[Review] John Coltrane: Lush Life (1961)

An archival release of Prestige sessions from 1957 and 1958 featuring a rare trio combo and the classic Red Garland quartet.

Kronomyth 7.5: The life of lushery.

The trouble with music critics and John Coltrane is that they’re rarely critical of the man. He was a giant talent, make no mistake, but he was also a human being and, in 1957, one recovering from the very human frailty of heroin addiction. He made some good jazz recordings for Prestige despite that, but only two—John Coltrane with The Red Garland Trio and Soultrane—that I would consider great. After he left for Atlantic Records in 1960, Prestige continued to release old recordings to capitalize on his growing fame, and critics fell for it hook, line and tenor.

Lush Life is cobbled together from several sessions. The songs on side one date from 1957 and feature a trio with Earl May on bass and the familiar Arthur Taylor on drums. May was a member of Billy Taylor’s trio, so he fits in well enough despite not having played with Coltrane before (to my knowledge anyway). Like Someone In Love opens with Coltrane’s smooth-as-butter sax but never really settles into a groove. Despite being recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, the mix sounds very thin; maybe that’s Prestige’s fault or just the pressing by Original Jazz Classics I’ve heard. I Love You starts with a cool Latin rhythm from Taylor before shifting gears into a swiftly played number. Coltrane crams as many notes as possible into the arrangement, but I think he overplays his hand. Trane’s Slo Blues is the album’s lone original and features what has to be one of the most stultifying bass solos I’ve ever heard. All totaled, the first side of Lush Life makes me appreciate the fact that Coltrane didn’t revisit the trio format.

Side two brings Red Garland and Paul Chambers back into the fold, and all is right with the world again. The nearly fourteen-minute Lush Life is the album’s crown jewel, a classy affair that immediately brought me back (forward?) to his inspired pairing with Johnny Hartman. I Hear A Rhapsody is smartly played and snaps with a crisp attack from the rest of the band. There’s something about Coltrane, Garland, Chambers and Taylor that just clicks.

So, what you have here is half a good album from the first classic Coltrane Quartet and half an album of trio music for history buffs. In spite of critical enthusiasm to the contrary, Lush Life is far from essential. In fact, I’d tell you to forego the purchase altogether and pick up something by Donald Byrd, Ben Webster, even Red Garland without Coltrane if you haven’t already. Jazz is a big world, and it’s high time you peeked over the garden walls to see what else is out there.

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Original elpee version

A1. Like Someone In Love (Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke) (4:55)
A2. I Love You (Cole Porter) (5:30)
A3. Trane’s Slo Blues* (John Coltrane) (6:20)
B1. Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn) (13:45)
B2. I Hear A Rhapsody (George Fragos/Jack Baker/Dick Gasparre) (6:00)

* Spelled as “Trane’s Slow Blues” on the back cover.

The Players

John Coltrane (tenor sax) with Donald Byrd (trumpet on B1), Paul Chambers (bass on B1/B2), Red Garland (piano on B1/B2), Al Heath (drums on B2), Louis Hayes (drums on B1), Earl May (bass on A1/A2/A3), Arthur Taylor (drums on A1/A2/A3). Recording by Rudy Van Gelder.

The Pictures

Liner notes by Joe Goldberg.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in January 1961* in the US (Prestige, PRLP 7188) and Japan (Prestige, MJ-7113). (*First appeared in 1/16/61 issue of Billboard.)

  1. Re-released on stereo elpee in 1964 in the US (Prestige, PRLP 7188) [blue label].
  2. Re-issued on rechanneled stereo elpee in the US and Germany (Prestige, PR 7581) with cover variation.
  3. Re-issued on elpee in 1973 in Japan (Prestige, LPR-8896).
  4. Re-issued on mono elpee in 1984 in Japan (Prestige, VIJ-225).
  5. Re-issued on elpee, compact disc and cassette in 1991 in the US (Original Jazz Classics, OJC/OJCCD/OJC5-131). (Blue and pink vinyl versions of this elpee also appear to be have been produced for record stores, probably later than 1991.)
  6. Re-released on remastered elpee and compact disc in 1997 in the US (DCC, 2032/1108).
  7. Re-released on 200g mono vinyl elpee in 2014 in the US (Analogue Productions, APRJ 7188).
  8. Re-released on remastered 180g vinyl elpee in 2014 in the US (WaxTime, 771984).
  9. Re-released on 180g purple vinyl elpee in 2019 in the US (WaxTime, 950661).

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