With the release of Side Steps, Prestige Records has completed the adventurous John Coltrane boxed set project that started with Fearless Leader in September 2006 on what would have been the legendary tenor saxophonist’s 80th birthday. Interplay appeared in 2007, highlighting, instead of the dates he led, the dates he collaborated on during the same time period for other leaders. Now we have Side Steps, a five-disc gem of ‘Trane blowing solid and soulful, earlier in his career, just prior to finding his own true voice, for such others as fellow tenor men Sonny Rollins and Gene Ammons, tuba man Red Draper and pianists Red Garland, Tadd Dameron, Mal Waldron and Elmo Hope. The 43 tracks represents everything he did as a sideman from mid-’56 to early ’58 minus his work with Miles Davis (collected in The Miles Davis Quintet: Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions).
Disc #1 has ‘Trane competing with trumpeter Donald Byrd and sax man Hank Mobley on Hope’s brand of bebop and blues. Even earlier is ‘Trane with bassist John Simmons and drummer Philly Joe Jones in Dameron’s band.
Disc #2’s “Tenor Madness” is a 12-minute hero summit with ‘Trane, Rollins, Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jones, historically significant as it’s the only time ‘Trane and Rollins ever recorded together. Also significant are five April 1957 tracks, the first recordings of ‘Trane after he kicked heroin.
Disc #3 and #4 show a considerable growth as ‘Trane had the good sense to start hanging around with Thelonious Monk, who became his guru. His playing on these discs is more complex, circular, mathematical, with cascading flurries of notes, chords stacked upon chords, that fiery passion that would later manifest itself in his own classics, now on display for the first time.
Disc #5: His last two Prestige sessions. He’s a star already, but had to fulfill his contractual obligations. A swooning, lyrical dreamscape of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” is the obvious highlight.
John Coltrane (1926-1967) died of liver cancer at the age of 40.