After a pivotal but ill-fated mid-’50s run with the Miles Davis Quintet, John Coltrane overcame addiction, found spiritual renewal, and entered a period of intensive nightly study on the bandstand with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot in 1957. He emerged more than ready for the rigors of bandleading, and it was Bob Weinstock’s Prestige Records, the label that had recorded the Miles quintet, that gave Coltrane his start.
Monk’s radically individual aesthetic and his way of framing harmony, rhythm, and melody helped Coltrane conceive an improvisational language of his own—fast and packed with ideas, encompassing masses of notes in nearly every bar, filling harmonic space with dazzlingly drawn detail. He continued playing in that vein throughout his Prestige period—though the sole focus here is all the music Coltrane recorded for Prestige in 1958 alone, presented in chronological order no less. We get a clear unfolding picture of Coltrane’s growth in the run-up to his 1959 breakthroughs, on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and his own Atlantic debut, Giant Steps.
While on Prestige, Trane explored a mix of standards, originals, and tunes by cherished if unheralded peers like Tadd Dameron and Calvin Massey. His band, with pianist Red Garland and bassist Paul Chambers straight from the ranks of Davis' quintet, often had jazz rhythm sage Art Taylor completing the lineup on drums. On Soultrane, Settin’ the Pace, The Believer, and more, we hear idiomatic post-bebop of unparalleled dynamism and swing mastery, with nuanced tempo shadings and impeccable trading fours: practices drawn from the very marrow of the tradition, represented at the highest level, facilitating all the innovations that followed.
We also hear Coltrane ramping up his uptempo showpieces like “Rise ’n’ Shine” and Rodgers & Hart’s “Lover,” laying harmonic pathways that would enable him to execute his own test pieces like “Moment’s Notice,” “Giant Steps,” and “Countdown.” Yet to focus solely on the shredding—the “sheets of sound,” as critic Ira Gitler famously described it—is to miss Coltrane’s gift for straight melody, calmly and poetically rendered (even at times on the faster numbers). The material from the album Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane, particularly the affecting guitar-tenor duo ballad “Why Was I Born,” lends a silvery electric texture that offsets Coltrane’s horn like almost nothing else on record. Coltrane flexed instrumental muscle, without doubt, but he had more than that to give.