When box sets are smartly packaged, they provide enormous joy and education. Listening to an artist through a great set exposes you to vital recordings you may have skipped otherwise. You also experience the full thrust of the artist's work and are able to track the creative growth curve over a period of years. But for a box to be truly superb, it must be more than just a vast collection of music clinging to a timeline. The quality of the remastering must shimmer and the liner notes must be passionate and tell a story. No matter how well you think you know a jazz musician, a box set should open new doors and give you a finer appreciation of the artist's creative components. John Coltrane: Side Steps is a prime example of such a set.
The remastering quality of this box set along with Ashley Kahn's notes and his interview with the late Bob Weinstock, Prestige's founder, are terrific. By assembling the tracks in order of their recording date, not when they were released, you get to hear Coltrane develop between 1956 and 1958, and a certain purity emerges that's free from the producer's hand. As you listen, you pick up on nuanced shifts in Coltrane's style, something that isn't so easy to do by merely listening to individual albums.
John Coltrane: Side Steps completes the box-set trilogy of the saxophonist's recordings for Prestige in the late 1950s. The previous two sets, Fearless Leader and Interplay, focused on Coltrane's leadership and group sessions for the label. Side Steps features the remaining sideman dates, with an emphasis on pianists and small groups. It should be noted that the box includes only tracks on which Coltrane appeared.
What you rediscover about Coltrane by listening to him here are his many different approaches and styles based on the mood of the session. You also get to hear how Coltrane's fierce tone colored the intellectual choices made by the different session leaders.
Even as a back-seat driver, Coltrane's instrument pushed to dominate, and session leaders knew this. Their goal with Coltrane aboard was to raise their game, and the struggle is exciting. Since this is a box without borders, meaning you don't know which Prestige album is on at any given time unless you look, albums you thought you knew cold offer fresh surprises. For instance, the best-known album in the box certainly is Mating Call, a session led by pianist Tadd Dameron. But when placed anonymously among the other recordings, your ear picks up on just how powdery and dynamic Dameron's playing could be and how Coltrane chose to interact with it.
There also are quite a few lesser-known gems here that are just as potent as Mating Call. For example, Side Steps features Coltrane on four Red Garland albums—All Mornin' Long, Soul Junction, Dig It! and High Pressure. The last one is an electrifying Garland session with Donald Byrd that hasn't been remastered since 1991. So it's certainly gratifying to hear the entire album again with superb fidelity. Garland's solo on Soft Winds coupled with Coltrane and Byrd's solos raises hairs.
The set's other standout is Mal Waldron's Mal/2 with Bill Hardman (trumpet), Jackie McLean (alto sax), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Mal Waldron (piano), Julian Euell (bass) and Art Taylor (drums). With the exception of expensive discontinued imports, Mal/2 hasn't undergone a remastering since 1991, and the result here is remarkable. You can finally hear the entire spread of creative interactions.
An offbeat entry is The Ray Draper Quintet, featuring jazz tuba player Ray Draper. Coltrane's roar up against this basso valve instrument makes for fascinating listening.
While you may own some of these recordings on separate CDs, what you get on Side Steps is a thick serving of Coltrane's development and ample evidence of his enormous sensitivity and aggression. It's one Coltrane experiment after the next in a blindfold-test format for the listener, and a completely different and exciting listening experience.
JazzWax tracks: John Coltrane: Side Steps (Concord) is available as a download, but I highly recommend opting for the box instead. You need the book, the photos by Esmond Edwards, the sessionography and original liner notes written by Ira Gitler, Nat Hentoff, Joe Goldberg and Michael Gold. You'll find Side Steps here. John Coltrane: Fearless Leader and John Coltrane: Interplay are here and here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Soul Junction, an earthy blues, with Red Garland, John Coltrane, Donald Byrd, Jamil Nasser and Art Taylor. Unfortunately, only 9 minutes and change of the 15-minute-plus track are here, but Garland's piano is too pretty to miss. Toward the end, you get to hear the start of Coltrane's solo...
And here's Bret Primack's interview with Ashley Kahn on the Side Steps box...