When the Concord Music Group took ownership of the Fantasy catalog that included labels like Riverside, Prestige, Milestone, and New Jazz, there was great trepidation as to what they would actually do with that historically treasured store of some of the most important music in the jazz canon. One of the first things they did was to issue a box set called Fearless Leader, compiling of all of John Coltrane's dates as a leader for Prestige -- music that had been out before in individual volumes and also as a box set. It sounded great, and the presentation was beautiful. The music was there for those who'd never been exposed to it before, or suddenly realized they needed it all, but for those who had been part of Coltrane's fan base for eternity, it felt in some ways a bit anti-climactic. There was gratitude in having it available, but it was a pricey situation to have to buy it all again. But that was only an opening salvo, while the Concord group has been reissuing catalog titles we've seen before, many of them have been significantly remastered and there have been some surprises as well. Add to that the fact that the company has reactivated the Stax imprint by releasing new titles as well as catalog material that hasn't been available on CD before, and it's obvious they're doing the right thing.
Interplay underscores that earlier Coltrane box. It contains all the of dates Coltrane participated in as a sideman (or collaborator) between 1956 and 1958. Yes, all of the music on these five discs has been available before. There isn't anything new from the vaults. That said, it has never before been presented en masse chronologically, and it has never sounded so utterly crisp and clean, warm and fully present. For those who are Coltrane aficionados, there is a new way to hear the development of a giant. For those new to this music, you are in a enviable position: the wealth of surprise and delight to be found here is almost beyond measure.
Historically, when these sessions were cut, Coltrane had rejoined the Miles Davis Quintet, and was playing as part of Thelonious Monk's group (resulting in the historic Live at the Five Spot date). He kept a busy profile, working constantly not just to pay the bills, but to push at something within himself he was trying to get to. These seven full albums on these five discs offer a very direct view of that process, while showcasing some of the truly awesome talent on display in music during the mid-'50s: Mal Waldron (who composed 12 of the 34 tunes here and performs on 20): Red Garland and Tommy Flanagan are also here. In addition, figures like Pepper Adams, a young Hank Mobley, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Paul Quinichette, Webster Young, Idrees Sulieman, Cecil Payne and Kenny Burrell, Doug Watkins, Art Taylor, Paul Chambers, Louis Hayes, Jimmy Cobb, Ed Thigpen, and Frank Wess. Five of those dates are not credited to a leader. They include Tenor Conclave, Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors, The Cats, Wheelin' and Dealin, and Modern Jazz Survey 2 (later reissued under Coltrane's own name as Dakar). The other two albums here are Cattin' co led by Coltrane and Paul Quinichette, and Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane. These last two co-led dates were also in the jam session mode. The material ranges from standards to originals, from hard bop to swinging, easy lyrical material. If anything defines the many kinds of playing Coltrane was doing at the time, it's the pre-modal lyricism that was still full of power and rapid-fire quickness moving through whole ranges of arpeggios seemingly effortlessly. The controlled dynamics in his laying -- check his solo on the 17-minute version of Mal Waldron's classic "Soul Eyes" on disc two for proof -- show the entire range of his improvising at the time. One can hear the roots of his Atlantic sides within it readily. There are also some sides here from dates issued by others with Trane as a sideman, including a tune from Art Taylor's Taylor's Wailers and Waldron's The Dealers, which were released on an affiliate (Status) in 1965, but were recorded during this time period.
The box is long and its discs are placed in a very secure fashion (disc three is virtually hidden underneath the slipcase containing the 60-page booklet -- it feels like an actual book). This artifact is in and of itself quite handsome and is the way these things ought to be done. It includes many rare photographs taken at sessions, original LP artwork, and two killer sets of liner notes. The first one is a lovely introductory essay by Nat Hentoff, and the second is an intricately detailed overview of the sessions themselves by Coltrane scholar Lewis Porter. In fact, for some listeners the only problem with this collection is that some of the discs may seem brief. It's obvious as one goes through the set that this box wasn't intended to pad anything, but was compiled for the sake of issuing the master in as complete a chronological form as possible on a single disc (remember the old Prestige boxes that would break in the middle of an album?), something that is a quibble at best. For those interested enough in Coltrane, it's a wise purchase, for those who seek that indefinable sound that was the mid-'50s at its best, this set is indispensable. Ultimately, Interplay is a success and proves the authority of what Concord is trying to accomplish with the catalog they are now charged with preserving and issuing to the public. Let's hope they don't go the Blue Note route and simply issue the same titles over and over-and over-again, but instead dig deeper into their vaults for the treasures within it that have yet to see the light of day on compact disc. Interplay, despite its previously issued material, is a new thing because of its presentation, and offers a very large view of Coltrane, as well as Waldron, Flanagan, Adams, and others who would emerge as great bandleaders in a way we've not had before. It's not merely a career retrospective but a slice -- and a big one, it's true -- of jazz history in the making.