Revinylization #30: Coltrane's Giant Steps from the Electric Recording Company

I have never written about the ultraboutique reissues from the London-based Electric Recording Company. Pressed in quantities of 300 or so, each title sells out within days (or hours) of its release, despite a price tag of $400 or more. Why review what can't be had?

But now ERC has put out a meticulous mono pressing of Giant Steps, John Coltrane's first auteur masterpiece, so it's a good time to step in and say something about the company in general and this album in particular.

Many eyeballs have popped about this label's eccentricities: its obsession with replicating the vintage pressings as precisely as possible, down to mastering the original analog tapes on Lyrec/EMI tube tape machines and Ortofon cutter heads; its equally intense devotion to matching the finely lettered, color-restored covers; its eccentric business model. I am not here to comment on this last factor. Pete Hutchison, the firm's founder, has said his processes are so expensive, the albums wouldn't cost less even if he stamped more of them, and, in any case, his profit margins are strikingly small. I'll take him at his word. As for whether the albums are worth the money, Stereophile is hardly the ideal forum for weighing matters of price and value.

A while ago, I found myself on the ERC reviewers' comp list. (I didn't ask to be put there, but I didn't object either.) From what I've heard, I would say this: If you learn that ERC is about to put out an album that you love, order a copy. In the unlikely event that it disappoints, you can probably sell it at cost or more. (I have not resold any of the albums sent to me; to do so would be a violation of reviewer ethics.)

Giant Steps is a notable release for at least two reasons. First, it is, to my mind, the best—and certainly the most important—of the 14 jazz albums ERC has reissued so far. It is Coltrane's decisive break from sideman (which previously he had always been, even when recording albums under his own name) to leader, and—not unrelated—the first album for which he composed all the tracks. Six of the album's seven tracks were recorded in May 1959, just two weeks after 'Trane's work on Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, yet his approach to the music here marks a dramatic departure. Kind of Blue was the pinnacle of Miles's experiment with modal jazz, where changes are built on scales, not chords; most of the pieces on Giant Steps, especially the two most innovative—the title track and "Countdown"—were built on chords: chords tucked within chords, chords stacked on top of chords, chords in phenomenally fast progressions. They remain challenges that every young jazz saxophonist tries to conquer. It's the most complex, frantic, yet completely orderly fusion of freedom and structure in jazz history. These are tracks to rouse the mind and the body.


The other five tracks are fairly conventional, though at a very high level; Coltrane was still working through a slew of ideas, and he wouldn't make total sense of them for a few more years, when he left Atlantic for Impulse! and formed his "classic quartet" with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. On Giant Steps, he's backed by a one-time-only but perfectly suited rhythm section: pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers (the one comrade from Miles's sextet), and drummer Art Taylor. Yet, for one of its tracks, "Naima"—perhaps Coltrane's most gorgeous ballad, recorded months later, in December '59—he brought in the rest of Miles's rhythm section (pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Jimmy Cobb), and it's the only track on this album that evokes the mood and colors of Kind of Blue. (As I said, he was still working through a lot of ideas and would continue doing so even after he found the sound that he was seeking, with A Love Supreme.)

The second reason this Giant Steps is a notable release is that it comes from the Atlantic Records vaults, which audiophile labels haven't yet scoured. Rhino Records took the deepest dive several years ago, releasing a boxed set, on LP and CD, of all seven of Coltrane's Atlantic albums and, a bit later, all 10 of Ornette Coleman's Atlantics, both collections recorded in 1959–61.

Those Rhinos sounded pretty good, but nothing like this ERC, which sounds simply stunning. Coltrane's tenor sax pops out of the soundstage, 3D, brimming of brass, billowing with air: You can practically see him blowing into the mouthpiece. The piano's tones, chords, and overtones are perfectly clear, as are Chambers's bass walks—which you cannot say about any other reissue of this album. The drums are a bit recessed (as they were, I suspect, on the original tapes), though all the pieces of the drumkit, and all the rhythms within rhythms, are clear and percussive.

This version is mastered from the mono tapes. Generally, I don't understand mavens who prefer mono even when an album was also recorded in stereo, but they're right this time: Mono works better here. On the stereo version, Tom Dowd, the original engineer, boxed in the sound, putting some musicians in the left speaker, others in the right speaker, as was common at the time. It's less distracting, and it makes the music seem more coherent, to put them all straight down the middle.

This is a vital album, laid down as vividly as we're ever likely to hear it.

Glotz's picture

And this review is valid regardless of whether the LP is ultra-rare and difficult to obtain. You are showing over time that ERC is providing an extreme level of fidelity to all aspects of their products.

I really wish I had the cash and the timing to get this. A nice reminder next time.

vince's picture

> I really wish I had the cash and the timing to get this. A nice reminder next time.

Cash helps, but what you really need is a time machine. ERCs are next to impossible to get, but a time machine would let you keep trying.

AnalogueFan's picture

Excellent price. It is the value of a good analog.