Hot Wax – May 2019

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John Coltrane

Coltrane ’58: The Prestige

Recordings (Craft Recordings)

  • John Coltrane – tenor saxophone
  • Kenny Burrell – guitar
  • Donald Byrd – trumpet
  • Paul Chambers – bass
  • Jimmy Cobb – drums
  • Tommy Flanagan – piano
  • Wilbur Harden – flugelhorn, trumpet
  • Louis Haynes – drums
  • Freddie Hubbard – trumpet
  • Art Taylor – drums

1958 was a good year for John Coltrane, but so were the previous three. Ever since joining Miles Davis in 1955 Coltrane had been turning out distinctive improvisations with the star trumpeter’s outfit and, when he left Davis for a spell, with Thelonious Monk, as well as on frequent sessions for other leaders. But his work in 1958 is indeed special, as affirmed again and again in this sizeable collection (five CDs; eight LPs) which brings together all of Coltrane’s work that he recorded as a leader or co-leader for the Prestige label that year. (The additional 1958 work that the prolific and adaptable saxophonist did with Davis, Cecil Taylor, George Russell, Michel Legrand, Ray Draper, Gene Ammons, and Wilbur Harden is absent.) There’s a whole lot of music of these sides, and for the most part it’s outstanding. 

By 1958 Coltrane, although still not a bandleader, was a known quantity in serious jazz circles. Having dealt with his substance abuse problem the year before, Coltrane became more committed to his art than ever. His technical command of the tenor saxophone is now overwhelming. The perfectly articulated cascades of notes (his “sheets of sound” in Ira Gitler’s classic phrase) pour from his horn with an assurance that demands utter attention. But technical virtuosity is only one aspect of his genius. There’s also the sheer heft of Coltrane’s tone, which, united with the melodicism of his lines, and the consistent passion of his playing, combines to transform him into a jazz marvel. There was nothing like him then and there’s still just no turning away from this extraordinary sound.

Coltrane isn’t the whole show though. The six sessions – running from January to December of 1958 – find him in good company. Two masterful players from the Davis band, the pianist Red Garland and the bassist Paul Chambers, join the drummer Art Taylor to make up the basic support unit for Coltrane. (The trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Wilbur Harden, and the pianist Tommy Flanagan, the guitarist Kenny Burrell, and the drummer Louis Hayes all appear on one session apiece; trumpeter Donald Byrd and drummer Jimmy Cobb come on for two.) Each of these young aces sound particularly enlivened in the company of the master.

There’s gold on each of the six sessions: express train chargers, mid-tempo romps, and heart wrenching ballads – all eliciting strikingly engaged readings from Coltrane and company. The musical language spoken throughout is hard bop; the modal dialect, which would obsess Coltrane for the rest of his short life, was not to spring forth until the following year with Davis’s Kind of Blue, an epochal recording which counts Coltrane’s stunning contributions among its highlights.

Contemporary saxophonists have been culling ideas from the Prestige material, be it such breakneck exercises as “Russian Lullaby” and “Lover Come Back to Me” or gorgeously intoned ballads like “Lush Life” and “I Want to Talk About You,” ever since they were issued. What we today understand as the mainstream sound of the saxophone basically originates in large part from these recordings.

Coltrane ‘58 tells only one part of the story. Coltrane in 1958 didn’t sound like he did in, say, 1964, and certainly not in 1966 and ‘67. But early maturity is still maturity. If Coltrane had put down his horn at the close of 1958, he’d still be the revered and reverently studied figure that he remains today. (Steve Futterman)

Masters of the Vibes

  • (Marimba Productions)
  • by Anthony Smith

The vibraphone is that most curious of instruments, having staked its claim in the jazz world and other musical recesses over the past century while largely avoiding acknowledgement and recognition from the general public. Why hasn’t it gained greater traction? How has the instrument resonated, literally and figuratively, to make its mark in jazz? How have the masters broadened the scope of the vibes and left their thumbprint – or mallet mark, if you prefer – for the ages? These questions, and many others, are investigated from fascinating angles in this sui generis collection of interviews with many of jazz’s most significant living vibraphonists.
Any reader, no matter how well-versed they may be when it comes to the state of the vibraphone and the artists working behind them, is likely to glean some wisdom and new information from these pages. And as an added bonus, you can’t get very far here without being pointed toward recordings worth seeking out. There are recurring themes to be found in the book – the influence of Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, and Gary Burton on today’s players; the future of the instrument; the two- vs. four-mallet debate – but no two conversations are alike.

Interesting tales abound as these talks go off on different tangents. Burton touches on his creative process when working with Chick Corea, Terry Gibbs looks back to the heyday of the music, Mike Mainieri delves into his experiments with amplification, Joe Locke explores personalization through limitations and the act of growth, and David Friedman touches on Double Image and his work in jazz education. Nearly three dozen vibraphonists, from top-tier performers like Stefon Harris and Steve Nelson to new faces like Ian Harland and Jake Chapman, freely share their thoughts with author Anthony Smith, a fine vibraphonist and deep thinker in his own right. With all of the rich information provided in these interviews, plus a foreword from saxophone icon Joe Lovano, a tribute to Bobby Hutcherson, a timeline covering the history of the vibraphone, and a list of additional players to check out, Masters of the Vibes proves to be the first and last word on the subject. (Dan Bilawsky)

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