John Coltrane’s remarkable jazz career began in obscurity in the later 1940s after he was discharged from the navy. He actually began as an alto player, but made the fateful switch to tenor sometime in 1947. By 1949 he was a sideman in Dizzy Gillespie’s hard bop band, staying until 1951. Sadly, Coltrane’s heroin addiction set in at this point and it plagued him for the next five or six years, lasting into his association with Miles Davis beginning in 1955. Fired from the band in 1957, Coltrane signed with the Prestige label and made his recording debut as a leader in May of 1957 with Coltrane. Traneing In was recorded just three months later on August 23rd. He was just 31 years old; in nine prolific years he would be gone, at the age of 40.
While this is very early in Coltrane’s body of recorded works as a leader, there is no mistaking his idiosyncratic sound. Like some other great artists not recognized until late in their careers (or even posthumously), Coltrane was not held in much regard initially. Listening to the tunes on Traneing In is listening to a master emerging, his future glory obscured in the mist of his jazz youth. But the mist cleared extraordinarily fast; in just two short years he would record Giant Steps, a tour-de-force in hard bop improvisation and to this day an absolute essential in any credible library of jazz history.
Traneing In begins with the title cut, a bouncing "near blues" (the form is an unusual 12-12-8-12) that opens without a melody, straight into a long string of solo choruses by Red Garland on piano. Garland demonstrates both single-note bebop lines and chord work. Coltrane follows with his own set of choruses, and his approach is what led producer Ira Gitler to coin "Traneing In" as the name of this tune. He begins with a slow arpeggio motif mixed with long sustained notes, but then begins turning up the heat with faster and brighter runs "traneing in" as Gitler heard it, to the center of his improvisational energy. Before long ‘Trane is throwing off the blistering bop lines that put him, and Bird before him, in their own league. Bassist Paul Chambers "Mr. P.C." takes his solo turn as well. Unlike many bassists, Chamber’s intonation on solo lines is flawless, his time is rock solid, and he defines what it means to swing. The tune closes with Coltrane’s statement of the melody; a long wait but you’ll hardly notice.
"Slow Dance" is a lovely, sparse ballad, centered on Chambers and Coltrane, with a light touch from Garland on the keys and soft brush work by Arthur Taylor. Coltrane is strong on ballads, tending to fill his horn and play boldly rather than use the breathy sound so characteristic of other tenor players. Coltrane expresses passion without harshness. "You Leave Me Breathless," the other ballad on this record, is a similar study in unconventional ballad playing.
The remaining cuts, "Bass Blues" and "Soft Lights and Sweet Music," round out the recording session with more cool swing and bebop. The latter tune is misnamed; it’s a bebop burner and might be more aptly titled "Bright Lights and Fast Music." "Bass Blues" is a 12-bar blues gem, opening with a unison melody statement between Coltrane and Chambers. Taylor keeps it swinging with the back-beat high-hat and snare punctuation, Chambers thumps along, and Garland comps in the distance under ‘Trane’s solo. Listen to John Coltrane navigate the chord changes with sublime accuracy.... and Chambers delight with a bowed bass solo.Traneing In isn’t among Coltrane’s legendary recordings, and I wouldn’t consider it an essential unless you are all about Coltrane (in which case you probably have it already). But it is great work nonetheless, documenting the early solo development of a jazz icon.