John Coltrane – In The Winners Circle – Bethlehem Records BCP6066 (1957) /Pure Pleasure Records (2013) audiophile mono vinyl, 43:41*****:
(John Coltrane – tenor saxophone/bands 2,4,6,8; Donald Byrd – trumpet/bands 2,4,6,8; Frank Rehak – trombone/bands 2,4,6,8; Al Cohn – baritone saxophone/bands 2,4,6,8; Art Farmer – trupet/bands 1,3,5,7; Eddie Costa – piano (bands 2,4,6,7,8; Freddie Green – guitar/band 2; Oscar Pettiford – double bass/all bands; Philly Joe Jones – drums/band 2; Ed Thigpen – drums/bands 1,3,4,5,6,7,8); Kenny Burrell – guitar/bands 1,3,5,7; Gene Quill – alto saxophone/band 2; Rolf Kuhn – clarinet/bands 1,3,5,7)
The bebop scene in the late forties and early fifties challenged the parameters of music. One of the offshoot movements was the hard-bop genre which exploded in the fifties and sixties. Among its stars were Miles Davis, Art Blakey (perhaps the quintessential artist of this sound), Cannonball Adderly, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Art Farmer, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane. The list is endless and constitutes an unequalled aggregation of talent. Hard bop incorporated many stylistic influences, including blues, gospel, and rhythm and blues. More importantly, this era propelled many talented session players to stardom.
John Coltrane – In The Winners Circle is not exactly a Coltrane album. The session represents a collective session of 1957 Downbeat instrumental winners performing in three different configurations. All of the tracks are arranged by Harry Tubbs, and they are excellent. Solos are set up by larger charts that flow methodically. Opening Side A is an under-appreciated off-Broadway tune, “Lazy Afternoon”. There is a melodic, wistful opening clarinet (Rolf Kuhn) & trumpet (Art Farmer) contrapuntal intro that moves gracefully. From there solos on vibes (Eddie Costa), clarinet, trumpet and guitar (Kenny Burrell) ensue as the arrangement returns to its context. Coltrane (tenor sax) and Donald Byrd (trumpet) take over on “Not So Sleepy”. Both offer solos in addition to Costa (piano), Al Cohn (baritone sax) and Gene Quill (alto sax). There are subtle rhythm shifts and superior full ensemble work. Carrying on some of the Latin nuances is “Seabreeze”. Costa performs another deft vibes solo, while Kuhn and Farmer (this time with a mute) add shadings of their own. Bassist Oscar Pettiford (the only player to appear on all eight cuts) contributes a solo. Along with drummer Ed Thigpen (and Philly Joe Jones on one song) and Costa (who alternates between piano and vibes), they form an all-star rhythm section with flawless timing. The Side A closer is an up-tempo swing version of Irving Berlin’s “Love And The Weather”. The ensemble charts are crisp and Coltrane (tenor), Byrd (trumpet) Costa (piano), Cohn (baritone) and Quill (alto) demonstrate artistic individual play.
Side B features more of Tubbs’ impeccable arrangements. “She Didn’t Say Yes” exudes a big band “combo” resonance. Approximating a swing bop construct, a palpable accelerated pace reinvents a classic Jerome Kern number. Vibes, clarinet, bass and guitar are showcased. A compelling ballad piece (“If I’m Lucky, I’ll Be The One”) takes advantage of the full group. The initial melody line is handled by Rehak (trombone) and Coltrane proves himself to be a keenly lyrical tenor soloist. Costa anchors the ensemble with his nimble piano. In a different style, the group shines on “At Home With The Blues”. Kuhn and Farmer rotate on lead, as four different players offer solos. There is a familiarity in the thematic structure, but it is never pedestrian. The merge of leads is fresh and has a rich texture. The final opus (“Turtle Walk”) sparkles in its complexity and agility. A grouped lead (trumpet, trombone) is combined with a descant counterpoint (baritone sax). Costa, Pettiford and Thigpen execute a cool, finger-snapping groove interlude. Later, there is a tempo shift as Cohn assumes the lead. Byrd provides the last solo, and it soars.
Pure Pleasure Records has done an outstanding job re-mastering this mono session to 180-gram vinyl. All of the instruments have clarity and rich tonality. There may be some confusion over the title, but John Coltrane – In The Winners Circle is large ensemble bop jazz at its finest. [On my turntable this vinyl had a slight flutter & wow; careful if you’re sensitive to that…Ed.]
Side A: Lazy Afternoon; Not So Sleepy; Sea Breeze; Love And The Weather
Side B: She Didn’t Say Yes; (If I’m Lucky), I’ll Be The One; At Home With The Blues; Turtle Walk