Review: John Coltrane’s ‘Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album’

Is the collection's belated arrival a godsend? Absolutely.

John Coltrane

For devotees of John Coltrane, whose adoration of the late, pathfinding saxophonist borders on the religious, 2018 has been a banner year.

In March, Sony Legacy released a four-CD set of Coltrane’s 1960 European live performances with trumpeter Miles Davis, with whom he had famously worked on and off since the mid-‘50s. The collection – the first legit issue of material previously available only in gray-market packages – compiled concert dates on which Trane upstaged his boss with boundary-pushing, screaming playing that drew cheers and catcalls in equal measure.

The import of those exciting sides is superseded this week with the materialization of an unexpected and thrilling treasure, finally unburied: a never-before-released session featuring Coltrane in the full flush of his solo fame, with his “classic quartet” of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones.

Titled “Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album,” the set released by Impulse!/Verve/Ume is available in two editions. A single-disc package comprises seven tracks cut by the Coltrane band for Impulse! Records at engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs, NJ, studio on March 6, 1963. The two-disc deluxe iteration adds seven alternate takes of four of those tracks.

Only one of those 14 tracks – an interpretation of “Vilia,” a snatch of Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow” – was previously available, on a 1965 Impulse! compilation. The rest has only been rumored since its creation: The stereo masters were destroyed in a vault housecleaning by the label’s parent company ABC in the early ‘70s. Coltrane’s own mono reference tape was unearthed by Coltrane’s first wife Naima, and was briefly put up for auction in 2005. Verve successfully claimed ownership of the tape, and has now brought it to market.

We’re fortunate to finally have this music at our disposal, since Coltrane was at a critical point in his evolution as a soloist and bandleader. The title of “Both Directions at Once,” drawn from a remark by Trane to his friend, contemporary and acolyte Wayne Shorter, defines both the movement of his music and the position he found himself in artistically in the spring of ’63.

At that juncture, after years of recording and performing as a sideman and leader, Coltrane was finally a poll-winning star. In 1961, he had scored something of a jukebox and turntable hit: a sprawling, careening modal reading of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” cut for Atlantic Records.

Late that year, the “classic” band was finalized with the addition of bassist Garrison. Trane had also segued to a more lucrative deal at Impulse!; his presence at the label soon drew most of avant garde jazz’s greatest luminaries into the fold. He made three albums for his new label in 1961-62, all of them drawn from multiple sessions.

Given the Frankensteinian nature of those earlier sets, it requires a leap of faith to view the contents of “Both Directions at Once” as a real album, though Ashley Kahn makes that claim in his liner notes. Coltrane and his band in fact recorded a full album, a collection of ballads with guest vocalist Johnny Hartman, in the same studio the very next day.

It’s quite possible that Coltrane was merely trying to bank some tracks, since Elvin Jones, who had been busted in December 1962 for heroin possession, began a sentence at the federal correctional and rehabilitation facility in Lexington, KY, the month after the session; he returned to the fold late that year for the band’s only other studio appearance of the year.

The notion advanced by Ravi Coltrane, Trane’s son and the co-producer of “Both Directions at Once,” that the March 6, 1963 date was “a kicking-the-tires kind of session” rings truest.

Ravi and Ken Druker have selected what they believed were the strongest takes cut by session producer Bob Thiele for the single-disc edition. Some tunes will already be familiar to Coltrane fans. The oft-anthologized “Vilia,” played on tenor sax, offers a lilting, coolly swinging take on the Lehar theme (previously tracked as a Count Basie-style number by Artie Shaw’s big band in 1939); Tyner responds with a lyrical solo highly reminiscent of Bill Evans. The track is so straightforward it could have been drawn from one of Coltrane’s earlier, conservative ‘50s sessions for Prestige Records.

“Nature Boy,” the mystical Eden Ahbez tune that Nat King Cole took to the top of the pop chart in 1948, would receive a roiling left-field rendering by the quartet (augmented by second bassist Art Davis) nearly two years later. In Coltrane’s ‘63 reading, his meditative tenor cleaves closely to the melody line; Tyner, who goes unheard for long stretches on a number of tracks cut at the session, lays out completely here. This is a rough draft.

One of the warhorses of the Coltrane catalog, “Impressions” still didn’t have a title in March 1963, when it was known only by its master number, 11385. A fusion of “Pavanne,” by American classicist Morton Gould, and Miles Davis’ “So What” (from “Kind of Blue,” the trumpeter’s 1959 classic with Coltrane), the number had been part of Trane’s live book for two years, and was sometimes known as “Excerpt” (and also referred to by Coltrane under the title of the Davis tune). He would continue to play it for another two years.

As durable as “Impressions” was on stage, and as friendly as its open-ended structure was to improvisation, it proved frustrating to Coltrane in the studio. His driving 1962 stabs at the number were only issued posthumously, on an expanded CD version of the album “Coltrane.” He took another swing at it in ‘63; the economical take heard on the single-disc “Both Directions” is a hard-edged, percolating showcase for Coltrane in a trio format; again, Tyner sits out the number.

The remainder of the one-disc package comprises hitherto unheard material. Two compositions are known only by their master numbers. “11383” is a compact blues with Middle Eastern modal overtones; Coltrane’s soprano solo is nicely complemented by a bowed bass solo by Garrison at the track’s end. Garrison shines again with a heavily chorded solo on “11386,” an original which seems designed to reiterate the feel of “My Favorite Things”; Coltrane’s soprano work here largely replicates the attack on his 1961 hit.

The other two originals are terrific blowing vehicles. The tenor showcase “Slow Blues” might as well be titled “Chasin’ the Slow Trane,” since it is a geared-down, encyclopedic workout on blues changes much in the manner of Coltrane’s high-energy “Chasin’ the Trane,” memorably recorded by Coltrane, Garrison and Jones at New York’s Village Vanguard in 1961. The 1963 recording features the full quartet; Tyner lays out for the first five-plus-minutes of the track, and during his gutsy solo Garrison and Jones double the tempo, which Coltrane picks up in a full-cry conclusion.

Confusingly and somewhat presumptuously titled “One Up, One Down” on the current release, the other untitled original (master 11387) is a simple up-tempo theme that takes its provisional handle from a structural resemblance to “One Down, One Up,” which became a 1965 concert staple. Like the latter number, which could become an extended duo conversation between Coltrane and Jones on stage, the ’63 studio concoction rides several brief, jabbing exchanges between the tenor player and his drummer. Solid Tyner and Garrison solos make “One Up” a satisfying closer to the one-disc set.

As strong and revealing as the bare-bones collection is, it’s hard to imagine a Coltrane freak who won’t want to plunk for the deluxe version. It affords one of the deepest looks available at the way Trane addressed creative choices in the studio.

No less than three more versions of “Impressions” are heard on the second disc, and they are the best advertisement for the two-disc package. Two years down the line, Coltrane was still groping for the best way to capture the tune. The most striking of the three alternates here is a trio rendition, minus Tyner again, which is taken at a killing tempo and clocks in under four minutes.

The deluxe edition’s “Vilia” is a wonderful surprise: Coltrane attempts the number on soprano. It is far livelier than the tenor edition, and packs a blissful Tyner solo as well. “One Up, One Down” is attempted with slightly less certainty, though the back-and-forth between Coltrane and Jones remains stirring, and Garrison and Jones get off some strong duo work themselves. The two alternates of “11386” are the least effective performances on the extended package: Despite some powerful soprano work, the recording’s imitative atmosphere and the composition’s thematic repetition are a drag on the performances.

At its heart, “Both Directions at Once” is a portrait of an artist and a band on the brink of a historic explosion. The bracing, probing, self-questioning and keenly played music on this collection is the missing link between the provisional work heard on 1962’s “Coltrane” and the quartet’s epochal studio albums – “Crescent,” the devout “A Love Supreme” and (with additional personnel) the free jazz magnum opus “Ascension” – that would follow in 1964-65.

Is its belated arrival a godsend? Absolutely.