Wilbur Harden/John Coltrane: The Complete Savoy Sessions

This Savoy double CD brings together in one package all of the label’s sessions led by Harden, a talented young musician who turned up briefly, disappeared and is presumed to have died in the 1960s. It includes several alternate takes, giving ample evidence of his attractiveness as a player. He wrote all the pieces, which are more substantial than the on-the-spot “compositions” of many Savoy sessions of the ’50s. Sometimes playing trumpet and sometimes rotary valve flugelhorn, he was capable of range, power and bursts of speed, but he built many of his solos on a base of restraint, lyricism and a certain wistfulness. Harden’s style seemed to owe something to Miles Davis, but it is a mistake to peg him, as some have done, as a Davis imitator or acolyte. In many of his solos here, he has a good deal in common with players like Tony Fruscella and Don Joseph. In others, he sounds only like Wilbur Harden. Coltrane was his front-line partner and foil in all three of his sessions in the spring of 1958. Trombonist Curtis Fuller was also on one date.

Three months following his Bethlehem sessions, Coltrane played with, if anything, even more confidence, daring and formidable technique. Annotator Loren Schoenberg points out that Coltrane “sounds positively gleeful.” This is the music of happy, well-adjusted people. The rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins and Louis Hayes gives Harden and Coltrane perfect support in the first session. Flanagan replaces Howard Williams and joins bassist Ali Jackson and drummer Arthur Taylor in a later one. His playing is not an indication of things to come; he is a fully formed, major soloist. Watkins’ work is a reminder that he was on a level with his contemporary Paul Chambers and might have become as important had he lived. One can only guess what Harden might have accomplished, but these few recordings portray a soloist fully capable of sharing the microphone with one of the major musicians of the day.