This handsome 6-CD box set doesn’t unearth any previously unheard gems, but it does collect in one central location some of the best of Trane’s Prestige output. The label promises two more such collections in the near future, though this is the only collection to focus exclusively on his sessions as leader. Taken together, the three boxed sets will represent the whole of the master’s recordings for the label, outside that of his work with Miles Davis, which is found on The Miles Davis Quintet’s The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions, also released in 2006. The sessions here were recorded from May 1957 to December 1958 and are each delightfully inspiring, whether lush balladry or at full gallop.
Perhaps no other jazz artist in history, save Miles Davis, has garnered such fascination, such scrutiny of his work, as Coltrane. Even Ellington and Armstrong, as wholly as they have gone through the microscope of time and academia escaped this level of fascination. Your correspondent will admit to a 40 year attraction to John Coltrane. The collection at hand may not offer new material to the serious Coltrane-ophile’s library, but for those relatively new to the tenor saxophone giant, this serves as a tutorial of the first degree on the initial appeal that his music drew. From obscurities like "While My Lady Sleeps," with Coltrane’s friend, trumpeter Jimmy Splawn, on board, through such classics as "You Leave Me Breathless," the high point of the collection, and "Traneing In," Fearless Leader never fails to enchant.
Much has been made, and for good reason, of the growth evident in Coltrane’s later music, particularly Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, but one must never overlook the steps that the saxophonist took to reach those heights. This was the foundational music. The gorgeous ballads and the torrid up-tempo numbers stood apart even then. Nothing here takes a back seat to later developments. Joined by such estimable musicians as Red Garland and Mal Waldron (piano), Sahib Shihab (baritone), Paul Chambers, Earl May (bass), Art Taylor, Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath, Louis Hayes (drums), Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, and Wilbur Harden (trumpet), it’s a given that this is vital and energized music. Garland, Cobb and Taylor supply the foundation for most of Coltrane’s forays, but the results are glorious throughout.
The third disc is worth the price of admission, alone, with Byrd and Hayes sitting in on a superb "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Lover," recorded January 10 of ’58, followed by Garland, Taylor, Cobb and Coltrane mesmerizing through "Russian Lullaby," "Theme for Ernie," "You Say You Care," "Good Bait," and "I Want to Talk About You," from February 2, 1958. The disc closes with "Rise ‘N Shine," and "I See Your Face Before Me," from March 26, 1958. As noted in the liners, Van Gelder studios scheduled certain artists for various days of the week. Prestige label chief and produced Bob Weinstock had Fridays and all but one of these dates took place on that day. There was certainly something magical about Friday for Coltrane, as each of these dates was imbued with power and passion.
The packaging includes a 60-plus page booklet with insightful notes from Richard S. Ginell and Lewis Porter, as well as a handful of stark and inspired black and white photos of Coltrane in repose and blowing. One of the standout Coltrane packages of the many that have been released over the years, Fearless Leader is highly recommended for fans of Coltrane, for fans of 1950s-era jazz and for those who appreciate music that moves the soul. This is a 5-star delight, from beginning to end.