrangements and discreet splicing of multiple takes, its releases were finely honed, polished products targeted at a larger public than just the fanatical denizens of 52nd Street and Greenwich Village.

Prestige, on the other hand, embraced the more spontaneous–and, frankly, economical — approach of treating sessions as warts-and-all documents of performances, complete with studio chatter and the occasional mouthpiece squeak for that extra touch of authenticity. (Blue Note and Riverside fell somewhere in between, aspiring to Columbia’s production quality within a Prestige budget.)

John Coltrane
John Coltrane

Miles delivered magnificent performances for both labels, sparking the first Prestige session with a charming sort of mini-tribute to Ellington trumpeter/violinist/vocalist Ray Nance by covering one of his features, “Just Squeeze Me,” and quoting one of his novelty numbers, “Otto, Make That Riff Staccato,” in his solo on “The Theme.” But how to explain the drop-off in the quality of Coltrane’s solos in the three weeks that separated the initial quintet session for Columbia and their first date for Prestige?

Impeccable as Columbia’s releases may have been, it’s tempting to speculate that the music, whether by way of in-studio rehearsals or the editing block, was, well, optimized a bit. Or was it, rather, Coltrane’s difficulty adapting to the one-take-and-move-on atmosphere of the Prestige marathons? Was it his continuing struggle to stabilize his tone quality, despite some painful dental problems that may have contributed to his self-medication? Or was it just the stress of working for Miles, whose approach to breaking in new sidemen almost invariably was to toss them into the frying pan of live performance and let them sizzle until their essence emerged?

How much stress? Consider that Charlie Parker had been dead barely six months, and Miles’s book was still full of tunes — mostly bebop — that he had recorded or performed during his own years as a sideman with Bird (“Half Nelson,” “Ah-Leu-Cha,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Well, You Needn’t”) and as a fledgling leader: “Budo (a.k.a. Hallucinations),” “Dear Old Stockholm,” “Chance It (a.k.a. Max [Is] Making Wax),” “Woody’n You,” “‘Round Midnight,” “Tune Up,” “Weirdo (a.k.a. Sid’s Ahead),” “Four,” “Walkin’,” “Airegin,” “Oleo,” “Bags’ Groove,” “Dr. Jackle (a.k.a. Dr. Jekyll).” Remember, too, that in the years before joining Miles, Coltrane wasn’t often in circumstances–at least as a working musician — where he had much opportunity to improvise on bebop changes, not even when he was touring with Dizzy Gillespie. (However, as a sideman with Gillespie, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges, and others, he did play a great deal of blues and R&B, and those blues roots would prove to be fundamental to his mature style.)

Thus, what may come off as unfocused and fragmentary in Coltrane’s solos from this time may actually have been an artifact of his still-evolving emulation of Charlie Parker’s asymmetrical phrasing (derived, in turn, from Lester Young), which spilled across bar lines, packed with chromaticism and harmonic extensions. Far too often during his first nine months with Miles, Trane’s solos, after a promising start, would sputter out inconclusively with their potential unrealized; what he had not yet fully grasped was the way Bird could spin out multiple melodies in parallel through an almost Bach-like internal counterpoint, both “running” and rewriting the changes as he went along. (See Henry Martin’s Charlie Parker and Thematic Improvisation for a fuller exposition of this notion.)

By the second half of 1956, though, Coltrane seemed to have found the basis for a personal approach to playing bebop and standard changes; his solos now possessed a confident lyricism and structural continuity that only peeked through occasionally in the year’s earlier quintet sessions for Prestige and Columbia, in sideman dates with Miles’s amazing bassist, Paul Chambers, and in “blowing sessions” with pianist Elmo Hope and (on the title track of Tenor Madness only), Sonny Rollins.

Interestingly, this autumn of accomplishment opened with the first of the (supposedly) leaderless sessions that Coltrane participated in for Prestige. These dates were previously reissued as part of a massive, sixteen-CD compilation, which may have been a bit much for the average jazz fan to swallow, so Concord has opted to split them up into three smaller releases. The first of these, Fearless Leader, came out in August 2006 and –surprise– focuses on dates led by Coltrane. (The follow-up article to this one will cover this compilation in more detail.)

Dividing the remaining ten CDs worth of music into sessions led by other artists (which presumably will appear in a future release) and a group of “leaderless” sessions (compiled in the Interplay set) seems more arbitrary, though. True, Prestige treated them this way back in the fifties, but when most of the tunes on a date were written and/or arranged by one individual (most notably the intriguing and underappreciated composer/pianist Mal Waldron), it’s hard to see this as having been anything but a subterfuge to avoid paying him a full leader’s fee. (Waldron basically got a sideman’s wages, along with the designation of “musical director.”)

If the quintet dates reflected Miles’s well-worn gig repertoire, Coltrane’s “blowing sessions” reflected another side of Charlie Parker’s influence. While the folklore of bebop portrays its core artists merrily reworking the chord changes of the entire Great American Songbook, a closer look at Bird’s own recordings (and the live performances that have been preserved) reveals that the bulk of his book consisted of 12-bar blues, standard ballads with their original melodies, and tunes based on “rhythm changes,” the latter being a somewhat Procrustean simplification of Gershwin’s actual form and harmonies for “I Got Rhythm.”

Growing out of the classic Basie tenor duels between Lester Young and Herschel Evans (later Buddy Tate), by way of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic jam sessions and some classic bebop face-offs (Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, Gene Ammons-Sonny Stitt), the “blowing sessions” stick pretty close to this formula and not only follow the usual sequence of individual solos followed by trading fours with the drummer, but also feature the horn players trading choruses, half-choruses, and fours.

The Interplay set (and this first wave of outstanding Coltrane performances) kicks off with perhaps the most entertaining of all the “blowing sessions,” Tenor Conclave. Conceived as an evocation of the “Four Brothers” (Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, and Serge Chaloff), whose husky sonorities defined Woody Herman’s Second Herd, this date brings back Cohn and Sims, with Coltrane taking the role of Getz (whom he admired), and the darker-toned tenor of Hank Mobley replacing Chaloff’s baritone. All four hornmen sound like they were having a blast, and Coltrane’s crisp and fluent solos sound downright ebullient.

Trane carried this improvisational confidence into his next two dates with Miles: The final Columbia session that produced “All Of You” and “‘Round Midnight,” along with contrasting takes of “Sweet Sue, Just You” recorded expressly for a Leonard Bernstein TV special, and then a final marathon that satisfied Miles’s obligations to Prestige with classic performances of “If I Were A Bell,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “Half Nelson,” “You’re My Everything,” “I Could Write A Book,” “Oleo,” “Airegin,” “Tune Up,” “When Lights Are Low,” “Blues By Five” and a long-unreleased alternate version of “‘Round Midnight.”

In the midst of this flurry of sessions and gigs with Miles, Coltrane also took his first steps toward fronting a group of his own. Whims of Chambers (for Blue Note), which brought the bassist’s cohorts Coltrane and Jones together with Horace Silver, Kenny Burrell, and Donald Byrd, included two distinctive Coltrane originals, “Just For The Love” and “Nita,” the latter but the first in a series of songs dedicated to his first wife, Juanita (better known to us by her Muslim name, Naima). At the end of November, the brilliant composer/arranger Tadd Dameron entrusted Trane with five memorable new compositions (including the haunting “Soultrane” and “On A Misty Night”) that were released on Prestige as Mating Call (and which should prove a high point of the concluding set in Concord’s Coltrane series).

Then, inexplicably, things began to go sour for Coltrane. He, Naima, and stepdaughter Saeeda (of “Syeeda’s Flute Song” fame) had moved from New York back to Philadelphia in November, but the pull of “the life” seems to have been inescapable during these months. Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean recalled Coltrane in early April 1957 showing up for gigs filthy and disheveled, drinking heavily to fight off the sickness induced by trying to kick the heroin habit. It seems he would temporarily get clean only to fall back again, cycling back and forth between heroin and alcohol, and by the end of April Miles had had enough.

Concord’s Interplay set, which includes four sessions (nineteen tracks) spanning the period from March 23rd through May 17th of 1957, is especially valuable for the window it provides into the critical month before and after the disbanding of the Miles Davis Quintet. (Omitted, unfortunately, are two Mal Waldron dates, from April 19th and May 17th, that presumably will appear in the final Concord Coltrane set.) Fleshing out this period are Johnny Griffin’s A Blowin’ Session on Blue Note and a single, tantalizing recording of “Monk’s Mood” with Coltrane, Wilbur Ware, and the composer.

The March 23rd session, which spawned the album that gives its name to the new Concord compilation, seems to have caught Coltrane on one of his better days. With three contributions by Mal Waldron, this date really ought to have been issued in Waldron’s name, and Trane seems to have been stimulated by Waldron’s idiosyncratic harmonies. Unfortunately, not all of the other soloists, particularly cornetist Webster Young, seem to have been up to the challenge; there’s a lot of meandering, and not even the gorgeous “Soul Eyes” can hold up for a span of seventeen minutes.

The early April Blue Note date, A Blowing Session, opens with a phenomenal burst of virtuosic, hard-toned, bluesy runs, and, if you’re not listening carefully, you might think Coltrane had gotten his mojo back. Unfortunately, these choruses of “The Way You Look Tonight” (and the leadership of the date) belong to a big wind out of Chicago, Johnny Griffin, probably the only tenor player (other than Sonny Rollins) capable of going toe-to-toe with Coltrane at that time. When Trane’s solo arrives, your heart sinks as he reverts to the stuttering, inconclusive manner of a year earlier (albeit with better chops); whether it was the heroin or the alcohol talking, this session belongs to Griffin (who would succeed Coltrane in Monk’s quartet) and third tenor Hank Mobley.

Two weeks later, following a tentative foray into the studio with Thelonious Monk and Wilbur Ware, Trane settled in for three days in Hackensack (home of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, and the site of virtually all of the Prestige sessions), where he sounds more like his old self, though generally not up to the level of his autumn 1956 recordings. First up was a date, “non-led” by pianist Tommy Flanagan (who would later play on Giant Steps), that features some fine solo work by trumpeter Idrees Sulieman and guitarist Kenny Burrell and would be released under the title The Cats (and included in the Interplay set).

The next day brought a session that would eventually form parts of Mal Waldron’s Mal-2 and The Dealers albums; the pairing of Coltrane with altoist Jackie McLean must have seemed like a promising notion, but this was not one of McLean’s better outings, and the rest of the band sounds mediocre at best. With Coltrane back in form, the three Waldron originals and Rodgers & Hart’s “Falling In Love With Love” fare tolerably well, but the remaining track is simply bizarre: A lugubrious recasting of a song Waldron had played many times with Billie Holiday, “Don’t Explain,” complete with microtonal (or perhaps simply out-of-tune) tolling by McLean, that comes off sounding like the missing link between Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man Blues” and Albert Ayler’s “Witches And Devils.”

The third session, another “leaderless” Waldron date included in the Interplay set, matched Coltrane with a fine pair of baritone saxophonists, Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne, in an intriguing set of three tunes by producer Teddy Charles (“Dakar,” “Route 4,” and “Cat Walk”), two Adams originals (“Mary’s Blues” and “Witch’s Pit”), and Waldron’s own ballad, “Velvet Scene.” This session, which originally appeared as one side of a 16 rpm LP entitled Modern Jazz Survey: Baritones & French Horns and was later reissued under Coltrane’s name as Dakar, is the most satisfying of these spring dates, with Trane, Adams, and Payne feeding off one another and raising the performance well above the level of most “blowing sessions.”

Coltrane seemed to be getting back on track, but it was not to last. By the end of April, he had fallen off the wagon again and Miles had dissolved the quintet. By mid-May, he seemed to have hit bottom, and the two sessions in which he participated on May 17 reflect his distraction. He managed to survive a follow-on Mal Waldron session that generated a couple more standards, in interesting arrangements, for the Mal-2 disc, but the “blowing session” that was issued as Cattin’ With Coltrane And Quinichette (and collected in the Interplay set) was something of an embarrassment for both participants, who sound unfocused and allow too many promising ideas to just die on the vine.

With nowhere to go but up, Coltrane made a final and ultimately successful attempt at breaking the hold heroin had on him. And on May 31, 1957, clean at last, he walked into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio ready to begin a whole new phase in his career — and his life.

Coltrane discography for autumn 1955 – spring 1957:

Miles Davis, The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis with John Coltrane – Includes released and alternate takes for the ‘Round About Midnight album and the Leonard Bernstein “What Is Jazz?” TV special, along with early, unreleased versions of “Two Bass Hit,” “Budo,” and “Little Melonae.”

Miles Davis, ‘Round About Midnight (Legacy Edition) – In addition to tracks duplicated in the preceding compilation, also includes live recordings from the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in February 1956 as well as a pre-quintet version of “‘Round Midnight” from the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival.

Miles Davis, The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions – Includes all the tracks released on the albums Miles (The New Miles Davis Quintet), Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, and Steamin’, along with live recordings from the Steve Allen show in November 1955 and the Blue Note Club in Philadelphia in December 1956.

Paul Chambers, Mosaic Select: Paul Chambers – Includes all of Coltrane’s performances as a sideman with Chambers on the Blue Note albums Chambers’ Music (originally released on Jazz West) and Whims Of Chambers, along with three tracks recorded with a sextet led by Pepper Adams and Curtis Fuller.

John Coltrane, Interplay – Includes the “leaderless” Prestige albums Tenor Conclave, Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors, The Cats, and Cattin’ with Coltrane and Quinichette, along with a single track (“CTA”) released on Art Taylor’s Taylor’s Wailers album and the six tracks that originally appeared on side 1 of the 16 rpm LP Modern Jazz Survey: Baritones & French Horns and were later reissued under Coltrane’s name as the album Dakar.

Johnny Griffin, A Blowing Session – Includes released and alternate takes for Griffin’s Blue Note album.

The anticipated third set of Coltrane Prestige sessions from the Concord Music Group will likely include Elmo Hope’s Informal Jazz, Tadd Dameron’s Mating Call, Mal Waldron’s Mal-2 and The Dealers, and the title track from the Sonny Rollins Tenor Madness album.

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