John Coltrane: “Fearless Leader” and “Interplay”

It’s been quite a while since I started a series entitled Trials and Tribulations. In that series, I wrote about things that can drive us collectors up the wall …and down again. At the time I only hinted at it, but right now I’m planning on expanding on one of the issues I mostly left out at the time: The Trials and Tribulations of label policy. It’s a can of worms I didn’t really want to touch then and it’s a can – when opened – that infuriates me time and again, economic sensibility or not. I come at it from a stance uninhibited by economic concerns; one that focuses on keeping music alive as opposed to keeping profits up. Call me delusional, but it’s the way I tick.

To cut to the chase right away, whenever you mention the Concord Music Group on any jazz board, chances are that people will start cussing relatively fast, despite some of the exemplary work they have produced.. The problem was and is that Concord purchased Fantasy Inc. (the owners, for example, of the prestigious Original Jazz Classics reprint series series, Galaxy, Debut Records, Riverside, Milestone, Prestige, Pablo, and just about everything else under the sun that many collectors were/are salivating for) … and proceeded to shut down that company’s Berkley California warehouse where lots of that Fantasy OJC stock was shelved, fired the Fantasy vault workers, shut down their mastering studio and shipped the tapes off to the infamous Iron Mountain storage facility.

Get this: The high-security Iron Mountain storage facility, used by many companies, is located in an abandoned limestone mine located in Pennsylvania and all records are destroyed after a specific period of time, depending on the customer’s contract. If at all, digital backup copies will probably be the only thing left of lots of this material once that time period is up and, on top of that, the folks running this trash compactor for irreplaceable cultural gems are rumored to have some really bad logistics in place, meaning it’s not exactly easy unearthing, for example, master takes of any stored session.

A nightmare, really.

First it was a rumor:

I just heard through the grapevine that Concord in their cost cutting wisdom has let go Stuart, the Fantasy vault guy who knew where every tape was and are shoveling all of the tapes to the infamous IRON MOUNTAIN storage facility. The saying is: “Once in Iron Mountain, never out of Iron Mountain”.

Remember when all of the Columbia Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel masters were misplaced there for 20 years?

So, the vault archivist Stuart is out of a job as is the entire Fantasy Recording and Mastering Studio engineers, technicians and all related personal. In other words, anyone who knows anything about the history of Fantasy, Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary, Specialty and the other labels now controlled by Concord are gone with the wind.

This is truly a shame. The story is that while the Fantasy Studio staff was being told of their impending removal, the Iron Mountain people were in the parking lot padlocking the doors of the building so they could start removing everything. Getting rid of the people who know what they are doing to save a few dollars is really stupid. It’s happened before (Bill Inglot) and it will happen again but still…..Stupid. (Source: The Steve Hoffman Forums)

Then it became reality.

Things got worse when many Fantasy (and connected labels’) releases shot up in price around the globe as they became more and more rare, Concord themselves seemed to be having blowout sales en masse to remove old Fantasy stock, and it soon became clear that many of the sessions would probably not be reissued on CD anymore. “Digital Downloads” were to be the thing of the future.

Without expanding on this utter and complete mess that we have Concord to thank for, the planned triple boxed set series of John Coltrane’s Prestige sessions was certainly affected by this and, up until today, the last box, the sideman dates, still hasn’t been released.

Apparently, a mixed group of old Fantasy staff plus a person hired by Concord after they had bought Fantasy up were responsible for the reissuing of the old 16-disc Fantasy John Coltrane set in three separate boxed sets and after one had been issued, that newly hired person took his expertise over to Rhino.

Then the second boxed set was published.

Since then, silence, although I have been told recently by the press relations department via the Concord website that the third set is slated for release on October 8th. Let’s hope this does indeed come to pass.

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, apparently the first two new boxed sets were not really complete (as if that was anything new for us jazz collectors) and, like the original 16-CD boxed set from the 90s that many jazz fans had the chance of snatching up at decent prices, the material without Coltrane actually playing – but part of the sessions reissued here – was left out once more, although there would have been plenty of room to include it.

On top of that, jazz fans who had bought the original 16-CD set sometimes stated that the sound on that set was equal – if not better – when compared to the new reissues, others who had both the old and the new begged to differ, stating that the sound was a (huge) improvement.

Hell, if that doesn’t cause a migraine, I don’t know what will. I, for one, missed out on the original 16-CD reissue which was to be had at a very decent price not long thereafter and I cannot compare the sound quality of the massive old set to the piecemeal new ones, but all I can say is that I’m very happy with what I’m hearing. If you are planning on buying into this music, these two boxed sets I’m about to introduce to you are worth it sonically as well.

In summation, we are talking absolute and total confusion; a thoroughly messed up affair, which the average consumer is probably oblivious to. That’s not to say that the boxed sets I’m about to talk about are bad. Quite the contrary is the case, but to see their release in the context of Concord ripping to shreds a huge chunk of recorded jazz history is sad, to say the least.

Nevertheless, in contradiction (partly) what I wrote above, Concord’s boxed sets are indeed a labor of love once they appear, if the appear.

On a last note, before we have a look at these sets; Many casual – or even passionate – jazz fans are sometimes scared of what John Coltrane produced. His later output is way out there in terms of modal experiments, spiritual composition and musical experience. Some have disqualified it as “noise”, others have termed it “awe-inspiring”. Whatever your take is on John Coltrane’s musical legacy, these two boxed sets are often straight-ahead blowing sessions with only hints and touches of things to come. The development, if you are so inclined, can be traced, but what you are served with here are good to excellent sessions that highlight Coltrane’s rapid rise to interpretative and compositional (super-)stardom, which reached its zenith a little later. What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t be weary of the music enshrined on these two boxed … at all. This is fun stuff; it swings hard most of the time, it incites and it makes you hold your breath at times. I kid you not.

The other day I wrote about stumbling over the first boxed set in this planned series of three by mere chance. I had had it on my wishlist for a long time, but – as is often the case with long wishlists – it didn’t jump out at me again until I ran into it face-first, literally, at a very good price at that.

When I got home, although I really didn’t have the time, this first boxed set sucked me in from the get-go and, to be quite honest, I got into trouble because I spent much of the time I was supposed to have invested into work on just listening to 5 CDs worth of John Coltrane.

“Fearless Leader”

The title sucks. There were a ton of people playing more “fearless” stuff at the time and the entitling of this set is clearly trying to cash in on Coltrane’s later reputation. Still, this set puts at your fingertips 11 albums from the Prestige catalog (spanning the years 1957-1958), his leader dates for the Prestige label, Coltrane, Lush Life, Soultrane, Traneing In, Settin’ the Pace, Standard Coltrane, Stardust, The Believer, Black Pearls, Bahia, and The Last Trane. If you look at Coltrane’s career, this material culled from a load of different sessions arrived just after Coltrane had entered his very rewarding association with Miles Davis and while playing on and off with Thelonius Monk (a lot of this stuff was recorded in the “breaks”) and, to be quite honest, I think much of this material is actually quite romantic and decidedly bluesy in nature. There’s bop to boot and a whole slew of ballads, most of which work quite well, especially if you tune into Coltrane’s harmonic explorations which are still far removed from what his mind took him to later in his career (and what some listeners might consider to be somewhat cacophonous). The guy was on the way, but not quite there.

If you are afraid of being beat over your hairless scalp with modal exploration, fear not, because the material is only at times tinged with pyrotechnical displays (within bounds) which are still comparatively muted. The ballads are often breathtakingly smooth (and explosive at the same time).

I love this music.

Musicians? More often than not backed by his reliable trio of Red Garland (p), Paul Chambers (b) and Art Taylor (dr), we also get Freddie Hubbard, Donald Bryrd, Wilbur Harden and other blowing greats. Plus a truckload full of others.

You know, many reviewers have called this set an example of “formative” material and whatnot. I don’t really agree. How “formative” can material be from a man who had lived at least three lives by the time he reached thirty, drug and alcohol addiction laid aside? You can feel the passion, the exploration, the energy exploding across the sound canvas. People, I implore you to buy this set in it’s somewhat complete glory as one can never be quite sure as to how long it will still be available as an haptically pleasing collectors’ edition. No matter how often Concord and others try to make a shilling with Coltrane’s output, it’s all bound to disappear into the thin air that is digital downloads and 190KB shite. If you value music, the epitome of jazz in the 50s and 60s, the early stages of a magnificent career of one of its masters before he left this earth way before his prime, these two boxed sets (including an as of now imaginary third) are where it’s at.

“Interplay”

Maybe it’s heresy, but I like the second boxed set in the series even more. Hell, the material on this set can certainly not be marketed as “John Coltrane” material, simply because the material isn’t his whatsoever. As in “also played”. None of his compositions appear – zip, nada, zilch – and some reviewers have therefore tried to relegate this boxed set to the sidelines.

Seven albums and three single tracks from two other sessions, recorded in the span of one single year from 1956 until 1958. Although five albums were released “leaderless”, Tenor Conclave, Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors, The Cats, Wheelin’ & Dealin’ and Modern Jazz Survey 2, later reissued under Coltrane’s own name as Dakar, and two, Cattin’ with Coltrane and Quinichette, essentially co-led by Coltrane and Paul Quinichette, and and Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane, Coltarne’s last date for Prestige not under his own leadership, it quickly becomes clear that at least two individuals provided the “glue” to keep it all together, especially Tommy Flanagan on The Cats and Mal Waldron on Interplay, Wheelin’ & Dealin’, Dakar and Cattin’.

I love Mal Waldron’s (underappreciated as the man was) comping it to near perfection on several tracks (he actually started his career on alto sax and is rumored to have taken on the piano because whoever accompanied on said instrument throughout his career up to that point, err, sucked). Here he’s in the foreground on at least two sessions (altogether, Waldron contributed 12 of the 34 compositions), along with others in which he obviously lead the way. We also get Frank Wess (call me infatuated, but Frank Wess’ – sax and flute – recordings with smaller Count Basie units are some of the best jazz I have in my collection) , the aforementioned Kenny Burrell, Paul Quinichette, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Mobley, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn.
Plus more.
Lots more.

Often jam-oriented blowing sessions,they have that raw energy and spontaneous quality that many of us appreciate so much, Everyone gets ample space, and the interplay is sweet. This stuff grooves. Yes, it’s Coltrane blowing for a half-decent paycheck, but it’s also a Coltrane who sticks out next to the more rational (or lucid …) players whose lines he was using to bounce ideas off. What I like best is that this not a conglomerate of endless tenor battles but an alternating set of much finer and more sublime contrasts that abound.

As is the case with both boxed sets, the sound is more than good. I do not want to enter the remastering battle of the senses again, but both boxed sets sound invigorating on my stereo setup. Yes, maybe you are able to score some more obscure Japanese remasters that might be a tad improved on the soundscape side of things, but these two sets are more than good enough for 99% of the population. They certainly are good enough for me. When given a spin, they kick ass sonically.

Summary

Studying the reviews on Amazon.com, some people have complained about the construction of these boxed sets, but free speech aside, these people have absolutely no clue as to what they are talking about. Both boxed sets are a labor of love, with mostly excellent liner notes,sturdy packaging, excellent photos, albeit with print which is too small for the target audience (as always). I need a magnifying glass to read it all.

In summation; if you do not want to miss out on a cornerstone of jazz history, you simply must buy these two boxed sets, especially since they are available at very reasonably prices. Yes, most of this music will be regurgitated time and again in either completely useless “Coltrane for Lovers” series and the major albums won’t die until the CD dies, but if you want to have a chronological overview of John Coltrane’s output of that time – hoping that the last box will appear as scheduled- this is your one and only chance to get hold of seminal jazz sessions.

For me, personally, the amount of material Coltrane recorded in a mere three years (1956-1958) is absolutely astonishing – especially when compared to what is produced today. I don’t want to lessen any other musicians’ output, but the quality of this seemingly endless stream of great recordings makes anything else almost pale in comparison.

Memories

On a last note: In 1986 I was invited to a dinner at a Danish couple’s apartment. The man in the house – let’s just call him H. – had a girlfriend who was not only a great cook (her catering service supplied anyone from the Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson with food on their Scandinavian tours (does Jackson actually eat anything?), but also someone who had a knack for picking just the right wine for the occasion. She would spend and entire day getting these dinners ready, consulting her handwritten recipes of southern-Italian or northern-French dishes, working her magic for hours on end.

That evening, next door in the living room, H. first put on “Traneing In” with the Red Garland Trio (on the Fearless Leader boxed set) and then “Wheelin’ and Dealin'” (Interplay boxed set). We sat on the windowsill on a warm Copenhagen summer night, taking in the music and letting it drift through open windows across the main road just outside.

We missed dinner entirely and were yelled at for about 6 months thereafter.
It was worth it.

Go Get!
Both sets.
And the third in October!

***

Fearless Leader
Prestige Records, Berkley, CA
Concord Music Group 2006, Berkley, CA
PRCD6-30059-2

Original Sessions Supervised by: Bob Weinstock
December 26th, 1958 Session Supervised by: Esmond Edwards
Recorded By: Rudy Van Gelder at Van Gelder Studios, Hackensack, NJ
Boxed set produced and compiled by: Patrick Milligan and Cheryl Pawelski
Remastering: Joe Tarantino at Fantasy Studios, Berkley, CA
Project Supervision: Chris Clough
Liner Notes: Richard S. Ginell and Lewis Porter
Editorial: Terry Hinte
Box Cover Photography: Bob Parent
Book Cover: Burt Goldblatt
Albums and Memorabilia: Courtesy of the collection of Yasuhiro Fujioka

Recording dates: May 31, 1957 to December 26, 1958

Note: I’m not one hundred percent sure about the track times; I copied them from a program I use to index my CDs.

Disc 01
01. Straight Street (06:19)
02. While My Lady Sleeps (04:44)
03. Chronic Blues (08:14)
04. Bakai (08:42)
05. Violets For your Furs (06:17)
06. Time Was (07:29)
07. I Hear a Rhapsody (06:03)
08. Trane’s Slo blues (06:06)
09. Slowtrane (07:20)
10. Like Someone In Love (05:00)
11. I Love you (05:31)

Disc 02
01. You Leave Me Breathless (07:25)
02. Bass Blues (07:48)
03. Soft Lights And Sweet Music (04:44)
04. Traneing In (12:36)
05. Slow Dance (05:29)
06. Lush Life (14:03)
07. The Believer (13:50)
08. Nakatini Serenade (11:02)

Disc 03
01. Come Rain Or Come Shine (08:47)
02. Lover (07:58)
03. Russian Lullaby (05:36)
04. Theme For Ernie (04:59)
05. You Say You Care (06:17)
06. Good Bait (12:10)
07. I Want To Talk About You (10:57)
08. Rise ‘N Shine (07:16)
09. I See Your Face Before Me (09:57)

Disc 04
01. If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You (09:22)
02. Little Melonae (14:06)
03. By The Numbers (12:02)
04. Black Pearls (13:13)
05. Lover Come Back To Me (07:28)
06. Sweet Sapphire Blues (18:14)

Disc 05
01. Spring Is Here (06:56)
02. Invitation (10:23)
03. I’m A Dreamer, Aren’t We All (07:04)
04. Love Thy Neighbor (09:24)
05. Don’t Take Your Love From Me (09:16)
06. Stardust (10:43)
07. My Ideal (07:36)
08. I’ll Get By (08:09)

Disc 06
01. Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful? (05:14)
02. Then I’ll Be Tired Of You (09:30)
03. Something I Dreamed Last Nighht (10:51)
04. Bahia (06:17)
05. Goldsboro Express (04:46)
06. Time After Time (07:43)

***

Interplay
Prestige Records, Berkley, CA
Concord Music Group 2007, Berkley, CA
PRCD5-30204

Original Sessions Supervised by: Bob Weinstock
April 20th, 1957 Session Supervised by: Teddy Charles
Recorded By: Rudy Van Gelder at Van Gelder Studios, Hackensack, NJ
Boxed set produced and compiled by: Patrick Milligan, Cheryl Pawelski and Greg Allen
Remastering: Joe Tarantino at Fantasy Studios, Berkley, CA
Project Supervision: Chris Clough
Liner Notes: Nat Hentoff and Lewis Porter
Editorial: Terry Hinte
Box Cover Photography: William Claxton
Book Cover: Don Schlitten
Albums and Memorabilia: Courtesy of the collection of Yasuhiro Fujioka

Recording dates: September 7, 1956 to March 7, 1958.

Note: I’m not one hundred percent sure about the track times; I copied them from a program I use to index my CDs.

Disc 01
01. Just You, Just Me (09:29)
02. Tenor Conclave (11:04)
03. How Deep Is The Ocean? (15:06)
04. Bob’s Boys (08:21)
05. Anatomy (11:55)
06. Interplay (09:41)
07. Light Blue (07:50)

Disc 02
01. Soul Eyes (17:32)
02. C.T.A. (04:43)
03. Eclypso (07:57)
04. Solacium (09:10)
05. Minor Mishap (07:26)
06. Tommy’s Time (11:58)

Disc 03
01. Dakar (07:09)
02. Mary’s Blues (06:47)
03. Route 4 (06:55)
04. Velvet Scene (04:54)
05. Witches’ Pit (06:42)
06. Cat Walk (07:12)
07. Cattin’ (07:22)
08. Anatomy (08:52)
09. Vodka (09:06)
10. Sunday (06:59)

Disc 04
01. Dealin’ (Alt. Take) (10:01)
02. Dealin’ (10:16)
03. Wheelin’ (Alt. Take) (10:26)
04. Wheelin’ (11:22)
05. Robbins’ Nest (15:33)
06. Things Ain’t What They Used To Be (08:24)

Disc 05
01. Lyresto (05:45)
02. Why Was I Born? (03:13)
03. Freight Trane (07:20)
04. I Never Knew (07:06)
05. Big Paul (14:04)

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. Underground rat23/05/2008 at 5:07 am

    You are so naive about preservation! Leave it above ground and you will have useless vinegar.

    Reply

  2. The preservation aspect wasn’t really the issue I was discussing, but if you say so …

    Reply

  3. Excellent website, and totally agreeable comments on both Coltrane boxed sets. I came across your site as I was doing a search for the third set. Thank you for your info regarding the tentative October 8th release date. If you finally confirm this date, or hear of another release date, could you please email me? Thank you, and keep up the great work.
    Best wishes,
    Marc G.

    Reply

  4. Marc,

    thanks for your nice words. I have only the official Concord info to go by and hope that they stick to releasing the box on or around that day. I’m looking forward to it.

    BTW, Marc, if you subscribe to the comments to this thread (small checkbox at the bottom when posting) or have already done so, you will be informed when the set is available because I will certainly mention that event in the comments here. I simply cannot promise that I will send you any mail because I might not remember when the time comes. But I’ll try my best.

    Cheers!

    Reply

  5. Thank you Volkher. Keep up the great work!
    Marc

    Reply

  6. Hi Volkher,
    Hope all is well. Any further news on the third Coltrane Prestige set? I actually picked up the Japanese 18 cd set over the summer. I believe it was reissued in Japan during the summer of 2006, shortly before Concord released the FEARLESS LEADER set. I still, however, plan on purchasing the third set.
    Stay well, hope to hear from you soon.
    Sincerely,
    Marc Grieco

    Reply

  7. There’s no third set yet.

    Reply

  8. Any word on that 3rd set? Still hanging onto hope over here …

    Reply

  9. Nothing yet.

    Reply

  10. Hans,

    thanks for doing my work for me.

    🙂

    Reply

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