The Biggest Jazz Discovery in Years – John Coltrane’s ‘Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (ALBUM REVIEW)

Those of us that have the box set Coltrane – The Classic Quartet – Complete Impulse Studio Recordings now find that the although the collection will never be obsolete, it now needs updating due to original, never-before -heard compositions recorded seemingly for a studio album in 1963.  Sonny Rollins has provided the quote that graces the inside liners “This is like finding a new room in the Great Pyramid.”  Coltrane’s son, Ravi, who handled the sequencing and several elements of releasing the lost album says, “To my ears, it was a kicking the tires kind of session.”  The album title comes from a statement Coltrane made to Wayne Shorter during their jam sessions in the late ‘50s. “…about starting a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and the end at the same time, both directions at once.”

Coltrane fans and historians will recall that 1963 marked a transitional year (weren’t they all?) for Coltrane as Impulse! was capitalizing on his commercial appeal.  The albums preceding this session were Ballads, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, and literally the next day the group recorded Trane’s classic album with Johnny Hartman. Those albums don’t sound anything like this one. The band had just come off a two-week run at Birdland in Feb-March of 1963, but this material differs from Live at Birdland released in April ’64.  Think of it as the midpoint between My Favorite Things and Love Supreme. It contains both adventurous soloing and restrained ensemble work. For most listeners, this is very accessible Coltrane. He was clearly experimenting, touching on free jazz, exploring “sheets of sound,” and different band configurations. Yet, he hadn’t quite reached what some refer to as his “chaotic,” more gently termed “spiritual” approach marked by Love Supreme and beyond.

Danny Bennett, President and CEO of the Verve Label Group to which Impulse! belongs says, “Jazz is more relevant today than ever. It’s becoming the alternative music of the 21st century, and no one embodies the boundary-breaking essence of jazz more than John Coltrane. He was a visionary who changed the course of music, and this lost album is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. It gives us insight into his creative process and connects us to his artistry. This album is a cultural moment and the release coincides perfectly with our relaunch of the iconic Impulse! label.”

This session resulted in 14 tracks in total. The standard version, a single CD and LP, contains 7 takes chosen by Ravi Coltrane. The remaining 7 takes exist on the second disc in the deluxe set which will also be available in both formats. The extensive liner notes come from Coltrane historian Ashley Kahn.

There are two completely unknown and never-before-heard originals – “Untitled Original 11383” and Untitled Original 11386,” both played on soprano sax. The latter differs from much of Trane’s work, as the quartet continually returns to the theme between solos. “11383” has an arco bass solo by Jimmy Garrison, another rarity. Also, this has the only studio version of “One Up, One Down” and it features frenzied interplay between Trane and drummer Elvin Jones.

On the two discs, there are four versions of one of Trane’s classic tunes, “Impressions,” some done in the trio format with pianist McCoy Tyner laying out. Trane was beginning to explore harmonic possibilities much like Ornette Coleman and he was eager to explore this trio setting which had worked well for his contemporaries, Coleman and Sonny Rollins.

This also marks Trane’s first recording of “Nature Boy” which he recorded later in 1965. This one does not contain the long meandering solos but is done in ensemble format, in just over three minutes. There is both a tenor and soprano version of “Vilia,” from Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow.” The soprano version on the Deluxe Edition is the only one previously released.

For additional information, you may want to check the New York Times piece on the album or, once you get the album review the 14-page booklet of copious information.  Yet, the question of why this album has been lost for 55 years needs some explanation before we close. Engineer Rudy Van Gelder claims that all master tapes were sent to Impulse! which relocated to the West Coast not long after Coltrane’s passing in 1967. These masters ended up in a storage facility and as part of a cost-cutting effort by ABC in the early ‘70s many were discarded. One tape copy was retained or each existing catalogue item. If the music had never been released the tape was dumped. Yet, Coltrane enjoyed a special privilege while at the label. After each session, he received tape reels to take home and review.  Some of these reels Coltrane kept himself; some he chose to share with his first wife, Naima, with whom he stayed in touch after they separated. These performances stayed in Naima’s family and were found in remarkable condition, especially considering they were 55 years old. Impulse! approached the family about finally releasing the lost album. So, these original mono tapes have been converted to give us a new chapter in John Coltrane’s legendary career.  What a blessing!

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