John Coltrane Lush Life

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Before emerging as a bandleader in his own right, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane had played a key role in rising trumpeter Miles Davis’ group (from October 1955 to April 1957) and augmented pianist Thelonious Monk’s live quartet (through mid-to-late 1957). A heroin addiction led to his ejection from Davis’ group, however, while contractual obligations limited his studio time with Monk. If question marks hung over the saxophonist’s career – could he ever follow his mentors and steer his own group into new territory? – a crucial stint with the independent jazz label Prestige erased all doubt. In a brief but fruitful 14-month partnership with Bob Weinstock’s label, Coltrane developed his “sheets of sound” style at such a rate that even outtake material offered essential insights into a mind working in overdrive. Released in early 1961, three years – and, in creative terms, another lifetime – after his final Prestige session, Lush Life finds Coltrane working away at several new discoveries.

Culled from three sessions at producer Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio –May 31 and August 16, 1957, and January 10, 1958– Lush Life’s five tracks find him honing that signature sound while edging into territory that he’d later explore further. At 14 minutes, the album’s brooding, lyrical title track is an early landmark in Coltrane’s career, his tenor lines proving that he could play with a restrained majesty not often associated with the torrent of notes he was known to deliver. He’d revisit the tune in 1963, with crooner Johnny Hartman, finding yet more to say with what was already a tour de force performance.

Capturing Coltrane during an extremely fertile period in his career – his legendary Blue Train album was recorded between the second and third sessions – Lush Life may have been compiled from disparate recordings in need of a home, but it stands as a rounded work in its own right: more giant steps from a flourishing talent discovering how to express himself.

RECOMMENDED READING 

📰 Lush Life Review - DownBeat

The legendary jazz magazine’s original album review, from 1961. Nothing short of five stars for “the outstanding new artist to gain prominence during the last half decade.”

📰 Coltrane '58 Nick Phillips Interview

Grammy-nominated producer Nick Phillips reveals what it took to compile the 8-LP box set Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings, which traces the evolution of the saxophonist’s landmark “sheets of sound” playing style.

📰 1958 Interview With John Coltrane - Slought Gallery

The Philadelphia-based gallery presents the full audio recording of a rare interview with Coltrane, originally excerpted in The Jazz Review in 1959.

DEEP CUTS WE LOVE...

“Like Someone In Love” - Pianist Red Garland didn’t show for the August 1957 session, so Coltrane led drummer Art Taylor and bassist Earl May as a trio on what later became the first three songs on Lush Life. The intimate line-up evoked a perfect late-night vibe on the ballad material, particularly album opener “Like Someone In Love.” Without Garland performing any melodic support, Coltrane leads the melody in an assured, laidback fashion, highlighting his growth in confidence throughout the Prestige era.

“Trane’s Slo Blues” - A perfect example of how Trane would, as DownBeat put it, “worry” an idea “from every side, returning to it again and again (sometimes in another piece) until convincing himself… it has been wrung dry.” Taken at a slower tempo during the same 16 August 1957 session that resulted in this recording, a variation on the “Trane’s Slo Blues” theme would appear in “Slowtrane,” which surfaced on the 1966 Prestige collection The Last Trane

 

“I Hear A Rhapsody” - With fellow-Miles Davis alumni Red Garland and Paul Chambers on piano and bass, respectively, and Albert Heath sitting in on drums, this jazz standard finds Coltrane and co coming close to breaking a sweat. The only Lush Life track from the May 1957 session, it’s not only an uptempo album closer but, coming after a run of tracks recorded at later sessions, looks over its shoulder at just how far Coltrane had come in a matter of months.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • DownBeat magazine coined the term “sheets of sound” in a review of the saxophonist’s 1958 Prestige album, Soultrane.
  • Coltrane returned to Miles Davis’ group for a second stint, from October 1958 to April 1960; he performed on the best-selling jazz album of all time: Kind Of Blue.
  • The Prestige sessions yielded so much material, Bob Weinstock issued almost three times as many albums after Coltrane left than during the saxophonist’s time with the label.
  • The “sheets of sound” style wasn’t always called for. After Coltrane admitted to finding it hard to end his solos, Miles Davis suggested, “Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth.”
  • Coltrane was the head of a jazz dynasty: son Ravi followed his father’s footsteps as a saxophonist; wife Alice was a pioneering pianist and harpist whose music spanned jazz, New Age and classical styles. Her grand-nephew Steven Ellison is better known as experimental electronic producer Flying Lotus.

Purchase Lush Life on vinyl below.

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Words: Jason Draper

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