A couple of weeks ago an email appeared in my inbox from the good folks at Universal Music Group, inviting me to download a sampler from a new 5 CD/8 LP box set that contains all the recordings John Coltrane made for Prestige in 1958. Here’s a screen shot of part of that email:
Minutes later—literally, it was only a few minutes—I got an email ad from Downbeat selling me the same set:
On a first glance of the promotional materials, Coltrane ’58 looks like a great set: nice packaging, extensive liner notes from Ashley Kahn, a hefty booklet, and the music on the LP set was remastered and pressed on 180 gram vinyl.
And the marketing copy in the press release tells a compelling story (my daytime gig is as a copywriter, so I need to give the copywriter some love here): “By sequencing this music in the order of its original creation, Coltrane ’58 clearly delineates Coltrane’s first full year as a recording artist, finally allowing fans to experience—track by track—the emergence of a master improviser in his first great career crest.”
Wow, that sounds pretty great. And since I’m part of the jazz press, I can get the set wholesale for $30. Should be a slam dunk, right?
Except one thing: all this music has been released before. Multiple times.
The first thing that came to mind after reading these emails was that I already had almost all of this music in one package, Prestige’s 6 CD box set entitled Fearless Leader, which came out in 2006, and which according to the marketing blurb, says was released in celebration of Trane’s 80th birthday.
Fearless Leader contains everything Trane recorded as a leader for Prestige, including the sessions from 1957, which aren’t on Coltrane ’58. The only difference in contents recorded during 1958 between the two box sets is that Coltrane ’58 has five songs (“Lyresto”; “Why Was I Born”; “Freight Trane”; “I Never Knew”; and “Big Paul”) that aren’t on Fearless Leader. But those tracks aren’t new, never before released cuts only now seeing the light of day, they are from the easily available album Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane.
To sum up, Coltrane ’58 is a nice package of music that’s been remastered and released before and is still in print. Ok, so the sequencing of the tracks in the order they were recorded rather than how they appeared on the albums is new. Maybe there are some uber-Trane-nerds out there who have to hear the songs in chronological order; I just want to hear the albums. I’d suspect I’m not alone in this opinion.
I can find three possible audiences for Coltrane ’58: completists; people who don’t already have this music (in which case I’d actually suggest getting Fearless Leader instead); and suckers who will shell out close to $300 to get things pressed on vinyl (btw, just because it’s on 180 gram vinyl doesn’t mean it’s going to sound good or the pressing wasn’t cheaply done—180 gram vinyl, especially the virgin kind, is as much a marker of marketing than it is quality).
Ok, so if there really isn’t much of a musical or historical reason for releasing Coltrane ’58, what else is there? Two primary ideas, one of which you’ve probably already realized: $, and the legend of Coltrane.
First, the cash: Aside from finding yet another good new marketing hook and strategy with which to release new editions of the same music, this surely has to be in part motivated by the runaway success of last year’s release of the “lost Coltrane masterpiece,” Both Directions at Once.*
Now obviously, the big difference between Both Directions at Once and Coltrane ’58 is that nobody had heard the music on the former, so the added mystique—especially the chance to hear a “lost classic”—surely drove people to lay their money down. I would assume there is less of a market for Coltrane ’58, given that the music on it is already readily available. But obviously Universal/Concord wouldn’t release this unless they felt they could move product.
The second reason, which is directly tied to the first: let’s keep humping the myth of Coltrane. It’s not just the music being reissued again that irks me as an obvious money grab—it’s the narrative that the press release, advertising, and packaging sells us as listeners and fans and the perpetuation of the idea of jazz as populated by towering, iconic, mythic, legendary geniuses. Was Trane one of these towering figures? Of course so. But Coltrane does not need any more myth-building; there is a Coltrane church, after all.
It’s not just that labels, critics, marketers, and publicists continue to go the Coltrane as hero trope in the service of profit that is tiresome; it’s that narratives like those that accompany the Coltrane ’58 set continue to present the history of jazz as a succession of singular male geniuses which are devoid from any social context continue to silence other voices, other histories, and other music. And that’s just not an accurate framing of the music.
What new music and stories could we discover if the time, effort, and money that large labels invest in continuously reissuing already-available music was directed elsewhere? Who might we come across who might not only entertain and edify us, but teach us something about ourselves and others that we had not considered, and changing our world in the process? Given the state of the jazz market, which, in its ever-decreasing market share depends on releasing financially-can’t-miss products, such a change in direction is unlikely. That is why it is dependent on consumers to support smaller labels and projects who are helping to make new voices available.
The world does not need any more Coltrane reissues, because they suck all the air out of the room and push otherwise deserving projects to the margins of our increasingly diminished attention spans.
Although there is one exception: new technology comes along and A Love Supreme is released in a Star Trek the Next Generation holodeck-style format where “listening” to the album entails sitting in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio along with the band as they record and the opportunity to interact with them at some point during the session. Then, and only then, will I buy a new version of a Coltrane album that I’ve already bought a couple times before, and in all likelihood, the playback equipment—aka, retrofit my house with a holodeck—with which to enjoy it.
* Did I buy into the hype surrounding Both Directions at Once? Nope, not at all. I was reluctant to get it, because a) based on reviews I had read I felt I had a pretty good idea what it would sound like, and b) nothing had convinced me this was a lost album rather than a collection of tunes laid down in between sessions for albums that were actually albums. The fact that McCoy Tyner—the one person still alive who could confirm whether Both Directions at Once was intended to be released as a stand-alone album—had not even been quoted in the liner notes (I’ve heard from other writers that he no longer gives interviews), that was all I needed to know. But then after a friend of mine said “dude, you really should get it,” I pulled the trigger and bought the full two-disc version with all the alternate takes. Have I listened to the second disc and all the alt takes? Nope. And I probably won’t. Is Both Directions at Once a masterpiece, a stand-out example of his oeuvre, or a document that gives us any new insight into Trane’s musical language? Not in my assessment. Is it good? Sure. Worth the hype? Nope. I’m more or less agnostic on it, almost to the point of wondering: “does it even matter that this was released”?
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