Sungenre Album of the Month – July 2018
1963 proved a pivotal juncture in the career of influential jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Six years prior, he was fired for the second time from Miles Davis’ band for failing to give up heroin. He managed to break his addiction a mere month later and was rehired by Davis, with whom he recorded the best-selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue, in 1959. By the turn of the new decade, Coltrane had consolidated his solo career with the release of his seminal album Giant Steps (1960). However, facing pressure from critics and label alike, Coltrane felt compelled to record standards and tunes which would be more palatable to a wider audience. My Favorite Things resulted in 1961. In December 1964, he would free himself from all expectations to record his magnum opus, the four-part suite A Love Supreme (1965).
On Wednesday, 6 March 1963, Coltrane, in the midst of a two-week run of shows at New York’s Birdland jazz club and a single day before recording the classic John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, entered Van Gelder Studios to record a collection of tracks which, remarkably, went untouched for 54 years. Despite the master tape never being found, Coltrane took a reference copy home to his wife Naima. Once thought lost forever, the reference tape was found in excellent condition and is now, 55 years on, being released to the public as Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album. It’s rightfully being billed by label Impulse! Records as the holy grail of jazz. Indeed, it’s the crucial missing link in the famed saxophonist’s discography; bridging the gap between the standards he performed in the early 1960s and the exceptional, ethereal avant-garde experimentalism of his final years.
“I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once,” Coltrane once said of his virtuosic cascading soloing technique. The music contained within this album’s seven tracks holds a timeless appeal and relevancy – in a way itself seemingly moving in multiple directions through time at once, with an irrefutably and appropriately omnipresent, transcendent-like quality. It simultaneously informs us of his work prior to 1963, foreshadows things to come on his 1965 masterpiece and reminds us of the near-incomparable influence he has imparted on modern music – informing musical decisions made by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, David Bowie and more recently the likes of Thundercat, Kamasi Washington and Coltrane’s great-nephew Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus).
The album opens in simply sublime fashion with “Untitled Original 11383”. Coltrane opens proceedings in the lower register of his soprano sax. He disjointedly skirts around a chromatic scale in the opening refrain, over a I-IV-I-II-V-I backing from his his classic quartet, before launching into a solo in a higher register. Pianist McCoy Tyner takes over from there, in a soloing style strikingly similar to that contained within part three (“Pursuance”) of A Love Supreme – indeed, it’s in the same key. As is true throughout the overall piece, his left hand here arguably acts as the glue to the band, while seemingly playing every possible chord around the root except for the root itself. The band stops playing and makes way for an arco bass solo by Jimmy Garrison two-thirds of the way through. He then locks in with drummer Elvin Jones for an incredibly infectious and cool walking bassline, before Coltrane queues the return of the main theme. It’s an outstanding track and a very welcome addition to the Coltrane catalogue.
Unfortunately, the positioning of “Nature Boy” after such a stellar introductory performance feels somewhat underwhelming. Albeit with flourishes from Coltrane and Jones, for 3:24, with Garrison sticking to the one key on bass, the track feels somewhat underdone, like a jam in need of further refinement. Indeed, Coltrane would later rework and rerecord the Eden Ahbez composition for The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (1965). Take one of “Untitled Original 11386” comes next, containing a similar style to that of “11383”, however this time uncharacteristically returning to the main refrain in between solos.
The next two tracks may sound familiar to keen listeners. “Vilia” is another non-original composition, from Franz Lehár’s operetta “The Merry Widow”, while “Impressions” is a famous Coltrane standard which was recorded live many times. He also recorded it in the studio on one other occasion, on June 20, 1962. The version contained here feels lighter and more casual than previous efforts, due to it being performed as a three piece at a slightly slower tempo – allowing breathing room for a bouncy walking bassline from Garrison.
“Slow Blues” is a remarkably apt title for arguably one of the most straightforward pieces presented here. While it conjures images of the quartet playing unforgettable performances in smoky surrounds at Birdland, the recording lacks a certain energy and adventurism for which the group have become renowned. They’re instead presented here in autopilot mode, jamming over a standard 12-bar blues progression. Listeners will be forgiven for zoning out by the halfway mark of the 11 and a half minute epic.
However, listeners will be jolted out of their daydream by closer “One Up, One Down”, an original composition which has until now only been available as a bootleg live recording. Picking up the tempo, Coltrane continues to explore fascinating harmonic possibilities in a main thematic refrain sounding almost like an inverted “11383”, as well as in his subsequent solo. Jones is afforded opportunities to display his immense talent with brief recurring spaces for solos preceding a longer solo towards the end, while a Tyner solo again verges on A Love Supreme territory. A lengthy exchange between Jones and Garrison serves as one of the most intriguing and coolest passages on the whole album.
All in all, this is the Coltrane album we never expected and never knew we needed. It is indeed the holy grail of jazz; the missing link in the great master’s catalogue of work. The album’s unearthing is a story so remarkable, the music contained within it still so fresh and vital that it, regardless of rating, provides a priceless and timely reminder of the talent and influence of John Coltrane’s classic quartet.