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John Coltrane - Side Steps

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Artist: John Coltrane

Album: Side Steps

Label: Concord

Review date: Jan. 27, 2010

Last in a trilogy of box sets compiling John Coltrane’s tenure at Prestige, Sidesteps travels back to a time when the undisputed heavyweight saxophone champion was still years distant from ascending to the title. In light of the encomiums that continually accompany his name these days, it’s sometimes difficult to recall that there was an era when Coltrane was just one among the legion of journeymen post-bop saxophonists eking out a living in the music. Only in the last ten years of his life did he succeed in distancing himself from the pack, building on early sojourns with the bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges to secure a pivotal slot as Miles Davis’ horn pick for a freshly-minted quintet that would turn the jazz intelligentsia on its collective ear.

The five discs center on Coltrane’s work as a sideman during the early years, just prior to his meteoric rise. He devotes his horn to a variety of groupings, playing often for union scale and occasionally finding himself compromised by the foibles of his still-developing style. Case in point, the first date under scrutiny, which pairs him with the tenor of Hank Mobley, a saxophonist who was on much the same trajectory at the time. Mobley’s career never came close to the success of Coltrane and one of the reasons is boldly apparent in this early conclave. Coltrane suffers some reed squeaks and other minor technical difficulties, but the boldness inherent in his playing outshines Mobley’s more measured attack by force of delivery. Both men were dealing with the debilitating effects of heroin habits at the time, an addiction Coltrane would eventually kick, one that Mobley would struggle with for far longer.

Also notable on the date are the contributions of pianist Elmo Hope, who scripts two of the session’s four pieces, a comparatively forgotten player whose own personal struggles curtailed a talent that, in his prime, was on par with accepted masters like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Other sessions succeed under the leadership of pianists Tadd Dameron and Mal Waldron. Waldron, in particular, is a valuable asset on several of the sets, penning and arranging tunes and providing accompaniment that allows his colleagues plenty of room to move (cf. the by turns spacious and haunting rendering of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” and the noir-hued blues “One By One”). Like Coltrane, Waldron’s methodology on these sides carries protean clues to the mature approach he would refine through later creative partnerships with the likes of saxophonists Steve Lacy and Jim Pepper.

Adhering to Prestige’s cost-cutting customs of the 1950s, most of the sessions have the flavor of quickly-conceived jam sessions with rehearsals at a minimum and relaxed blowing at premium. Dating from January 1958, the final session in the box, under the helm of tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, was even openly advertised as such. Coltrane fits right into the saxophone-centric frontline featuring tenors Jerome Richardson and Paul Quinichette and baritonist Pepper Adams, dutifully running down the ensemble passages and consuming his solo rations where he can get them. The tenor-weighted nature of the ensemble also necessitates an intriguing switch to alto on his part.

Earlier meetings with saxophonists Sahib Shihab and Jackie McLean adhere to similar frameworks of spontaneity over polish, though thankfully the various rhythm sections aren’t simply wallpaper for the horn soloists paint over. With players of the caliber of Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones (not coincidentally Miles’ rhythm section of the time) manning the ranks, passivity simply isn’t an option. A left-field collaboration with an ensemble under the direction of ill-fated tubaist Ray Draper demonstrates Coltrane’s willingness to entertain all comers, as does the storied “Tenor Madness” duel with Sonny Rollins, the outcome of which is still open to interpretation (though the money of this writer is still on Rollins for the win).

The packaging and peripherals of the box also warrant positive mention. Housed in a trade paperback-sized foldout cardboard container like its two predecessors, the set combines durability with elegance. A 72-page book brimming with essays, annotations and period photos easily outclasses the antiquated 16-disc box that the trilogy replaces. Coltrane’s pre-icon career receives the royal treatment with these sets, the voluminous amount of music conveniently parceled and as ever, eminently listenable.

By Derek Taylor

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