Tues., Feb. 13, 2024 is Day 6 of The Coltrane Legacy

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Tues., Feb. 13, 2024 is Day 6 of The Coltrane Legacy

New Milestones, a Soultrane Leaves the Station, and The Second Time Around for Miles Davis's First Great Quintet*

 *which, actually, isn’t a quintet anymore, but a sextet, with the addition of alto giant Cannonball Adderley.

There are many John Coltranes. But when you think of his "Sheets of Sound" period, you think of his 1958 recordings for Prestige Records. Photo by Francis Wolff.

By Matt Silver

1958 is a new time for Coltrane to do old things in new ways. To start the year, he plays his first instrument, the alto, on a Prestige All Stars date led by Gene Ammons. But the old horn sounds like the new Coltrane — almost like a tenor — and it’s the first and only commercially recorded instance of Coltrane soloing on alto. 

Next, it’s back to Miles’s band.

Trane’s nearly 10-month hiatus had been maximally productive, both as a leader and a sideman. But his six-month run with Monk at the Five Spot had ended in December. And, by early February, the recording of Milestones memorializes Trane’s return to Miles’s band—a band with a new member and a new modal sound. 

Trane’s innovations don’t go unnoticed by his peers. After hearing his playing on Milestones, Benny Golson, guesting as a critic in the Jan. 1959 issue of The Jazz Review, writes, “I have heard no one lately who creates like Coltrane…. I feel that this man is definitely blazing a new trail.” He implores readers to “keep one eye on the world and the other on John Coltrane.”

Like Miles, Coltrane never stagnated. He seemed always to be fixating on one new compositional vehicle or another to better communicate what he believed he was trying to say musically. Once he mastered an approach, he seemed to almost unconsciously turn to something new, perhaps whatever he perceived most likely to communicate the insights he felt most true at the moment. Photo by Francis Wolff.

Three days after recording Milestones, Trane’s back in the studio, this time as a leader on the Prestige session that would produce Soultrane, an album memorable for Trane’s treatment of tunes by Tadd Dameron, Billy Eckstine, and Irving Berlin. In fact, it’s Coltrane’s rendition here of Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” — anything but soporific — that inspires critic Ira Gitler’s first use of the now-famous phrase “Sheets of Sound” to refer to Coltrane’s sweeping approach to layering full scales of deconstructed chords, one on top of the next, without relent.

Dates as a sideman for guitarist Kenny Burrell and flugelhornist Wilbur Harden would follow before 'Trane leads the Red Garland Trio back into the studio for the Prestige title Settin’ the Pace, a record that exemplifies his knack for finding under-the-radar pop songs that really lend themselves to jazz, like the album’s opener, an exhilarating and underrated take on Vincent Youmans's “Rise and Shine.”

Meanwhile, Miles continued to reorganize his band to better align personnel with the group’s new modal scheme. Red Garland was out. Bill Evans, beginning with a couple informal dates at Cafe Bohemia, was in. Before long, Jimmy Cobb would replace Philly Joe Jones. A hallmark of Miles Davis’s career was a refusal to let his sound stagnate. Constant evolution was his creed.

Trane, too, was evolving. May 23rd 1958’s Black Pearls session is notable for being the last of his quintet dates with Garland’s trio featuring Donald Byrd on trumpet; it’s also notable for Coltrane’s long, vertical 16th note runs at breakneck tempos and his capacity for, once again, taking standards like “Love Come Back to Me” and transforming them — with the help of Byrd and Garland — into bona fide burners. 

Three days later, the Miles Davis Sextet’s newest configuration—now with Evans and Cobb—records for the first time, and it’s an all-timer, with classics like “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Fran Dance,” “Stella by Starlight” and “Love for Sale” coming from this session.

The Miles Davis Quintet underwent major changes in 1958. Cannonball Adderley was added in late '57, making the group a sextet; Bill Evans replaced Philly Joe Jones in April; by May, Jimmy Cobb had replaced Philly Joe Jones. Photo by Ray Avery.

A little over three months later, the same group —  with Philly Joe back as a sub — would memorably perform live from the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel. The compilation album 1958 Miles comprises cuts from both the former and latter dates.

The rest of the year’s schedule for both the Miles group and Coltrane individually proves as breakneck as one of Coltrane’s vertical runs. 

In late June, ’58, Miles, Trane, Chambers, and Evans join the likes of Phil Woods and Herbie Mann for a date with a Michel Legrand-led orchestra. Then the entire Sextet meets on the gilded coast of Rhode Island, where they’d provide more than enough fireworks for the Newport Jazz Festival crowd over the July 4th holiday.

By this point, some in the jazz press have taken to labeling Coltrane “an angry young tenor.” When asked about that reputation at Newport, he tells DownBeat, “If [my playing] is interpreted as angry, it is taken wrong. The only one I’m angry at is myself when I don’t make what I’m trying to say.” He tells the interviewer that the reason he’s been able to evolve into such an individualist on the horn — with his so-called “Sheets of Sound” — is because of what he’d learned from Monk and Miles over the preceding months. “Miles,” he says, "has shown me possibilities in choosing substitutions within a chord and also new progressions.” Incidentally, it’s around this time that Trane really starts to become an influence on other instrumentalists.

John Coltrane during his July to December 1957 residency at The Five Spot with the Thelonious Monk Quartet. In interviews, Coltrane said that Miles Davis and Monk were the figures most important to the development of his musical ideas. Photo by Don Schlitten.

Through the rest of the calendar year 1958, Coltrane’s Prestige recording schedule is as busy as ever.

Memorable July sessions produced tunes for the Bahia and Stardust LPs featuring trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. The fall featured a follow-up to the previous year’s recording with Prestige’s tuba wunderkind Ray Draper, a September gig as a sideman for the prolific jazz orchestra leader and arranger George Russell, and a live-to-radio broadcast gig with the Miles Sextet from Washington D.C.’s Spotlight Lounge, featuring a rarely performed uptempo version of “Bye Bye Blackbird.” And an Oct. 1958 date as a sideman for the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor may, in retrospect, have been a signpost for the musical ideas Trane would end up pursuing in the mid-to-late 60s.

But we’ve got a long way yet to go before we’re there. Tomorrow, we dive deep into 1959, a year that’d become immortalized as the year of Kind of Blue.

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