John Coltrane has been gone for more than 50 years—his life tragically cut short at the age of 40 in 1967 by liver cancer—but his importance and influence have never been greater. Coltrane’s breakout year, when his mature sound first grabbed ears and his own recordings began to sell consistently, was 1958. The box set Coltrane ‘58: The Prestige Recordings chronicles that amazing year, session by session, featuring all 37 tracks the saxophonist recorded as a leader or co-leader for the independent Prestige label in those twelve months, when he was developing his signature, “sheets of sound” style. But that wasn’t all he was doing.
The eleven tracks featured in the playlist below are a sampling and a veritable “best of” Coltrane ‘58 —including blues, bebop standards, familiar ballads, as well as a few original compositions and some obscure tunes Coltrane rediscovered and brought into the jazz world. One can hear the seeds of many ideas Coltrane would develop later in his career—the love of melodic feel and the passion for extreme harmonic slaloming. Even the profound, brooding spirituality of his A Love Supreme period in the mid-’60s. Had Coltrane never recorded anything after 1958 we would still revere him as a jazz maverick and pioneer. That he went deeper and further into the music only makes this early chapter more relevant and important.
“Lush Life” was a bit of surprise at the time as the tune was more of a singer’s tune than instrumentalist’s. This quintet version builds steadily in intensity and offers a variety of textures through its free-wheeling, 14-minute length.
The 1946 tune “Come Rain or Come Shine” was, by the 1950s, at home in the world of popular vocalists, R&B singers, and jazz, too. As on “Lush Life,” Coltrane’s solo leans close to the shape and swing of the composition; it’s clear he liked the melody and the words, too, as the lines to Harold Arlen’s lyric can be heard throughout the performance.
“Russian Lullaby,” a tour-de-force of Coltrane’s fire, could be called the first greatest hit of his career, the tune that put all other saxophonists on notice. Check out the final cadenza as the tune draws to a close: his lines shoot skyward and he brings them back gently: rhythmically in control, emotionally on point. It wasn’t merely the speed of the statement either. The first 10-second stretch contains more than almost ninety, clearly articulated notes. It was the bravado and the knowledge: the amount of harmonic information being conveyed and the soulful precision of the execution. This was the “sheets of sound” of legend.
In stark contrast to the improvisatory extreme of “Russian Lullaby,” is the heartfelt bebop ballad “Theme for Ernie.” Note how Coltrane focuses exclusively on “singing” the melody, polishing and slightly embellishing at times; the performance’s only solo is left to Garland.
This version of “I Want to Talk About You” is the first of many times that he would return to this ballad associated with singer/bandleader Billy Eckstine. Years later, Coltrane was still enamored by the composition’s possibilities, and famously stretched the cadenza to extremes. “Some songs [we] would play—like …'I Want to Talk About You’—became regular pieces for the band, signature pieces. They were good specimens for growth,” recalls Coltrane’s longtime pianist McCoy Tyner.
John Coltrane only recorded once with guitar accompaniment—on a collaboration with guitarist Kenny Burrell. Their chemistry on is front-and-center on the Jerome Kern nugget “Why Was I Born?”— a simple guitar-sax duet, all about mood, space and shade, that leaves one with the notion that combining Coltrane with a guitarist of such lyrical feel and flow had happened more often.
A charged, “and-they’re-off” opening and high-speed feel were components typical of a “flag-waver” in the swing era. “Rise and Shine” is a perfect example of that joyful energy. Finding the fresh, lyrical lining in overused melodies was a Coltrane specialty.
“Black Pearls” is a rare Coltrane original on a Prestige date, a “by-the-numbers bebop, 32-bar form, with no Coltrane-esque alterations anywhere in the piece,” says his son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. “There’s a four-bar vamp at the end of the form before they go into the blowing, that is more typical of his writing. But most of his writing from this period is very distinctive, with an unconventional kind of harmonic movement. ‘Black Pearls’ is unusual in that it’s not unusual.”
“Sweet Sapphire Blues,” another performance that highlights Coltrane’s sheets-of-sound style, also functions as a star turn for Red Garland, Coltrane’s first-call pianist in ‘58 and his bandmate in the Miles Davis quintet of that period. Garland’s improvisation kicks off the 18-minute blues—in fact, the tune barely begins before he is off and running—revealing his rhythmic dexterity and his agility with a variety of devices, like double octaves and triplets.
“Stardust” was easily the most familiar of melodies chosen by Coltrane for his Prestige sessions in ‘58. On this version, Wilbur Harden plays flugelhorn with grace and a lyrical spark, exploiting its smoother-than-trumpet timbre—not unlike a saxophone at times. Garland and bassist Paul Chambers solo as well, and Coltrane contributes a relatively straight, emotionally expressive statement of the melody in the tune’s open and close.
If there’s one tune from the box set that reveals the kind of musical devices—like the use of a pedal point bass line—Coltrane would lean on as his music grew more spiritually focused, the Afro-Latin treatment of “Bahia” is it. Writer Carl Woideck notes that Coltrane structured the tune with alternating ostinato and swing sections, which “brings out [Coltrane’s] aggressively exploratory side.” Aggressive exploration is certainly what lay ahead for John Coltrane, and his work in 1958 was the tip of the iceberg.
Ashley Kahn is a Grammy®-winning American music historian, and author of A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album.