John Coltrane – Side Steps – 5-CD box set – Prestige PRS 31345 – (1956-1958) (Distr. by Concord Records) [Release date: Oct. 6, 09] *****:
Complete albums with Issuance Dates:
Elmo Hope Sextet: Informal Jazz – Prestige 7043 – 1956
Sonny Rollins: Tenor Madness – Prestige 7047 – 1956
Tadd Dameron with John Coltrane: Mating Call – Prestige 7070 – 1956
Mal Waldron: Mal / 2 – Prestige 7111 – 1957
The Red Garland Quintet – All Mornin’ Long – Prestige 7130 – 1957
Gene Ammons’ All Stars – The Big Sound – Prestige 7132 – 1958
The Red Garland Quintet: Soul Junction – Prestige 7181 – 1957
Gene Ammons and His All Stars: Groove Blues – Prestige 7201 – 1957
The Red Garland Quintet: High Pressure – Prestige 7209 – 1957
The Red Garland Quintet with John Coltrane: Dig It! – Prestige 7229 – 1957
The Ray Draper Quintet featuring John Coltrane: Same Title – New Jazz 8228 – 1957
Mal Waldron: The Dealers – Status 8316 – 1957
Many casual jazz fans assume that John Coltrane’s recordings consist of his time spent with Miles Davis in the mid to late 1950s, followed by a period ranging from 1959 (Giant Steps), to 1967, when he died of liver cancer at age 40. During the 1959-1967 time period he primarily recorded for two labels – Atlantic and Impulse. However, Coltrane was a major sideman, both before and after he played with Miles Davis. The vast majority of his output during this time was recorded for Prestige Records, which was owned at that time by Bob Weinstock. From 1961 onward, Coltrane began his period of free experimentation that expanded in scope until his death in 1967.
Between 1955 to early 1958, John Coltrane’s recordings have been divided into three periods for which Prestige has issued box sets – those as a leader (Fearless Leader); albums recorded as part of a larger group (The Prestige All Stars); and now the twelve albums in which Coltrane played in a smaller group setting, many times getting credit on album titles as co-leader or featured artist.
This latest box set with Coltrane as sideman is titled Side Steps and consists of 43 tracks.
Many of these tracks are extended blowing sessions – primarily the Gene Ammons’ sessions and some of the Red Garland issues. Included is the masterpiece Tenor Madness, where Coltrane and Sonny Rollins go head-to-head and battle it out.
Both Garland and Coltrane broke off from recording with Miles Davis for temporary periods of time in the mid to late 50s to record for Prestige, and Weinstock was happy to accommodate them. Prestige issues were prolific during this time period as sessions could be done in a day or two and be issued within the year. Band members knew each other well and did not demand the rehearsal time that Blue Note owners Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff provided. When a trumpeter was needed to take the place of Miles, artists like a young Donald Byrd, or Bill Hardman and Idrees Sulieman were available. Adding a second saxophonist was no problem with Jackie McLean, Gene Ammons, Hank Mobley, and Shahib Shihab on the scene. Prestige expanded this core group occasionally all the way up to an octet by adding Jerome Richardson’s flute and Pepper Adams’ baritone sax. Pianists Elmo Hope, Tadd Dameron, and Mal Waldron were given leadership slots. Even tuba player Ray Draper got a shot to co-lead a session with Coltrane.
As you can see from the album titles above, many have become classics in the Prestige catalog and several have been re-issued in the recent Prestige RVG series, as Rudy Van Gelder recorded all these sessions in his original Hackensack, New Jersey home studio before moving to his present location in Englewood Cliff.
The question of whether to purchase this box set when all the CDs are available (with many at greatly-reduced prices, as Prestige’s present owner, Concord Records, has been thinning their catalog) comes down to the sound and packaging offered in this box set. Joe Tarantino, one of the Fantasy group’s ace remastering engineers, has done more than an adequate job with presenting this music in quality sound. More importantly, the gorgeous Prestige soft-bound 72 page booklet seals the deal for me, as it includes essays by noted jazz writer Ashley Kahn, outlining each session as well as interviewing Bob Weinstock concerning this three year period of frenetic recording. Following Kahn’s writing are a complete sessionography and discography that go into great detail with track and master numbers. Original album art has been included as well as the original liner notes. The booklet also has full page artist photos taken at the sessions. Glossy fine stock paper has been used in this deluxe issue.
Though the list price of this box set is $59.98, which I would consider a bargain for the classy presentation; this set has been available for much less at many online music sites. At that price, purchase of Side Steps can be considered a steal, and would warrant purchase of extra copies for friends as upcoming Christmas gifts. This is classic mainstream Coltrane and belongs in every serious jazz fan’s collection, especially with the primo packaging provided. (I have already ordered a second set to either hoard sealed or break down and reward a deserving friend!)
– Jeff Krow