Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Listening to Prestige 241: John Coltrane

This was a pivotal time for John Coltrane. He had been plucked from obscurity in Philadelphia by Miles Davis in late 1955. He had "started with a style imitating Eddie Lockjaw Davis," Miles later reminisced, but he saw something in the young saxophone player that others missed. Coltrane was searching for a new way of approaching, and Miles heard that search.

According to an article in Jazzwise magazine,
Coltrane was searching for something original, and that search was part of his sound. He repeated phrases as if he was wringing every possibility out of note combinations. He was determined never to play predictable melodic lines; instead, unusual flourishes and rhythmic fanfares cut through the structure of the tune. Many writers would puzzle over – some actively denounce – this new, 'exposed' style. They were familiar with polish, not process. Was he practising or performing? Was that harsh rasp intentional, or just a loose mouthpiece?
And we're back to the discussion of perfection versus the capturing of the creative process.

Coltrane was working a lot. He had a heavy touring schedule with the Miles Davis Quintet, and he was also on call in the studio, especially for Prestige. From October of 1955 and his debut with Miles up until this first session as a leader, he was a sideman on eleven different gigs for Prestige, and four more for Blue Note.

And he was doing a lot of self-medicating during this period, with alcohol and especially with heroin. In April of 1957, Miles Davis fired both him and Philly Joe Jones for heroin abuse.

Coltrane went back to Philadelphia, and went cold turkey, helped by friends, by his wife, Naima, who had converted to Islam, and by his own spiritual awakening. It worked. By the end of May, he was back in New York, clean, and with a contract to make three albums a year for Prestige. this being the first one, and his first album as a leader.

He brought some of Philadephia with him, including Johnny Splawn, who played on the first four tunes. This was his only recording date, and I couldn't find anything about him, except that he may have come from a musical family. Clyde Barnhardt, in his memoir 80 Years of Black Entertainment, Big Bands, and the Blues, recalls playing during the 1920s in Charlie Grear's Midnite Ramblers with a trumpeter named John F. Splawn.

Also from Philadelphia, also making his New York recording debut, was a drummer who stayed around for a good long time, Albert Heath, better known as "Tootie." Tootie Heath would play with pretty nearly everybody, most notably his brothers Jimmy and Percy. And he is still playing.

Curiously, Trane employed two piano players: Mal Waldron on the first three cuts, Red Garland on the last four. He must have planned it that way. It doesn't seem likely that Garland was just wandering through Hackensack and decided to pop in during the middle of the session, and Trane just decided to fire Waldron and take him on. Coltrane and Garland did work together a lot, both with Miles and together on Prestige sessions.

The Waldron cuts include two Coltrane originals (one of the few Waldron sessions where they didn't use any of his compositions). These are tunes he must have brought with him from Philadelphia, composed as part of his therapy: "Straight Street" and "Chronic Blues." The other, and the second tune of the day, is "While My Lady Sleeps," by Bronislaw Kaper, a Polish emigre film composer whose credits include another jazz standard, "Green Dolphin Street." "While My Lady Sleeps" is particularly noteworthy because near the end, Coltrane employs, for the first time, a technique he would use extensively in some of his most famous later recordings: multiphonics. This involves playing more than one melody or sequence of notes at the same time, and it's done by a combination of false fingering and embouchure adjustment, sometimes by humming one tune inside your mouth while you're playing another through the saxophone. This is another thing Coltrane brought with him from Philadelphia: he credits local saxophonist John Glenn with teaching him.

Waldron has a particularly vivid solo on "Straight Street."

These three and "Bakai," the first Garland song, employ Splawn on trumpet, and all but "While My  Lady Sleeps" also include Sahib Shihab on baritone, and the three-horn front line is powerful and complex, especially on "Bakai," which is the Arabic word for "cry," and has an Arabic flavor to it. "Bakai" was written by Calvin Massey, and the cry is for Emmett Till, the black teenager who was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi (everyone knew who had done it, but his white killers were never brought to justice). Massey was an esteemed jazz composer, and he was also very political. He worked closely with the Black Panthers, writing The Black Liberation Movement Suite for them, and his outspoken political stances led to blacklisting by most white-owned record companies.
"Violets for Your Furs," "Time Was" and "I Hear a Rhapsody" were all in the quartet with Red Garland that was to be the format for the rest of his tenure with Prestige.

"I Hear a Rhapsody" didn't make the album that came from this date, presumably for reasons of space. It would come out on a later package thrown together after Coltrane had left the label, Lush Life. This album would be called simply Coltrane, and later The First Trane. Prestige released one 45 RPM single, "Time Was," parts one and two. This was from the pen of a Mexican composer, Paz Miguel Prado, from San Miguel de Allende, where I am as I write this, and it had a brief splash as an American pop tune, with recordings by Bob Eberle and Kate Smith.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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