Friday, May 19, 2017

Listening to Prestige 260: Ray Draper - John Coltrane

Bob Weinstock must have had a lot of confidence in his barely 17-year-old prodigy Ray Draper, giving him John Coltrane as a bandmate. It's tough enough playing bebop on a tuba, without being asked to play it off against one of the most advanced improvisers of the era. And to up the stakes a little more, either Weinstock or Draper decided not to go with their tried and true reliables in the rhythm section. Each of them had played on only one other Prestige session. Gil Coggins had played on a Jackie McLean session in August.  Spanky DeBrest had appeared on Draper's debut as leader, though he was already an established figure with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Larry Ritchie had also worked with Draper, on the July 12 Jackie McLean session.

All of this works. Coggins is a jagged, percussive piano player, and sets the tone that this is going to be a different kind of session. Draper and Coltrane work well together in the ensemble passages. Draper proves that he's a first rate composer on his originals, particularly "Clifford's Kappa," and he shines as a soloist.

And that's saying a lot, considering what he was up against. Everything from this session is good, better than good. But Coltrane was on fire. When he solos, everything else melts away. I've been following Coltrane's progression here, from the Miles sessions through the wide-ranging array of sideman gigs that Weinstock used him for, through his sessions as leader, looking for clues as to what he would burst forth into come the 1960s, and not really finding them. In each of his Prestige sessions, including this one, he is right there in the present moment, making the music he's brought in to make. And making all the right choices. And listening to his recording sessions in chronological order, all I can say is that he keeps getting better and better.

His solos here virtually stop time and space, and exist in their own dimension. But that doesn't mean he's ignoring what's around him. He's working with Draper and Coggins, building on what they're doing, and they're doing some very, very good stuff.

In spite of all that, it's hard to know what to do with a tuba player, and Weinstock was not going to do more. This is Draper's last session for Prestige, and it was released on New Jazz, which generally meant it was not going to get the promotional push that went behind a Prestige release. Draper would record only sporadically after that, succumbing to heroin addiction and drug-related prison time. He died in 1982, meeting an ironically grisly end for a musical prodigy: he was shot and killed by a hold-up gang led by a 13-year-old.

The original New Jazz release was called The Ray Draper Quintet featuring John Coltrane. A much later Prestige reissue was title The John Coltrane/Ray Draper Quintet.

Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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