Recording of August 1997: Lush Life, Blue Train, & Black Pearls

JOHN COLTRANE: Lush Life
DCC GZS-1108 (CD). 1997. Bob Weinstock, prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng.; Steve Hoffman, reissue prod. AAD? TT: 36:39
Performance ****
Sonics *****

JOHN COLTRANE: Blue Train
Blue Note CDP 8 53428 0 (CD). 1997. Alfred Lion, prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng.; Michael Cuscuna, reissue prod.; Philip Coady, enhanced CD prod. AAD? TT: 59:20
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

JOHN COLTRANE: Black Pearls
JVC JVCXR-0017-2 (CD). 1997. Bob Weinstock, prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng.; Akira Taguchi, reissue prod. AAD? TT: 38:59
Performance ****
Sonics *****

It's easy to overplay the idea of "searching" when writing about jazz. Because of the often baleful tone of their instrument—not to mention their high rate of self-destruction—sax players are most often hung with the poetic ideal of "searching." Searching for a style. Searching for themselves. Charlie Parker's dizzying flights meant he was searching. Sonny Rollins' tense phrasing and impromptu rehearsals on the Williamsburg Bridge prove that he, too, has used his horn to plumb the depths.

To a point, I buy it. But c'mon—no one can search all the time. Sometimes players are just playing, or maybe simply reveling in their speed or tone—or, in the case of a Bird, their high.

That said, there is in some cases an obvious amount of truth in the whole raw-emotioned, dissectible notion of jazz "searching." Miles was undoubtedly an insatiable hunter. Another was John Coltrane, who remains (along with Miles) one of the original moving targets.

Jazz history is spangled with mini turning points, and one occurred in spring 1957, when, for the first time, Coltrane began recording under his own name. Shaped into rough form by his time in big bands, the Miles Davis quintet, and finally Monk's band, Coltrane and his talent were then just a silhouette of the old master he would soon become: ready in terms of energy, if not in chops, to step out and begin building his soon-to-be-essential legacy.

As fate and release schedules would have it, three of Coltrane's most important early solo discs have all been recently reissued in audiophile editions with significantly improved sound. The new Blue Train is also an enhanced CD—if you have a Pentium or Power PC computer, you can view video clips. Rather than choose one of these discs, which were recorded between May 1957 and May 1958, it seemed more interesting to declare a triple tie and write about all three. In many ways, they're continuations of the same session: While the sidemen change from disc to disc, the big tenor in the middle just keeps growing and growing before your very ears.

Lush Life takes its title from the lead track, a lyrical reading of Billy Strayhorn's signature composition. The album is best known for three cuts in which Coltrane is accompanied by only bass and drums, a setting favored by Sonny Rollins. Legend has it that, rather than being the result of any set plan, this arrangement occurred because the pianist on the date simply didn't show up. Unlike Rollins, who used the extra space to shove in more of everything, Coltrane is not so inspired. More concerned with working out clear articulations of his ideas as well as finding his songwriting legs, he ventures one original and four safe standards. A fast take of Cole Porter's ballad "I Love You," in which he flashes his famous cascading approach (the cliché is "sheets of sound"), and a slow, lush cover of Jimmy Van Heusen's "Like Someone in Love" hint at glories to come. Although still in mono, DCC's gold reissue gives this album a new sonic lease on life, thanks to the quality of Rudy Van Gelder's original engineering and Steve Hoffman's multidimensional remastering.

The title track of Blue Train, which was Trane's first "hit," features the powerful tenor player uttering one of his most coherent early solos. An alternate take of "Blue Train" offers up another, less compelling solo turn. Still, it's clear that he's beginning to find the language he seeks. Though they've often been castigated for being out of place here stylistically, trombonist Curtis Fuller and trumpeter Lee Morgan rip off big, stinging solos that, depending on your tastes, add or subtract a lot from the proceedings. An unassailable rhythm section of Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers (both of whom played with Coltrane in Miles' quintet), and the incomparable Philly Joe Jones complete what is, by any standard, a hellaciously talented sextet. Here again, 20-bit Super Bit Mapping has revealed new textures and detail missing from previous reissues of this disc.

Weakest in terms of material, Black Pearls is weighed down by the interminable (+18 minutes) "Sweet Sapphire Blues." Thanks to JVC's Extended Resolution Compact Disc process, it is also the best-sounding disc of the three. Uncompromised by any of the steps it takes to make a CD, these nearly handmade discs sound extraordinarily alive.

The sound here of Coltrane finding himself is the prelude to the first of his masterworks, Giant Steps, recorded in 1959. But, like Miles' Birth of the Cool or Louis Armstrong's recordings with King Oliver, this is Coltrane to be loved for its brawn rather than its finesse, for its sweeping searches rather than minute observations—the explorations that were to energize both the player and his music for the rest of his life.—Robert Baird

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