T'was a time when if you wanted to hear music by John Coltrane from his important transitional year of 1958, you had to piece together the bits and pieces of the numerous sessions released in dribs and drabs over the next many years on Prestige Records. Beloved albums such as Lush Life, Soultrane, Bahia -- and my personal favorite (which came out in 1975) The Stardust Session -- are now all effectively (and lovingly) compiled in a fabulous, quite ultra-super-deluxe package from Concord Music's Craft Recordings imprint. Called Coltrane '58: The Prestige Recordings -- available in five-CD / digital formats March 29th and on April 26th for the 8-LP format, reviewed here -- this set is a doozy! The albums have been mastered from the original analog master tapes by Paul Blakemore (all of which were recorded by renowned engineer Rudy Van Gelder). The new LPs were cut by Clint Holley from 24-bit/192kHz transfers.
The timing on this is quite perfect for me as I was recently discussing with the owner of The Originals Vinyl Record Store here in San Francisco the challenges of finding original pressings of vintage jazz records in our 21st Century times. Particularly for those much sought after Prestige and Blue Note labels, clean early editions are scarce and command some serious coin from audiophiles and collectors.
But, then there is the completist fan collector conundrum: the challenge of simply getting all the music from a particular session / time period in a form that makes some sense. For example, I was very pleased back in the mid 1990s when Verve Records put out The London House Sessions for Oscar Peterson, music that was originally released across four albums between 1961 and 1962. And I am again very pleased at this new John Coltrane collection which serves a similar purpose: on Coltrane '58: The Prestige Recordings we have all the master recordings he made that year, presented chronologically and housed in a beautiful package which pays homage to the deluxe packages of the late 50s.
Regarding the significance of the recordings in this set, I'll borrow some helpful descriptions from the official press release for the album: "In 1958 Coltrane was still two years away from emerging as a bandleader, but his membership in ensembles led by Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk had propelled him into the spotlight as one of jazz's most exciting and controversial figures. Coltrane '58 serves as a window onto the shock and awe--and eventually deep appreciation--Coltrane generated during this period, when his sheets of sound approach pushed the bebop ideal of slaloming through a tune's chordal pathways to its extreme."
That is all fine, useful information. But I'm sure some of you by now want to know how it all sounds? Well, my initial feelings are very positive. I figured the best place for me to start was with the material found on one of my favorite Coltrane collections, The Stardust Session -- named as such because that title song and all the other seven tracks there were all recorded in one session! I own an original pressing of that 1975 compilation. Beginning with "Spring Is Here," this new edition sounds at least as good and in many ways is better. The sound feels clean (if you will) and the definition surrounding the music is quite distinct, something I can't always say about the mid 70s issue which also suffers from somewhat noisy vinyl.
The pressings on Coltrane '58: The Prestige Recordings are dead quiet and well centered. I'm pleased how warm the music actually sounds given the digital sourcing. There is a nice sense of staging and presence; Coltrane's saxophone sounds lush and round.
In general, this edition does the best thing one can hope for with an audiophile vinyl pressing: the noise floor of the vinyl disappears and music is what you feel coming out of your speakers. So in that sense these seem to be very transparent pressings, consistent across all eight albums. Overall, I am hearing very little in the way of digital artifacts, sonic textures which can often make a reissue like this unappealing (at least to me!). Overall these digital transfers seem to be very good so I suspect they were done with a great deal of care and attention to detail.
In Part Two of this review I will delve further into Coltrane '58: The Prestige Recordings
But before we go much further I have to compliment Craft Recordings on its fabulous packaging for Coltrane '58: The Prestige Recordings. Each album comes in an audiophile grade plastic lined inner sleeve which is then stored safely in its own "pocket" in the portfolio-like album cover. The design of this set is reminiscent of the fancy super deluxe packages some labels made in the early days of the long playing record in the mid / late 1950s. With its padded linen finish, the beautiful teal-colored design is eye-catching and classy.
The 40-page booklet inside features numerous essays presenting a portrait of Coltrane at this important junction in his career -- a time when he was not only coming into his own as a band leader but also developing his art, his "sheets of sound" and the direction it began to take his music. There is also information on the man who captured the sessions and is responsible for shaping the sound of how jazz would and should be captured at the dawn of high fidelity Stereo recording: Rudy Van Gelder.
There is a lot of important history to understand around these sessions and Coltrane '58: The Prestige Recordings does a fine job painting that picture. Extensive liner notes are by Grammy®-winning American music historian Ashley Kahn. The set includes rare ephemera and historical photographs of Coltrane and his collaborators, including several taken by renowned jazz photographers Francis Wolff and Esmond Edwards.
To be continued...