John Coltrane ‘The Prestige Recordings’ 16 CD Box Set (Prestige) 5/5

Tenorist John Coltrane first began to make his gargantuan reputation while at the Prestige label and this was in parallel with a career he began carving out as part of the Miles Davis quintet. The Prestige recordings cover a two and a half year period from May 1956 until December 1958 when he was truly prolific, both as a leader and sideman. It is not the entire picture for the albums recorded under Miles Davis are available as a separate box set and indispeansable in their own right. However, it is damn near comprehensive nonetheless and the decision to list the recordings chronologically means that the listener has a real flavour of how Coltrane progressed from one session to another. The majority of album sessions are not interrupted and alternate takes are heard one after another, but do not clutter the the set unduly. Several members of the Miles Davis band in its different guises are featured here including pianist Red Garland who never sounded better, bassist Paul Chambers who would become an integral part of Trane’s tenure in the group, fellow tenorist Hank Mobley and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Little wonder Miles Davis saw the potential of Coltrane in his own band. The early sides witness Coltrane developing primarily as a tenorist, interpreting the American songbook with aplomb as on the ballad ‘Don’t explain’ (CD 4) with Jazz Messengers Bill Hardman and Jackie McLean in close attendance. A fine contrast is heard on ‘Dakar’, a Latin-tinged piece with polyrhythmic drumming and baritone saxophone courtesy of Pepper Adams and Charlie Payne. By CD 6 Coltrane was begin to compose his own pieces of note, including ‘Slow Trane’ while the mid-paced number ‘Black pearls’ featured a fine rhythm section of Art Taylor, Chambers and Garland plus Donald Byrd playing the role that Miles would later fill. From CD 12 onwards the lengthy bop-inflected numbers were starting to reveal hints of modality around the corner and McCoy Tyner’s ‘The believer’ was an indication that Coltrane was also sensitive to new and emerging musicians with the pianist-tenorist duo an integral part of the classic Coltrane quintet down the line. By CD 16, which contains music from three separate vinyl albums, Coltrane was listening to more exotic external influences with’ Bahia’ a precursor to the bossa nova craze that the tenorist tended to avoid on the whole because he had already progressed to soaking up eastern sounds. This said, the tender side to his craft was showcased on ‘Stardust’ with Freddie Hubbard playing a very adequate foil for Miles. What becomes apparent from hearing the recordings on this set as a whole is that Coltrane the saxophonist was fully maturing, yet the development of Coltrane the composer had not yet been fully realised and would only come to full fruition on the Impulse recordings. The compact box pulls out to reveal a tray of CDs in slimline folders, all containing the same photo and is very easy to store which is important given the amount of music within. Given the iconic status of many of the original cover sleeves (a selection of these is contained within the booklet over four pages, it surely would have made better sense to differentiate the various CDs by the sleeve covers). An extended essay by Doug Ramsey is instructive as is the useful alphabetical listing of song titles which makes them easy to identify. Tim Stenhouse