"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."
Attributed variously to Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa and Laurie Anderson, the adage is particularly appropriate when it comes to musical giants. Imagine, then, the task facing a reviewer of Fearless Leader, a 6-CD box set of Coltrane's recordings on the Prestige label from May 1957 to December 1958 as a leader of his own ensembles. Sure, you can talk about ballads, 12-bar blues, bop or an AABA structure but those provide little more than a skeletal framework. Words are incapable of describing intonations, grace notes, colors, phrasing or even "comping." You're still dancing outside the building.
That said, trust me when I say Fearless Leader is a must have for any Coltrane fan and anyone interested in the development of modern jazz saxophone. Hindsight tells us these are not the recordings that made Coltrane a legend. Instead, this is a Coltrane in transition and the tunes can be spotty. But our knowledge allows us to trace Coltrane developing the talents that would take him to the top of his art.
This period was transitional both personally and musically. Coltrane signed with Prestige after being fired, once again, from the Miles Davis Quintet. After experiencing what Coltrane himself called "a spiritual awakening," he kicked his heroin addiction and alcohol and concentrated on his music. In addition, during these sessions he began playing at The Five Spot in New York City with Thelonius Monk. (A CD of Coltrane performing with Monk at Carnegie Hall in December 1957 may well have been last year's best jazz release.) How significant from a musical standpoint was this period? The year after the last of these sessions, not only would Coltrane join Miles on the legendary Kind of Blue, he would record Giant Steps on the Atlantic label, his first release consisting entirely of his own compositions and which, like Kind of Blue, is now in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
From a musical perspective, the transition from sideman to innovator can be traced in these recordings. Here is where Coltrane, put in the role of a leader, honed his talents. For example, Discs 1 and 2, which consist largely of sessions in May and August 1957 and January 1968, are fairly straight ahead jazz performances.
Disc 1 opens with one of the eight tunes Coltrane wrote for these sessions. It also includes appearances by the too little known Johnny Splawn on trumpet and Sahib Shihab on baritone sax. It concludes with a somewhat unique ensemble — a trio comprised of Coltrane, Earl May on bass and Arthur Taylor on drums.
By Disc 2, however, we see the rhythm section that largely provides the foundation for the balance of the recordings: Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Taylor on drums. More important, near the end of the disc we begin hearing the cascade of sound Coltrane would produce, such as on "Nakatini Serenade."
These serve as a precursor to what appears on Discs 3 and 4, recordings from February to May 1958. These sessions involved that quartet, with trumpeter Donald Byrd contributing to the last session. Here is where the Coltrane sound really begins to take shape. In fact,
The LPs released from these sessions led jazz critic and historian Ira Gitler to describe Coltrane's playing as "sheets of sound." The phrase arises from Coltrane's ability to play arpeggios so rapidly that you're literally hearing hundreds of notes a minute. And what is one of the first examples? None other than an Irving Berlin tune, "Russian Lullaby." This is Coltrane playing in at a frenetic, high velocity pace, flooding the music with polytones. Coltrane even agreed with Gitler's description but more narrowly defined it. He said the sheets of sound existed when he was playing faster than and as many as three chords over every one played by the rhythm section.
Although Coltrane keeps developing these skills over the final recordings that appear on Discs 5 and 6, from July and December 1958, those discs tend to be a tad heavier on the ballads. Yet that is another essential part of these recordings. From beginning to end, Coltrane shows he isn't just capable of high-speed bop riffs. Coltrane is equally adept at turning a phrase or adding colors to ballads. And there is little problem moving between the two styles. Thus, for example, on Disc 2, Coltrane and his bandmates provide a ballady rendition of "Bass Blues" before moving into up tempo bop with "Soft Lights and Sweet Music." The latter is yet another Berlin tune that Coltrane and crew convert into something the composer could never have imagined. The commentary indicates the band is clocking in at about 384 quarter notes a minute.
The problems Fearless Leader faces are twofold. One is that we are listening and judging with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what came later. This may make it too easy to pick out some of the flaws in these recordings and to discount them as simply adequate precursors to later greatness. This is especially so given Coltrane's later ventures into modal and free jazz. The other is the technology of the day. Discs 1 and 2 and most of Disc 3 are in mono. And, depending on the headphones or system used to listen to the discs, there are times when brushes on the drums or a particular cymbal make it sound as if there is a hiss in the recordings. Those problems, though, are created by the listener, not Coltrane.
Coltrane was only required to provide Prestige with three LPs. Yet all the tunes from these sessions came out over the course of time. Prestige ultimately released 11 LPs, with all but the original contract obligation coming after Coltrane left the label and become even more prominent thanks to Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. Thus, for example, even though Coltrane's own "Slowtrane" was recorded in August 1957, it did not appear until 1965's The Last Trane, the final LP Prestige released from these sessions. Still, this is another area in which this box set shines.
The discs in the box set present the music in the order in which it was recorded, thus truly tracing Coltrane's development over the sessions. Yet capping it off is a 64-page booklet that provides far more than a basic Coltrane biography and history of the sessions. It not only lays out how the listener can program a CD or MP3 player to listen to the music in the order in which it was released on the original LPs, it also includes the original liner notes to those LPs. Thus, while hindsight allows us to see Coltrane in transition, we also learn how Coltrane and these recordings were viewed by contemporaries.
All in all, this set provides insight into a crucial stage in the development of one of the main architects of American jazz and the tenor saxophone. I'm just glad Coltrane didn't also dabble in architecture. I can't dance.