Side Steps is a new five-CD compilation of John Coltrane's work as a sideman during his formative years.
Essential to any comprehensive collection of the pioneer's work, this is Coltrane when he was still developing his style. Whether it be Sonny Rollins, Tad Dameron, Red Garland, or several other artists, these recordings come from a time when Coltrane was taking a standard union fee for sessions where he could get them. As excellent as his soloing is, these forty-three tracks sketch out an early period in his career before he was a revolutionary.
The music fairly well speaks for itself. Anything featuring Coltrane's playing is of value to the jazz collector, but this release is loaded with gems. Particularly sweet are the final four tracks on disc five, offering the rare experience of hearing Coltrane playing alto.
This may not be the ideal place to start if you are new to Coltrane, considering how much more celebrated his later work as a bandleader is. Then again, it's interesting to hear the artistic progression he was going through during these years (1956-58). Plus the exposure to lesser known bandleaders like pianist Elmo Hope and tuba player Ray Draper is an education in itself.
The seventy-two page book included with the set is a tremendous resource. Essays about Coltrane's work from the period offer useful background information. A great interview with original session supervisor Bob Weinstock sheds a great deal of light on what it was like to work with Coltrane. Detailed session information is listed for each disc. Essays are included as well for each of the dozen albums these tracks were taken from. Many photographs are laced throughout the book, effectively illustrating the sessions collected on the discs.
The five discs are housed in a sturdy, well-designed box. Opening up to three panels, the discs themselves are each tucked into an individual slot. Usually I don't like this type of packaging, but the felt-like backing ensures the discs will only get scratched if you are downright careless. The audio quality is superb throughout, with only the usual limitations of the era's recordings (i.e. too quiet of a rhythm section).
Side Steps is the third in an excellent series of Coltrane boxsets from the Concord Music Group, chronicling his recordings for Prestige Records. The first was Fearless Leader in 2006, which collected Coltrane's early albums as a bandleader. Interplay followed in 2007, collecting his albums released as a co-leader. Side Steps provides an indispensable chance to hear Coltrane's work with other people's bands early on in his career.