The 1950s was a formative period for America–and specifically New York City. Maybe it was years of war (World War II, Korea, the cold war) that sparked a cultural renaissance unlike any the country had seen before: authors such as James Baldwin and the Beats and Vonnegut, artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn. Alan Freed was coining the term “rock ‘n’ roll” in Cleveland, and Sam Phillips was recording Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins at Sun Studios in Memphis. And jazz was swinging with full force. Bebop, a form of jazz that developed out of late-night jam sessions after big-band performances, was full of innovation. Giants like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus were playing some of the most prominent roles in the ’50s, but it’s John Coltrane’s playing from this period that may best represent the time, something that’s shown by the six-disc boxed set Fearless Leader.
Although Coltrane was about thirty at the time of these recording in 1957 and 1958, and despite that he’d been playing professionally for more than a decade (with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis), he was largely regarded as a “young” player in his formative years. He was known for being a sideman (in fact, in 1957, when he signed with Prestige as a solo artist, he joined Thelonious Monk’s band after being fired by Davis), but these sessions show that Coltrane was playing with a feverish passion. They can also be seen very clearly as the foundation for later classics such as Giant Steps (1959) and My Favorite Things (1960).
Many of the tracks on Fearless Leader are standards that showed up on such landmark recordings as Lush Life (1957) and SoulTrane (1958), but even on these lighter songs, Coltrane’s gritty, fiery blowing is present, allowing him to set himself apart from sax players such as Sonny Rollins and all the Charlie Parker imitators. Coltrane was working with a wonderful cast of musicians and engineers, most notably Rudy Van Gelder, the sound engineer and producer who would be present through a lot of Coltrane’s career, and the Red Garland trio (consisting of Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Arthur Taylor on drums). The rhythm accompaniment flows so well with Coltrane’s playing it’s as if these players were tailor-made for his style.
Those who only find Coltrane’s work in the 1960s to be significant should retrace their steps. The Fearless Leader boxed set shows that Coltrane was no amateur: He was just a soul looking for his style to become a true leader on the saxophone.