Certainly for an artist the caliber of John Coltrane there are eras within a career, viewed more closely in retrospect, that demand isolated appreciation. The mining of Coltrane’s output, one that was so prolifically and swiftly manifested in several distinct phases over relatively short periods of time, may have inadvertently also inspired a cynicism in today’s music consumer. Whether it was his Atlantic tenure, or his time with Miles Davis, or his Quartet years, or his Village Vanguard residency, or his free jazz explorations, the myriad compilations of those (and more) of the various Coltrane epochs, presented in posthumous collections and box sets, have all been hailed, of course, as necessary purchases. And, to one degree or another, a convincing argument can be made that they are, in fact, necessary for any fan or collector.
So arrives another: Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings, a comprehensive five-disc box of every recording Coltrane made- all 37- for the Prestige label in 1958. Is this one, too, essential?
Start with the fidelity. Any of Coltrane’s recordings committed to tape by legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder in Gelder’s New Jersey home studio are most often considered sonically immaculate. These three dozen are not only no exception, they are so rich, so intimate, so warm, it’s as though Trane and his ensemble are there in the flesh.
Next, this particular Coltrane era represents the initial bloom of his “sheets of sound” style, one that would become immortal, revolutionary, and singular to the saxophonist, drawing flocks of the curious in his direction- musicians included- as well as driving some critics mad. Even with mature restraint and concise attention to composition and theme, the first signs of Coltrane unfolding fresh and innovative shapes and colors are obvious and glorious, striking an astounding balance between serving the song and chasing a new, devilish muse. The repertoire is full of classics such as “Lush Life,” “Stardust,” and “Good Bait,” yet the extended workout, as on “Russian Lullaby,” offers a scintillating glimpse of the expansive prowess Coltrane would exhibit in the coming decade.
As for the packaging, the CD set is compact and clean; each disc in an individual envelope, and there’s a 75-page connected booklet that features an extensive and detailed essay by the peerless Ashley Kahn, a musical historian whose knowledge of Coltrane is unsurpassed. Additionally, each track is well-notated with session dates and performers, and there is even a sheet music transcription of one of Coltrane’s mystical flights of improvisation.
Listening to Coltrane in 1958, in Gelder’s studio, at this moment in his development, is not only vital to the understanding of his artistic arc, but vital to the understanding of the history of jazz. It’s repetitive to write, but stating it again makes it no less true: This collection is unquestionably essential.i