Mythology tends to obliterate hard work. The progress of John Coltrane through the popular imagination -- tenor of his time, transcendentalist, martyr -- often fails to acknowledge the agonies of his development. As the troubled saxophonist (Dexter Gordon!) in the exemplary jazz film Round Midnight tells us: "You don't pick a style off a tree; the tree is inside you, and it's growing." In Coltrane Jazz and The Avant-Garde, two reissue CDs, we behold the great innovator's tree abloom, if not mature. The former set, recorded in 1959 and 1960, finds Coltrane in the same searching, transitional mode as his previous landmark album Giant Steps, spreading the famous "sheets of sound" but not yet in touch with the classic quartet of the Impulse years. The revelations here are four bonus cuts, notably two previously unissued alternative takes of "Like Sonny," featuring Cedar Walton, Paul Chambers and Lex Humphries in the rhythm section. This is exciting, essential music for all Coltraneophiles.
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By contrast, The Avant-Garde is a minor item and something of an oddity. Recorded in July 1960 but not released until 1966, it captures a none-too-comfortable, brittle-sounding Coltrane in the company of the fluttering, probing trumpeter Donald Cherry and Cherry's fellow Ornette Coleman sidemen, Ed Blackwell and Charlie Haden. Their piano-less quartet (featuring bassist Percy Heath on three of the five tracks) essays three angular Coleman compositions -- "Focus on Sanity," "The Blessing" and "The Invisible" -- one by Cherry, and Thelonious Monk's standard "Bemsha Swing." Coltrane, of course, was about to become the peerless standard-bearer of forward-looking jazz, but only on "Swing" does he sound entirely conversant with the revolutionist Coleman crowd. For Coltrane "completists," this CD is a missing link. For mere admirers, here are some telling -- if slightly befogged -- signs of things to come.