John Coltrane|Duke Ellington|Charlie Mingus 

The Bethlehem Years|Duke Ellington Presents ...|East Coasting

Rockcentric indie labels first emerged in the '80s, but underground imprints have proved pivotal throughout jazz history. The Bethlehem label once cultivated some jazz stars-to-be and scored some of the biggest-ever names: Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, and post-Miles/pre-A Love Supreme John Coltrane. Bethlehem Years collects late-'50s sessions with 'Trane as featured performer rather than leader -- you get some robust hardbop, easygoing jams (with cool tenor Al Cohn), and a swaggering big band helmed by drum demigod Art Blakey, plus a whole disc of previously unreleased alternate takes.

Presents is a something of an oddity, as more than half its dozen selections aren't Ellington originals but standards ("Laura," "My Funny Valentine," etc.). Still, the concise tunes alternate invigorating swing with heart-on-sleeve dreamy elegance, and this mid-'50s edition of Duke's orchestra is one of his best. And East Coasting, finally, features an early view of iconic pianist Bill Evans (before joining Miles Davis' band) -- his playing is a tad funkier than usual, yet still spacious and lyrical, dovetailing with Mingus' fervent, brainy bebop. The Coltrane is primarily for collectors, but the Duke and Mingus packages are musts for connoisseurs and novices.


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