John Coltrane

Prestige, 1957

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Admission: As much as I love jazz, I have never gotten into John Coltrane the way I’ve gotten into similar artists like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. Oh, I can listen to works like A Love Supreme and recognize them for the genius they are… but, in general, I can’t pick up a Coltrane album, listen to it, and walk away with the same appreciation as I would with other artists. And, Lord knows, I’ve tried to develop an appreciation over the years.

Still, I try… and recently decided I would try yet again, this time by listening to Coltrane, his 1957 debut as a band leader. And, while this disc does not quite demonstrate the greatness that some will say Coltrane would eventually ascend to, it’s still a pleasant enough listen.

Having been dismissed from Miles Davis’s band due to his drug use, Coltrane shows on a good 50 percent of this album how much of an influence Davis had been on him. The second half of the album features the work of trumpeter Johnnie Spawn; Coltrane also borrowed pianist Red Garland (for songs on the first half) and bassist Paul Chambers from Davis’s ever-revolving lineup. While Spawn is no match for Davis (and no disrespect is meant to Spawn by that comment), the three tracks that close this album—“Straight Street,” “While My Lady Sleeps” and “Chronic Blues”—all sound as if they could have been recorded in Coltrane’s time with Davis’s band.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

What is interesting about this portion of the album is that it gives Coltrane a chance to show off his own songwriting abilities on “Straight Street” and “Chronic Blues,” two pieces which are among the strongest works on the disc. “While My Lady Sleeps” is a pleasant enough outing as well, though the final chord doesn’t resolve as well as it should have, and is a bit grating on the ears.

It is in the opening number of the album, a cover of Calvin Massey’s “Bakai,” that Coltrane and the band struggle to live up to the expectations of greatness in the world of hard bop. It takes time for the song to catch the listener’s ear, and Coltrane’s solo never quite captures the attention and spirit as does Garland’s piano work. And I personally can’t say I liked the “shave and a haircut” reference in baritone saxophonist Sahib Shihab’s solo near the end of the track.

If anything, Coltrane’s work suggests he was a better fit with some of the more controlled pieces, such as “Violets For Your Furs,” which weren’t as active and frantic and had a more solid structure to them. This isn’t to say that Coltrane couldn’t handle hard bop; “Time Was” proves that he was capable of holding his own in the genre.

As enjoyable of an album as Coltrane is, I’d be hard-pressed to say that these six songs suggested that Coltrane would become as big of a name in the genre of jazz that he did. He was smart enough to surround himself with musicians that helped to elevate the music; artists such as Garland, pianist Mal Waldron (who handled the ivories for the second half of the disc), Chambers and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath all play a major role in making this album as enjoyable as it is. But while Coltrane is a competent musician and soloist, his solos aren’t quite as exciting as one might have expected. Perhaps it was because Coltrane was still growing into his role as a session leader, or even into his position in the world of jazz. Only listens to other albums will prove if this was indeed the case—and this disc does make me curious enough to want to listen to more works from Coltrane. So, in effect, it did its job.

For the neophyte into the world of Coltrane’s, then Coltrane is a decent enough entry point (though I’m certain others would argue that this title would belong to other albums in his discography). It’s strong enough to make you want to discover more of his work, yet has the suggestion that the best still lay ahead of him.

Rating: B-

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