John Coltrane: Interplay

Coltrane is heard here along with stellar sax players that include Frank Wess, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Paul Quinchette, Hank Mobley (all tenor players) as well as baritone sax greats Cecil Payne and Pepper Adams.

Interplay, a five-disc set of John Coltrane’s recordings as a sideman while recording for Prestige Records between 1956 and 1958, is an excellent companion piece to last year’s 6 CD set Fearless Leader. That set captured Coltrane’s work as a leader for the label. Of course, most Prestige dates were essentially jam sessions featuring groups that had not generally spent much time rehearsing arrangements or playing together, so the line between leader and sideman was not always that clearly defined.

As Lewis Porter points out in his notes on each session, there are plenty of awkward moments and a few outright gaffes heard on these sessions as a result of the lack of rehearsal. But that speaks to the nature of 1950s jazz recording in many ways. This was a time when bebop had become well established as the lingua franca of jazz despite the fact that many musicians still found it difficult to play the many chord substitutions and often fast tempos the music demanded. The artists on these Prestige sessions, as well as on Blue Note and other labels of the day, were in the process of consolidating the advances of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and other bright lights of bebop into what would become the predominant mainstream jazz style of the late 1950s through to the mid-1960s.

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Interplay is obviously a treasure for Coltrane fans, but it is also an outstanding collection of music for anyone interested in the development of jazz saxophone playing, particularly in the development of the tenor saxophone styles of the 1950s and 1960s. Coltrane is heard here along with stellar sax players that include Frank Wess, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Paul Quinchette, Hank Mobley (all tenor players) as well as baritone sax greats Cecil Payne and Pepper Adams. With the exception of Mobley, all the tenor saxophonists heard here were highly influenced by Lester Young, and they, along with Coltrane, found ways to inject lyricism and a more relaxed methodology into their post-bop work.

Some seven albums with varying leadership credits (in some cases credited as Prestige All-Stars) are represented on InterplayTenor Conclave features Trane with Sims, Cohn, and Mobley. While Sims and Cohn play very similarly and with a great debt to Lester Young, Coltrane and Mobley look forward, developing their own sounds and styles that include lyricism while not ignoring restless exploration. Red Garland mans the piano chair, demonstrating why he was Trane’s preferred pianist for his Prestige dates as a leader. The pianist’s effortless swinging and block-chord style were perfect for Coltrane to bounce ideas off.

 Interplay features Coltrane with cooler tenor man Bobby Jasper and trumpet players Idrees Sulieman and Webster Young. This time Mal Waldron plays piano and provides compositions and arrangements, as he does on many of the dates throughout the set. While not as well-fitting a soloist for these dates, Waldron provides some great compositions for the groups to work off of. 

Wheelin’ and Dealin’, another Waldron date, finds Coltrane working with Paul Quinchette and Frank Wess. Besides being a fine tenor player Wess, who worked extensively with Count Basie, is also one of jazz’s best flute players, and he is heard on this date on the instrument, bringing a welcome change of pace.

Quinchette is an excellent co-tenor with Coltrane because despite not always being comfortable with the harmonic intricacies of bebop, he provides a direct, swinging line back to Prez without sounding at all derivative. He’s heard again on the date that was released as Cattin’ with Coltrane and Quinchette.

Dakar is an interesting, richly textured album that has been reissued under Coltrane’s own name. Here he is paired, on Waldron arrangements, with baritone saxophonists Cecil Payne and Pepper Adams, creating a darker overall sound. Trane’s tenor sound mixes nicely with both Payne’s baritone and the sharper, more aggressive playing of Adams. On The Cats, Coltrane again pairs up with trumpeter Sulieman, this time with Tommy Flanagan at the piano. Flanagan, whose piano style completely absorbs bebop while maintaining an elegance and lyricism that few other bop-era pianists could muster, also provides some engaging compositions.

The final disc of Interplay contains the classic recording Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane. It’s the last session featured here, and it is worth noting that Coltrane had been working with Thelonious Monk by this time, a stint that greatly accelerated his development. Burrell’s bluesy style is a great compliment to Coltrane, and of course, he also has the bop chops that some other guitarists found it hard to develop. Flanagan is on board again for this swinging date, along with bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb.

Interplay is an outstanding collection of dates that demonstrate not only the development of John Coltrane toward the unique voice that he would develop as he prepared to form his own group in 1959 and beyond, but also is a snapshot of where jazz music was as the 1950s came to a close. This set is positively pregnant with the promise of intensive development ahead for both the young saxophonist and the music that he so relentlessly studied and played.

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