How many superlatives can be used to describe John Coltrane? In a career that spanned nearly thirty years, Coltrane garnered about every published word equated with superiority and then some. While some critics easily dismiss the more avant-garde, African oriented rhythms he produced in his later years, there is consensus among jazz buffs that his work in the fifties defines his true genius.
Coltrane had developed a love of jazz during his childhood. During the forties, he cut his teeth as a musician playing “chicken shack”, the progenitor of rock and roll so named because of the only places in the South that played this hybrid of gospel, blues and jazz. But the shy Coltrane found the work demeaning; the stage act demanded performers literally climb the furniture around the joint while playing.
Fortunately, Coltrane was able to climb out of the reductive atmosphere of chicken shack and ascend the Mount Olympus of improvisational technique. The work on “Plays for Lovers” was recorded from 1957-1958 while he was contracted to Prestige Records. It was during these remarkable sessions that Coltrane proved to be among the greatest balladeers of the tenor saxophone, standing aside jazz titans Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz. But beyond Coltrane’s incomparable sax solos and riffs, “Plays for Lovers” features some of the leading lights of jazz as backup to Coltrane’s lead. Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Mal Waldron, Jimmy Cobb and Red Garland supply intoxicating rhythms upon which Coltrane blows sensuous melodies which makes a jazz lovers’ soul quiver in erotic delight. From the opening piano line of Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You” through Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”, Coltrane breathes reedy life into each fill and trill while his fingers gently glide through each run with aching precision.
My only criticism comes with the arrangements, which seem very much the same on each song. While this is a magnificent compilation of Coltrane and company, after nearly an hour, each song starts to sound the same. It’s disappointing, because it feels like this group of immensely gifted musicians were somehow being limited, keeping things a little too cool. I could sense the explosions right underneath that producer Bob Weinstock felt the need to reign in.
However, even with this slightly frustrating aspect the music on this album is straight from the heart of each person playing it. There are many passages where I could sense the band finding the ‘zone’, that Zen-like space where they lose themselves completely in what they’re playing. These moments are what make the album the amazing experience it is, because for a brief time, the music sweeps me up and into the bloodstream of this tremendous musical unit.
How many superlatives are there to describe John Coltrane? Not nearly enough in the English language. And this collection is an eternal legacy of a man who re-defined the parameters of jazz.