By Devon Wendell
So much is written about the life and music of John Coltrane. Everyone has their favorite Coltrane period. Most fans and journalists focus on the ‘60s modal and “free” Coltrane eras. My favorite music of “Trane’s” career is his rebellious hard-bopper faze of the late ‘50s, when he was playing with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk while trying to make a name for himself as a bandleader.
By Coltrane’s second stint in Miles Davis’ group in 1958, he was sounding frustrated by the chord progressions and rules of the bebop and hard-bop schools. At this time he recorded many albums as a sideman and as a leader on the Prestige label. Coltrane recorded dozens of sides for the label and many of these sessions were shelved when he signed with Atlantic Records in 1959. The Believer was one of them. The music was recorded between 1957 and 1958 but wasn’t released until the height of Coltrane’s popularity in 1964.
It was later re-released on CD in 1996. On The Believer, you hear a man on a mission for new and unexplored musical directions but still confined to the hard-bop clichés of the day; the stuff that paid the bills at the time. Coltrane’s sense of seeking adds an intense ferocity to his playing and makes the music both wonderfully compelling and historically important.
McCoy Tyner’s “The Believer” is a very simplistic blues waltz. The arrangement isn’t very interesting and Coltrane obviously knows this and blows way out, far beyond the simple chord changes. His band on this session, recorded on January 10, 1958 consists of Donald Byrd, trumpet, Red Garland, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and Arthur Taylor on drums. Although these are some of the greatest musicians in the history of modern jazz, their accompaniment here is quite pedestrian and predictable, aside from Donald Byrd’s usually stellar trumpet playing. Maybe they knew the restraints of the music would push Coltrane to reach far out into the stratosphere and rip through the changes like a hypo-manic poet feeling caged by his own curiosity and virtuosity or maybe it was just another quick session for quick cash. Coltrane plays with a level of intensity that makes you forget about the rest of the band and the arrangement. This is a wonderful example of how fast Coltrane was developing as a musician and thinker during the latter part of the ‘50s.
Calvin Massey’s “Nakatini Serenade” has a Brazilian swing to it. Art Taylor’s polyrhythmic drumming is brilliant and Donald Byrd is on fire. Coltrane explores every harmonic possibility and barely pauses to take a breath during this ten plus minute piece. If any other soloist played over this arrangement, it wouldn’t be interesting at all. Coltrane delves into the chord changes, and continues his journey for new turf but doesn’t find it here so he plays everything he knows and was in the process of learning.
His playing isn’t exactly what you’d call thematic but the boredom that drove him to hack though the mundane is relentlessly powerful.
“Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful”; recorded on December 26, 1958 features the same exact band as the previous two cuts but this time with Freddie Hubbard in the trumpet chair. This happens to be Hubbard’s first ever recorded session date. Although you hear the influences of Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, Hubbard already had that beautifully thick and round signature trumpet tone. This ballad features Coltrane’s most lyrical tenor saxophone work on this collection. No one could play a ballad like Coltrane during this period. His lines are sensual and wonderfully indulgent.
The last two tracks; “Filidia” and Sonny Rollins’ “Paul’s Pal” were recorded on December 20, 1957. Coltrane is accompanied by Gil Coggins, piano, Spanky DeBrest, bass, Larry Ritchie, drums, and Ray Drapper on Tuba. Ray Drapper is simply phenomenal. Who would’ve imagined that a tuba player could swing as hard as a saxophone, trumpet, or trombone? The tuba adds an extra harmonic layer to the music as well. Coggins’ piano work is imaginative and original. Coggins was one of the most underrated pianists of the hard-bop era. Coltrane plays hard and fast but slightly more subdued than on the other sessions on this compilation. It’s clear that Coltrane is inspired by the addition of Drapper and plays wonderfully with the young tuba player.
If you want to hear John Coltrane on the verge of great change while blasting through the familiar with one waterfall after another of fast, dizzying solos and unending ideas, you must get your hands on The Believer. This is forever music by a forever artist.