John Coltrane: Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings

Coltrane box set cover image

John Coltrane
Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings
(Craft/Prestige)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Does the world need another John Coltrane album? Apparently so, since 2018’s Both Directions At Once, newly unearthed music from the sax icon, was hugely successful.

Unlike, say, Jimi Hendrix, whose short career only yielded three studio albums when he was alive (but a dozen more and counting after his death), saxist Coltrane recorded prolifically throughout his decade-long stint as both a firebrand frontman and sideman for Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and others. Upon his cancer-related death in 1967, he already had released dozens of albums. Those multiplied when the vault clearing began and, as we saw from 2018’s release, hasn’t stopped yet.

This one is slightly different.

As the title clearly states, this collects all the recordings Coltrane made for the Prestige label during one year. He was just 33 at the time, and although his style was in its early stage of development, these 37 tracks show him to already be a consummate musician. Coltrane was still a few years away from defining his more unique, often avant-garde approach, but he is in full control on this batch of predominantly standards.

His full-throated tenor is powerful and often intense, even for the ballads that comprise the majority of these selections. Coltrane fans won’t find anything new since everything has been previously available (although scattered among many other collections). This small footprint, five-CD box (also available as an eight-platter vinyl set) collects them all, remasters the sound and presents the music in chronological recording order.  

Coltrane always played with soul. He was capable of shredding with precise, lightning-fast notes, as he does on a breathless version of Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby.” But he generally stays in ballad or be-bop mode for these sessions and his restrained playing is just as impressive.

This is all acoustic, straight ahead jazz with lots of often extensive solos, not just from Coltrane but legendary sidemen like trumpeters Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Burrell on guitar and bassist Paul Chambers. The audio, recorded in producer Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey home studio, sounds superb throughout, with such presence and immediacy that it seems these musicians are in the room with you. Isolating the bass and drums on one channel with the sax and trumpet on the other takes some getting used to, but you’ll be blown away at how vibrant and contemporary this feels. Considering the tapes are 60-years-old, the fidelity is mind-blowing. Playing this through quality headphones only increases that feeling.

At nearly six hours, there is a lot to absorb. Some songs are stretched out to well past 10 minutes, with “Sweet Sapphire Blues” clocking in at over 18 minutes; all of it is engrossing. The 76-page book of notes and rare pictures takes you inside both the music, with discussions of each song, and Coltrane’s professional and personal life at the time. It adds layers of understanding to his art and explains to both novices and longtime listeners the significance of what you’re hearing in the context of the time and jazz in general. This isn’t the first destination for someone unfamiliar with the career of John Coltrane to start; there’s just too much to handle. But taken in smaller pieces, and put into perspective with the iconic jazzman’s enormous output, this beautifully crafted, linen covered box is essential to appreciating the early, somewhat formative years of his larger-than-life musical personality, one that would go on to create bigger and arguably better things.