Everyone has to start somewhere, Avid Reader, and learn a few things. Born September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina, John Coltrane would record some of his earliest work in the 40’s while serving in the Navy. He had been playing alto saxophone for some time and switched over to tenor while playing with Eddie Vinson, and it was in June 1945, after seeing Charlie “Bird” Parker play a show that he transformed his focus and sound. The later part of the decade, Trane and Bird would play shows together. Trane pulled much from Bird, but it was his time with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk during the 50’s that would give him time to grow into the innovator many are familiar with today. Trane collaborated with many musicians in his career, and this week I want to touch upon his work before he became a leader.
At this time in jazz Miles Davis was making a name for himself as a stand out trumpeter on a par with, or better than, Dizzy Gillespie. While constructing his new quintet he heard a few Trane songs and knew he had to have his tenor saxophone in his ensemble. This quintet would change out piano players, drummers and bassists over the course of these few years in the 50’s but Trane and Miles would remain constant. Recording some of the most iconic songs and albums in jazz (like “My Funny Valentine” off of Cookin’ and the album Kind of Blue) would reinvent jazz in 1959. The interplay between these two burgeoning titans is fantastic, the tension they build is immense yet their rivalry and respect toward each other is also apparent. You have to imagine what it was like to see this live or to be a part of it.
With any combination you sometimes need a break, and Trane spent some time with Monk in New York as the pianist tenor sax for a few years. And this is where his sound grew. Monk had a way of layering his piano sound and Trane emulated that, while bringing in the punch he developed with Miles. Monk was more of an Avant-Garde musician and years later we can see Trane taking that turn. Yet after his tenure with Monk, we see Trane return to Miles for a few albums and then press on to his career as a leader.
Other projects where he was a side man include albums with guitarist Kenny Burrell and flutist Frank Wess; these are other gems to hunt down. I will touch upon later collaborations as we press on this month, but for this week we can hear the natural progression Trane made from 1955-1959 working with two of jazz’s giants. Trane would become a giant in his own right and then he’d leave us all too soon. The Miles recordings are some of the best jazz albums available and I suggest finding them. While the Monk work is a little more adventurous, it’s rewarding to those that give them proper due.