John Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings

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John Coltrane Photo © Esmond Edwards/CTSIMAGES

John Coltrane recorded the music for a staggering eight albums in just one year–1958. They were released over the course of the next eight years by Prestige Records, a New York label founded by Bob Weinstock in 1949. In tribute to and celebration of the 60th anniversary of these recordings in 2018 as well as the 70th anniversary of Prestige Records in 2019, these 1958 Coltrane classics have just been reissued by Craft Recordings in beautiful 8-LP/5-CD custom box sets.

Coltrane’s artistry was just beginning to flower in 1958. In his early 30’s and clean off dope, Coltrane was honing his already prodigious skills and focusing on his sound and improvisation like never before. Thelonious Monk, with whom Coltrane studied and performed just the year before, also exerted a big influence on the saxophonist’s growing conception of musical possibilities. Jazz journalist Ira Gitler called Coltrane’s improvisations on the Prestige sessions “sheets of sound,” a phrase that stuck with critics and fans alike. There were so many fast runs that notes kind of melded together into one mass.

A distinctive element of the 1958 Prestige sessions is that Coltrane was—almost without exception—playing songs written by others. It was his early testing ground. Unlike his later Atlantic and Impulse recordings, which showcased Coltrane’s talents as a composer, these recordings demonstrate his growing improvisatory prowess with other composers’s classic ballads and standards. He burns through some songs at break-neck speed, such as his treatment of Irving Berlin’s 1927 “Russian Lullaby.” The song had been covered by Phil Woods, Zoot Sims, and other horn men, but never like this. Here’s how Prestige label head Bob Weinstock remembered the Berlin standard: 

We were doing a session and we were hung for a tune and I said, “Trane, why don’t you think up some old standard?” He said “OK, I got it” and played “Russian Lullaby” at a real fast tempo.  At the end I asked, “Trane, what was the name of that tune?” And he said “Rushin’ Lullaby.” I cracked up.

In addition to speed and articulation in his mastery of the tenor sax, Coltrane was also busy working on his ballad artistry in these 1958 sessions. He recorded a song called “Theme for Ernie,” written by American guitarist Fred Lacey in memory of Ernie Henry, a young sax player who died in 1957 from a heroin overdose. Like Coltrane, Henry had also worked as a sideman with Thelonious Monk. Coltrane was first to record the plaintive song. It shows his beautiful tone and the ability to imbue a ballad with a tender lyricism.

Both “Russian Lullaby” and “Theme for Ernie” come from the Soultrane session recorded February 7, 1958, and released later that year. His trio for Soultrane and many of the other 1958 dates included Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Art Taylor (drums). Another of the outstanding tracks on Soultrane is Coltrane’s version of the Tad Dameron classic “Good Bait.”

Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings presents Coltrane in his most formative period, bursting with so many ideas he could hardly contain them. Coltrane once told Miles Davis during a Prestige session that when he soloed he had so many ideas to put out that he couldn’t stop playing. Miles replied, “Then why don’t you try taking the horn out of your mouth.” Coltrane was insatiable in his pursuit of new sounds and ideas, working incessantly to master every new musical challenge to come his way. The modal style and world music influences of Ravi Shankar and Babatunde Olatunji, as well as his foray into soprano sax playing, would all come later.

Prestige Records released important music by Miles Davis, Gene Ammons, Eric Dolphy, Mose Allison, and many other great jazz musicians. However, it didn’t have the budget that Blue Note had—no money for rehearsals and no alternate takes. As such, the new Coltrane set is a celebration of one-take wonders, capturing the original mono sound, and recorded with classic all-tube gear and custom microphones by engineer Rudy Van Gelder in his parents’s home in Hackensack, New Jersey. (Photo below courtesy of the Rudy Van Gelder Estate.) The sonic immediacy is palpable—Van Gelder has you seated right in front of the band in his parents’s living room, and you feel every note. The sound is both audiophile and artisanal, with tracks re-mastered from the original session master tapes. RTI custom-pressed the 180g vinyl and the CD’s were re-mastered from 24-bit transfers.

I love the retro presentation of the LP set. The vinyl is heavy cloth-bound, with each record getting its own brown cardboard sleeve, reminiscent of early 78 rpm album sets. The liner notes are written by jazz historian Ashley Kahn, who has penned two books about John Coltrane’s Impulse years—The House that Trane Built and A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature AlbumIt features photos from Francis Wolff and Prestige producer Esmond Edwards. Fans will find much to learn and enjoy from reading the 40-page booklet that accompanies both versions.

Above: Rudy Van Gelder’s notes from Coltrane sessions. Photo courtesy of the Rudy Van Gelder Estate.

This carefully curated and rendered set is a beautiful celebration of a landmark year for John Coltrane, who would leave Prestige in 1959 to sign with Atlantic Records. It pays tribute to one of music’s greatest masters with design and production of the highest standard. In an age of so much streaming and downloading, we are fortunate to still have beautiful productions like these. They are material and spiritual blessings.