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John Coltrane: The Bethlehem Years

This recording has prime Coltrane from his sideman days of the late 1950s. The Bethlehem set is the Art Blakey Big Band album recorded in December 1957, plus 14 outtakes and one previously unissued piece from those sessions. It also includes four tracks from an all-star date called Winner’s Circle. It may make marketing sense to put the reissue under Coltrane’s name, but to do so implies that he dominates the music. He does not. His playing, particularly in the longer solos allowed by seven quintet tracks, compares with his best of the period, but it is just one of the reasons to have this collection. There are important contributions from Blakey and a cross-section of 16 other musicians from the top of the New York jazz scene.

The several quintet takes of his “Pristine” and Donald Byrd’s minor blues “Tippin'” give ‘ Trane free reign to explore. He packs in scale-wise runs and audacious intervals in the sheets-of-sound fashion that seemed so startling then-and still does. Byrd was doing his finest trumpet playing during this period. He solos cogently, with relatively few of the grace notes that marred his work when he let finger-flicking interfere with the construction of melodic lines. Blakey, bassist Wendell Marshal and pianist Walter Bishop Jr. are the rhythm section. It is a pleasure to hear the beauty and humor of Bishop’s extended solos.

In the Blakey big-band tracks, Coltrane proves that he was capable of effective expression in fewer than several choruses. He is far from being the only interesting soloist. Byrd, Blakey, alto saxophonist Sahib Shihab, trumpeter Idrees Sulieman and trombonists Jimmy Cleveland and Frank Rehak are important contributors in arrangements by Melba Liston and Al Cohn.

Cohn arranged the four tracks from the Winner’s Circle date, his harmonic wizardry making nine pieces seem like several more. This date is a reminder of how powerful a baritone saxophonist Cohn could be, not only in the section, but also as a soloist who transferred his tenor sax approach to the bigger horn. Coltrane is, again, one of several powerful soloists, including Byrd, alto saxophonist Gene Quill, Rehak and pianist Eddie Costa. In the rhythm section with Costa are bassist Oscar Pettiford, guitarist Freddie Green and drummer Philly Joe Jones. In listening to Coltrane’s and Cohn’s beautiful solos on “If I’m Lucky,” it is instructive to contemplate that these two giants, indeed all of these major artists in what amounted to a pickup recording session, were part of the pool of journeymen New York musicians. That is good ammunition for the argument that the ’50s really were a golden age.

Originally Published