John Coltrane

Side Steps

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In just over a decade, John Coltrane passed through three (some would say four) distinct artistic phases, basically separated by which label he was signed to at the time. In only two years on Atlantic, he catapulted hard bop forward, imported influences from Indian and North African music, and worked with Ornette Coleman's backing band. Upon signing to Impulse! in 1961, he began a six-year stretch of relentlessly experimental studio work, with his "classic quartet" and numerous other musicians including Eric Dolphy, Rashied Ali, Pharoah Sanders, and his second wife, Alice. But his early recordings, made for the Prestige label between 1955 and 1957, are both voluminous and revelatory. Side Steps is the third and final box in a series that has separated Coltrane's work for the label into albums on which he was the leader, albums recorded with him as part of a larger group (the "Prestige All-Stars"), and discs on which he was a mere sideman. (The albums he recorded with the Miles Davis Quintet have their own box.) The five discs of Side Steps contain 43 tracks originally released under the leadership of players like Elmo Hope, Tadd Dameron, Mal Waldron, Red Garland, and Gene Ammons, plus "Tenor Madness," the saxophonist's lone in-studio encounter with Sonny Rollins, and all find Coltrane playing his part, never truly dominating proceedings but always stepping up when his moment comes. In the mid-'50s, Coltrane had yet to develop the "sheets of sound" technique of worrying away endlessly at a chord; instead, his solos hold to a bluesy, bop-derived style, with a rich command of the horn's full range, though he tends to keep himself in the lower to middle register. Bob Weinstock, owner of Prestige Records, tended to book "blowing sessions" rather than let artists come up with an album's worth of solid new material that would work as a cohesive artistic statement, and he always attempted to get as much material as possible from a single studio date, so there are a lot of standards on these discs, and relatively few originals (by the leaders or the sidemen). Also, many of the performances are quite lengthy, with ten of them passing the ten-minute mark and "All Mornin' Long," on which Coltrane and Donald Byrd augment Red Garland's trio, coming in at a staggering (for 1957) 20:17. But everything here is worth hearing, and the detailed liner notes -- which include an interview with Weinstock as well as session notes and the usual other stuff -- add value to a terrific box, one that easily stands up alongside its two companions and Rhino/Atlantic's gathering of the Atlantic years, The Heavyweight Champion.

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