Coltrane '58: The Prestige Recordings celebrates the 60th anniversary of jazz pioneer John Coltrane’s 1958 recordings for New York based indie jazz label Prestige Records, presented in a complete chronological sequence. These 37 tracks serve an inspiring listening session revealing all aspects of Coltrane’s approach that year. ArkivJazz spoke about the project with GRAMMY-winning American music historian Ashley Kahn, who penned the liner notes for the 40-page book which accompanies this historic release.
ArkivJazz: How lucky you are to have spent all the time you did with this much of Coltrane’s music.
Ashley Kahn: Yeah. It’s not a bad gig, what can I say. If you’re going to be associated with one artist and repeatedly have to examine his music and talk about it, John Coltrane is the guy
AJ: Also, there are the various Coltranes…the Impulse Coltrane, the Atlantic Coltrane and the Prestige Coltrane are all similar but different people. Most of the recordings are tied together by Rudy van Gelder who did the Blue Note and the Prestige recordings, but not the Atlantic.
AK: Yes, and it was a happy return to Rudy’s in 1961 when he was able to record again with him again for Impulse. He spoke about that and, he didn’t mention anyone by name, but he appreciated the fact that certain engineers got more of the overtones and more of the room sound. It sounds like what he was saying is that in other places the miking was just a little too close and that Rudy was able to get the warmth and the three-dimensionality of his tone…which he much preferred.
AJ: and how amazing is it that we’re here talking about the tone and the sound, and it was recorded in his (Rudy Van Gelder) parents’ living room.
AK: Well, it just goes to show that it’s not always about the architecture and the material used on the walls. There are so many other factors and it includes the ears of the engineer and how he makes use of the equipment available at the time.
AJ: Producer Bob Weinstock sitting and watching a baseball game in the middle of the room while everyone else is recording is not your typical vision of a recording studio, but it worked, and it worked for hundreds of recordings.
AK: Exactly, and it’s not your typical vision of a record producer either…that he would listen with one ear and watch the Brooklyn Dodgers, or whoever was his team, with the other. We should point out though, that the sound was turned off and he was just watching the game. Otherwise we would’ve heard some announcements in the background [laughs].
AJ: Exactly! Nevertheless, the year 1958 was an extraordinary year as is proven on this set. Not only did Coltrane record for his own recordings for Prestige, but he did recordings with Miles, Gene Ammons, Cecil Taylor, and others. It was just an amazing lineup of what he could do in one year and retain and develop his own sound.
AK: I would say that’s a good way of describing him at any and every point of his career, especially starting with when he was with Miles. Miles gave him the permission to move forward with his own vision of what his music could be, and that eventually led to him frontng his own band. But he was a guy who was always on pivot stylistically, experimenting with new ideas and being influenced by sounds, rhythms, and all sorts of musical devices that were around him. You know, the double impact in 1957 of having Miles start to experiment with modal music and then of course his time playing with Thelonious Monk in 1957, were both like throwing high octane fuel into an already turbocharged motor. 1958 is the first real full-calendar year in which he was making his mark and making his sound known. One of the most obvious details of that sound is what we now call ‘sheets of sound,’ which is another word for his harmonic stacking. It’s the idea of really getting within the nuts and bolts, and the harmonic theory of the music and playing patterns and harmonic extensions upon the chord that’s being laid out in front of you. It’s super self-challenging, but at the same time you have to realize that Coltrane was always someone who was looking for the soul of the music. He looked for the feeling in the numbers, and for the soul of the music so that he could be both satisfied intellectually, and with the feel of the music. He was a very cerebral guy. And that’s what 1958 was all about.
AJ: Well, there’s not a huge amount of various people on these sessions. Red Garland (appearing on 31 tracks) and Tommy Flanagan (appearing on four tracks) are on lots of these tunes, and both of them are historic bebop players. This was just a small part of what Garland, Flanagan, Jimmy Cobb, Louis Hayes, and Art Taylor did during that year. They had their own thing going on, and had other sidemen gigs, so the way they bring themselves to this music and the way they’re being pushed is quite extraordinary.
AK: Yeah, I think that a good point. The idea that he was playing with a very tight cadre of colleagues…it’s like a brotherhood of post-bebop.
AJ: Then there’s Paul Chambers, who is on bass on every one of these cuts…
AK: Yes, that makes sense. Because he (Coltrane) knows Paul from his very first sessions after he comes from Philly to the national scene in New York as part of the Miles Davis quintet of that era. Chambers is the bassist that he learns to lean on, and within one year he’ll write a very famous tune that’ll be recorded for Atlantic called “Mr. P.C.,” which is his dedication to Paul. So yeah, he is a member of this brotherhood but he hasn’t totally broken out and isn’t the Coltrane of legend yet. Had he stopped recording in ’58 we’d be celebrating him as one of that generation, like a Hank Mobley, or a Johnny Griffin, but he had a much bigger future to come in just a few years. You can hear the seeds of it in ’58. The fuse has been lit, and he’s going to follow his own path that will lead him out of this local scene. The other aspect is that there’s a kind of blue-collar aesthetic going on here. He was a working musician. Anyone could call him in 1958 and he would be there to play on their session. He needed the money and needed the experience, and he considered it part of the gig. If he was called to play, he would be there.
AJ: Yeah, the working-man aspect of the music is sometimes forgotten when you’re looking at a discography 40 years later. Just looking at Coltrane’s other recordings and work he was doing at that time, he was always out playing. He needed the gigs to play, and they all needed the gigs to play whether they were on tour, or at the Plaza Hotel, or wherever they could get going.
AK: To that point, if you go to some of those websites where they list what’s now called the sessionography of an artist, and you look at the number of sessions and times he was in the studio in 1958, you really see that John Coltrane was a man on a mission. He was not going to turn down to any work opportunity...and in the midst of all that, he was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet, and was sitting in and jamming on nights when Miles wasn’t performing.
AJ: …not to mention he’s doing gigs with Cecil Taylor, Wilbur Hardin, and Thelonious Monk. Live at the Five Spot (with the Thelonious Monk Quartet) was a head-rattling release when it was finally put out decades later. There was an enormous amount of music going on, and he was also on Michel Legrand’s Legrand Jazz, which was a big Columbia record. He really made a mark for Legrand, who sadly passed away recently…but its just one more thing that gives you an idea of the depth and width of the scope that he was working in.
AK: Yeah, he was part of this very celebrated Miles Davis group at the time, and he was challenging himself with this harmonic stacking idea…this idea of getting under the hood of the music. Even with the Legrand session before he plays he examines the music, takes it apart and says 'this is what I’m going to play.' He is now becoming known as not only this great player with a great tone, but also kind of a scientist of the saxophone. He is someone who’s putting in all the work, theoretically and musically, and making sure that he’s going to play something that’s truly unique and truly his own sound.
AJ: He was working and recording as much as someone possibly could and starting a family too.
AK: Yeah, by the end of 1958 his contract with Prestige is about up and he’s going to go to Atlantic. He’s finished what you could say is kind of an ‘underclassman’ experience, and he’s about to head to higher studies, which is where he goes to after that in 1959. He’s going to be breaking free from Miles and starting his own band…even though Miles will famously call him back in 1960 for one final tour. Once again, we return to this idea that Coltrane was always on pivot throughout his career and musical journey. He was always in the process of changing, developing, adding, and expanding.
AJ: So how long did you work on this?
AK: I worked with Nick Phillips (producer of the reissued set) off and on about two months getting it together. I came up with the idea of separating it out, the essay, the technical aspect, and the social aspect of it. Also, there’s the political aspect of it, which I’m hearing today in a way that would have not been there 10-15 years ago. Coltrane’s standing up as an African-American and saying - this is my sound and it may be harsh on your ears, but this is who I am. That was such a bold political act in its day, which was pre-civil rights.
AJ: Is there anything else you would like to touch on about the release?
AK: I would just say that ultimately the music on this box set speaks for itself. It’s an unbelievable collection of performances that not only shows where John Coltrane was in his career, but his ability to create magic from some very tried and true material: the ballads, the blues, and the bebop standards of the day. Many of them had not been woven into the repertoire of the modern jazz scene yet, so he’s basically discovering new material. He’s also taking his hand at kind of established jazz tunes, like “Lush Life” which kicks off the album. What he does with “Russian Lullaby,” which is an apotheosis of the whole ‘sheets of sound’ approach, still stands as an endurance test for any improviser who really wants to go at it and develop their chops. There are very few players out there who can handle that kind of playing at that speed, and make it sound as soulful and meaningful as Coltrane was able to do in 1958.