Fearless Leader is the first of three boxed sets that will collect John Coltrane’s entire Prestige Records output sans his work with the Miles Davis Quintet, which was previously released as The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions. This set focuses on Trane’s work as a leader, covering nine recording sessions over the course of 18 months from 5/31/57 to 12/26/58 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studios.
Prestige signed Trane while the MDQ was on hiatus. They hit the jackpot because his talent and notoriety skyrocketed soon thereafter. Between the first and second sessions, Trane performed a six-month residency with Thelonius Monk at the Five Spot Café. Then, in January ’58 he rejoined Davis. Both men helped Trane grow as an artist.
His most frequent collaborators at the Prestige sessions were fellow MDQ members Red Garland on piano and Paul Chambers on bass, who appear on all but one session. They along with Artie Taylor, who plays drums on six of the sessions, were known as the Red Garland Trio. The depth of their talents is on full display, both as individuals and working as a unit with Trane. All their time playing together with Davis really paid off. Two well-known names who also sat in on a session are Jimmy Cobb on drums and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet.
The tracks, laid out in chronological order, were released as albums over the following eight years. Beginning in 1957, they are Coltrane, Traneing In, Soultrane, Lush Life, Settin’ The Pace, Standard Coltrane, Stardust, The Believer, Black Pearls, Bahia, and the accurately titled The Last Trane from 1965.
The boxed set is perfect because it can appeal to a wide range of people. For casual jazz fans, it provides over six hours of marvelous music. For serious Trane devotees, the liner notes are so wonderfully thorough that the listener should be able to get college credit for independent study. Not only do they offer a biography and annotated sessions, but also some numbers are deconstructed to the point of listing times when the described moments are happening. You can watch the timer during “”Little Melonae” and listen to Trane play the diminished runs “at 6:25, twice at 7:07, twice at 8:23.” There are even details to allow the committed completist to hear the albums in their original sequence.
However the set’s title is misleading. The music sounds great. It is all very pleasing, easily digestible to the ear, music for the masses before he focused on creating music for himself. While a slight growth and maturity can be heard over the course of the six CDs, there’s nothing to fear here, so what’s there to be fearless about?
After 1958’s Soultrane, Trane went on to great artistic heights and Prestige kept releasing albums though the music didn’t reflect what Trane was receiving attention for. In October 1958, Down Beat magazine jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the term "sheets of sound" to describe Trane’s distinctive sound. He was a member of the Davis septet that created the legendary Kind of Blue. He began work with for Atlantic in 1960, creating classic albums such as Giant Steps and My Favorite Things, the latter of which was his first collaboration with pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones.
He joined Impulse in the spring of ‘61, set up residency at the Village Vanguard in November 61 with a quintet that included bassist Reggie Workman and Eric Dolphy as a second horn. He became very experimental and was considered anti-jazz by Down Beat. In 1962, Dolphy departed and Jimmy Garrison replaced Workman, which gave way to what is known as Trane’s "Classic Quartet." They created A Love Supreme in 1964, and moved onto a greater embrace of avant-garde that can be heard on 1965’s Ascension, which is a 40-minute group improvisation. It was this period that Trane received his harshest criticism, and needed to be fearless to remain true to himself and create the music he wanted.
But Shakespeare, as always, had it right. That which Prestige calls Fearless Leader by any other title would sound just as sweet.