Hunting vintage jazz vinyl records in the Nutmeg State
John Coltrane – Straight Street
John Coltrane – While My Lady Sleeps
John Coltrane – Chronic Blues
There’s not much that I can add to what has already been said about John Coltrane. His influence on the jazz musician community is vast. Charlie Parker is often credited as one of few musicians who influenced virtually everyone in the genre, and if you listen to any jazz that has come out since the period when Coltrane slowly unraveled into the avant garde as the beacon of the slickly produced Impulse label, it is hard to deny that he has made a similar impact on the way that musicians treat the search for true unfiltered expression.
Before he was the saint of the “new thing,” Coltrane was, as stated on the cover of PRLP 7105, a “new tenor saxophone star.” He pops up in a few places as a sideman during this time period, and many of these albums like Sonny’s Crib (Sonny Clark), Wheelin’ & Dealin’ (Mal Waldron), Johnny Griffin’s Volume Two on Blue Note, and Informal Jazz (Elmo Hope) are often chock full of other horn players. He also participated in a tenor saxophone summit on Prestige and made a cameo appearance on the ironically less crowded Tenor Madness (Sonny Rollins). On any of these jam-oriented efforts, his approach, his conception, his tone – they are all distinctive (some of these leaderless efforts were actually reissued later on under Coltrane’s name). Meanwhile his main gig as the second horn in Miles Davis’s first great quintet gave him the opportunity to hone his uniquely vertical approach to improvising. Davis had a knack for picking tunes that best suited his sophisticated, lyrical style, and it was the smoothly churning machine of this organization that pushed Coltrane to the masterful heights he would reach in his years with at Atlantic.
I take the time to tell you all of this, most of which you already know, to help put Coltrane into perspective. It firmly plants a flag beyond the boundaries of both the jam sessions that were a signature of Prestige’s philosophy, and the veteran night club swing work exemplified on the Davis Quintet’s extraordinary run on the same label. Right out of the gate, “Bakai” announces that something different is to be found here, thanks in part to Sahib Shihab thundering in on baritone saxophone. Admittedly, Shihab and little known trumpeter Johnnie Splawn don’t belong in the heavyweight class with Coltrane, but they are role players in the arrangements, further distancing these tunes from jam session fodder. Splawn offers a solo or two, but also plays some ethereal backgrounds to Coltrane on “While My Lady Sleeps.” Many jazz aficionados may feel that Shihab is a generally underrated player, but there’s no denying that he is not able to match Coltrane’s gait when they appear on the same cuts together.
This date is a a bit of a buried treasure in the emergence of a major luminary in the jazz world. Obviously as his first date as a leader it is destined to be significant, but it does not jar the listener like his solo debuts for other labels, such as the knotty Giant Steps, or the wincing cries of Africa/Brass. On those records, Coltrane arrives fully formed, filling you in on what he’s been up to. In the case of Coltrane, we are getting a look at the developing facets of a musician who, again from the cover, is “a major voice in the Miles Davis Quintet,” but perhaps outside of that group is a minor one. That is to say, his accomplishments before 1960 feel tied at least partially to who he works with, even if he stands out amongst a battalion of tenors when lumped together in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. It’s a wonderful record to soak in after you have had a listening session featuring soloists that feel formulaic, the cookers monotonous, the ballads contrived. Here, you can tell Coltrane truly has something different to offer, and in ’57 that put him in a small minority that would distance itself from the pack just a few years later.