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Music Review: John Coltrane – The Very Best of John Coltrane: The Prestige Era

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On an album where every track is a highlight, it’s got to be a mistake to single out any one of the tunes for special praise. It may be that your own personal taste leads you to prefer one to anothera ballad to an uptempo piece, a favorite instrumental combination, even a particular solobut all the time you know that personal preference aside, there is little objective evidence for that preference. This is true of nearly every one of the albums I’ve listened to in Concord Music’s The Very Best of… series. Whether it’s Thelonious Monk or Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker or Miles Davis, every track is a winner. The only thing to complain about is that there aren’t a whole lot more of them.

Logic aside, it’s even truer about The Very Best of John Coltrane: The Prestige Era. How often can you say a performance is great? After awhile it seems that you’re simply repeating yourself because it has become an impossible chore to find new ways to say “wonderful.” So starting with the premise that every one of the 10 tracks on the Coltrane album is a gem, let me give you some idea of what is there and add a few thoughts about some of their attractions.

The 10 songs on the CD were recorded between 1956 and 1958. They have been culled from eight different albums, most on the Prestige label. There is one trio performance, the rest are quartets and quintets. The personnel changes on different cuts, but Trane was playing with the best around, so every track seems like an ensemble of stars. You’ve got pianists like Red Garland, Tommy Flanagan, Tadd Dameron, and one track with Monk. Bassists include Earl May, Wilber Ware, John Simmons, and the almost omnipresent Paul Chambers. On drums, there’s ‘Tootie’ Heath, Shadow Wilson, Arthur Taylor, and Philly Joe Jones. On one of the two quintet tracks, Donald Byrd plays trumpet and the other features the guitar of Kenny Burrell. And hovering over all these star musicians is Coltrane and his tenor sax.

Now, having said that every one of these tracks is a highlight, let me highlight a few of the higher lights. The 1957 recording of the Monk composition “Nutty,” with Monk on the piano, is something special. It makes a nice comparison with the live version Monk recorded with Johnny Griffin on tenor, which is included on The Very Best of Thelonious Monk. Trane’s work with Donald Byrd, speeding their way through “Lover Come Back to Me,” is nothing short of remarkable and a good indication of the direction in which he was moving. The soulful rendition of “Soultrane,” pun aside, is as sensitive a reading of the ballad as you could hope for. “Theme for Ernie” is nothing to look down your nose at.

His own composition, “Traneing In” has a nice blues feel and some fine piano work from Garland. “Good Bait” offers a long Chambers solo followed by some great interaction between Trane and Taylor. Kenny Burrell turns in some excellent solo work on “Freight Trane.” Cole Porter’s “I Love You” is handled by the trio. Coltrane puts a shine on the standard.

If you don’t already have a taste for Coltrane, The Very Best of John Coltrane will whet your appetite. On the other hand, if you don’t already have a taste for Coltrane, what rock have you been hiding under?

About Jack Goodstein