John Coltrane

Fearless Leader

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In the spring of 1957, when he signed with Bob Weinstock's Prestige Records, John Coltrane was still a relative newcomer to the national jazz scene. He wasn't, at age 30, a youngster by any means, and he had already been playing professionally for more than a dozen years, but most of that had been as a sideman and he was known primarily to insiders. Most recently, since 1955, he'd worked for Miles Davis, who had first recognized Coltrane's potential in the late '40s. Coltrane's blowing with Davis' quintet was often brilliant, sometimes spotty, promising overall, but the saxophonist's heroin habit was getting the better of him and Davis cut him loose a number of times before finally disbanding the group in 1957. Weinstock was well familiar with Coltrane's growing reputation and had used him as a sideman at the label. When he gave him a contract as a leader, he could not have known, of course, that he was setting off one of the most monumentally influential careers jazz would ever know. At Prestige, Coltrane, now cleaned up from drugs, was ridiculously prolific, taking part in some 27 sessions in all during 1957 and 1958, the entirety of which, 125 tracks, can be heard on the 16-disc box set The Prestige Recordings. This six-disc set seems almost minimal in comparison, eschewing Coltrane's sideman work at Prestige to concentrate on his role as frontman. But by focusing on Coltrane as an increasingly creative, at times explosive, groundbreaking force, this "compact" set is, in its own way, the more potent of the two. And Fearless Leader is an appropriate title: Coltrane was by nature unafraid to take chances, eager to dare himself and his musicians to go places jazz had yet to travel. He wasn't quite up to running speed yet at Prestige, but he was well on his way to figuring out that the possibilities were boundless.

While some of the Prestige recordings might seem almost tame and mainstream in comparison to the music Coltrane would later cut for Atlantic and Impulse!, that's really only in retrospect: seen in the context of its time, the sessions that Coltrane cut at Prestige -- released originally on such albums as Coltrane, Traneing In, The Believer, Soultrane, and the stunning ballads/standards set Lush Life, on which Coltrane plays it relatively straight, displaying a debt to Charlie Parker that would dissipate as he proceeded to probe worlds Bird never dreamed of -- raised the bar higher than it had ever been at the time. As Fearless Leader is arranged by session and does not attempt to replicate the original albums' running orders, however, those earlier contexts cease to exist and listeners are left to experience the music as Coltrane -- working at Prestige mainly with such peers as pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummers Art Taylor and Louis Hayes, and trumpeters Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard -- cut it, chronologically. Whatever tentativeness he was still feeling early in the relationship slowly gives way, and by the end of Coltrane's tenure at the label, his signature aggressive probing is in full swing, notably on tracks such as "Bahia" and "Goldsboro Express," from his December 1958 session, and a breakneck "Lover Come Back to Me" from earlier that year. Although he was still capable of playing it straight and unadorned -- his blues and romantic ballads are uniformly moving and elegantly laid out -- and Coltrane's Prestige era was a transitional one to be sure, Fearless Leader makes clear that the roots of his genius were already firmly planted.

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