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John Coltrane - Interplay

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Artist: John Coltrane

Album: Interplay

Label: Prestige

Review date: Oct. 4, 2007


John Coltrane - "Route 4" (Interplay)


Second in a projected trilogy of box sets compiling Coltrane’s complete corpus for Prestige, Interplay covers the saxophonist’s collaborative work for the label across a five-disc spread. A mammoth 16-disc compendium covering the same territory formerly held claim as the crowning shelf marker for Coltrane fanatics. Prohibitive both in price and size and carrying a remastering job completed in 1991, that old set is now effectively obsolete with the staggered arrival of these new streamlined 24-bit replacements.

The first box in the series, Fearless Leader, followed the intimation of its title, gathering Coltrane’s sessions at the helm. That titular phrase is also a dubious PR misnomer, feeding into the myth-making facets of Coltrane’s legacy by suggesting a musician impervious to self-doubt and prone to temerity. Considering Coltrane’s stature in the jazz cosmology that larger than life persona is easy to buy into. His back-story of the mid- to late-’50s reads as corollary to so many of his peers, but with a transformative almost transcendental twist. The heroin addict who through epiphany and resolve kicked his habit refashioned himself into one of the most recognizable and revolutionary figures in jazz. His music largely bears the burden of these lofty claims, even in its formative stages. Subsequently, it’s difficult to listen to mid- to late-period Coltrane in moderation, the diversity of his ideas and those of his band mates providing an immersive experience difficult to escape the pull of once one takes the plunge.

Interplay brings the perpetually ascendant Coltrane back down to terrestrial terms in its portrayal of a journeyman saxophonist gigging for paychecks, still searching out the particulars of his evolving sound. Prestige producer Bob Weinstock was notorious for scheduling sessions where rehearsals were a routinely denied luxury and a seat-of-the-pants jam session was preferred. That sort of forced frugality leads to problems on the dates involving larger numbers of horns, most notably the opening conference convening Coltrane with the markedly different tenors of Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Hank Mobley. Sims and Cohn were regular colleagues with complementary Lester Young-influenced approaches, but their playing here feels strangely perfunctory in places. Mobley seems more engaged, but suffers through some slight intonation complications. The best moments come during a lengthy stroll through “How Deep Is the Ocean,” where each of the horns stretches out in succession on the dulcet ballad changes of the standard.

The concept date from which the box set borrows its title also seems a bit slapdash with the trumpets of Webster Young and Idrees Sulieman sounding comparatively pedestrian beside the more active and contrastive tenors of Coltrane and Bobby Jasper, the latter man yet another saxophonist under the spell of Lester. Several of the tracks sag in spots, slipping into somewhat rote-sounding rounds of solos. The galvanizing give and take between the two tenors counterbalances these minor flaws. Coltrane wasn’t always satisfied with the situations and deals Weinstock devised, but they meant income as well as a means of accessing the record-buying public, albeit sometimes under the obfuscating marketing moniker of the Prestige All-Stars.

The secret weapon on several of the sessions is pianist Mal Waldron, whose compositions and arrangements are custom-tailored to such loosely drawn studio settings. Moving beyond boilerplate head to solos schematics, Waldron partitions space for a generous number of chases and exchanges. His spare and supportive style of accompaniment is effective in centering the various rhythm sections when consensus begins to fray. It’s also telling that the most adventurous session of the set isn’t under Weinstock’s aegis, but that of vibraphonist turned producer Teddy Charles. On that particular date, released at one point under the album title Dakar, Coltrane tussles with the baritone saxophones of Cecil Payne and Pepper Adams. Waldron’s compositions speak to the strengths of the bottom-heavy horn section, particularly on Charles’ galvanizing “Route 4,” which sounds like a crib from the Sun Ra songbook circa the same period with its corkscrew harmonies and rhythmic intensity.

Two other sessions in the set represent slightly missed opportunities. Coltrane’s pairing with Paul Quinichette, another Lester Young disciple and sideman in Count Basie’s bands, shows the seams of its hastily assembled origins. Quinichette was more comfortable in straight swing settings than the hardbop favored by Coltrane. The disparity of their approaches leads to several stumbles and collisions, particularly on the part of the Basie alum, but it’s also an edifying juxtaposition of jazz eras and styles. Both horns benefit from the added presence of Frank Wess’ tenor on a subsequent session. Wess doubles on flute, varying the tonal palette, and his playing serves as a robust bridge between the strains of Basie and bop forwarded by the other two. The set culminating date with Kenny Burrell is curiously restrained compared to some of the sparks the guitarist’s plectrum strikes on earlier sessions in the box as a sideman. Burrell was well versed in bop speed and precision, as was Coltrane, making their decision to err on the side of safety over mutual provocation disappointing in one sense, but welcome in another in that it defies expectations. The wisdom in their chosen tack comes through most clearly in the eloquent duet reading of “Why Was I Born,” an intimate instrument combination that Coltrane would unfortunately never repeat on record.

Pianist Lewis Porter’s accompanying annotations mix minutia with insight, sometimes in disproportionate measure. He parses individual tracks to the second in terms of solos and transitions, a service helpful on the four-tenor Tenor Conclave date, but bordering on dispensable on some of the others. His commentary occasionally balances on a wobbly blend of music theory and generalization, pointing out picayunish peccadilloes like reed squeaks and missed cues one sentence while making nebulous complimentary gestures the next. To my mind, it’s precisely these moments of musical fallibility that make the set so appealing, pointing as they do to Coltrane’s imperfections and by proxy, his humanity. Only a handful of the mistakes noted have a noticeably negative impact on the associative music and his slam on Waldron as a “limited” soloist rings particularly short-sighted. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff’s essay offers some personal anecdotes, but is also bit of a flat read. The remainder of the 60-page softbound book is filled with generous session photos, album cover facsimiles and complete liner notes from the original LPs.

In sum, this second set sustains the track record set by the first by providing a cost-conscious entry point to Coltrane on the cusp of the first of what would be several giant steps forward.

By Derek Taylor

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