Following Fearless Leader and Interplay, Side Steps completes Prestige Records planned three boxed-set series focusing on tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. The work and artistry on display by many talented musicians over the five discs in the set are taken from recording sessions Trane worked as a sideman, occurring between 5/7/56 through 1/3/58.
The music, much of it hard bop, has all been previously released and is presented in near chronological order of the sessions. Side Steps collects complete albums: Elmo Hope Sextet – Informal Jazz, Tadd Dameron with John Coltrane – Mating Call (Ashley Kahn’s liner notes point out this “was the first album by any label to feature Trane's name on the cover”), Mal Waldron – Mal/2 and three by The Red Garland Quintet – All Mornin’ Long, Soul Junction, and High Pressure. Coltrane had previously worked with Garland in Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s band and the Miles Davis Quintet.
Also included are excerpts from Sonny Rollins – Tenor Madness, Gene Ammons’ All Stars – The Big Sound, Gene Ammons and His All Stars – Groove Blues, The Red Garland Quintet – Dig It!, the self-titled The Ray Draper Quintet featuring John Coltrane, and Mal Waldron – The Dealers.
Of historical significance is the title track “Tenor Madness” because it is the only recorded summit between Rollins and Trane. Rollins, in essence, stands in for Miles with the Quintet as the rest of the band (Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones) plays in support. What is impressive is that rather than hearing two young guns on the rise, blowing and wailing away to outdo the other, their different styles blend extremely well together as they trade licks, revealing a respect for each other and the music.
Although Side Steps only covers a limited period of time, close to 18 months, Coltrane’s growth as a player is still noticeable over the course of the set. In April 1957, Miles Davis kicked Trane out of his quintet due to what Miles told Downbeat was “junkie shit.” After the Waldron recording sessions on April 19th, Trane headed to Philadelphia and kicked his habit. During the latter half of ’57, he began playing with Thelonius Monk and also recorded albums as a leader, such as Blue Train for Blue Note. Trane revealed on the liner notes for A Love Supreme he experienced a spiritual awakening this year .
What I enjoyed most about Side Steps was discovering talented artists I was not aware of. It’s expected to hear Trane blow his horn well, but I was surprised and very intrigued by Draper playing tuba at a time in jazz when it was not a popular instrument. Also catching my ear for its uniqueness is Jerome Richardson on flute in Ammons’ octet, which finds Trane playing alto sax. “The Real McCoy” is credited as his first recoding on that horn
Side Steps contains Kahn’s well-written and researched liner notes that reveal the history of Trane and these sessions, original album liner notes, a sessionography identifying the players, and an informative interview by Kahn with producer/Prestige record-label owner Bob Weinstock from February 2001.
For those who don’t already own the original albums, Side Steps is a great collection to immerse oneself in. It helps complete the picture of John Coltrane and provides glimpses of some of his lesser-known contemporaries, who deserve to be heard and remembered. Although I am not thrilled with the way the packaging holds the discs (one needs to slip them between a small bit of cardboard, which could lead to scratching), I cannot recommend this set enough.