Coltrane was never an angel; he was an artist.
Jazz has produced legend (the unrecorded Buddy Bolden) and royalty (Duke Ellington, Count Basie), the tragic (Billie Holiday) and heroic (Louis Armstrong), the comic (Dizzy Gillespie) and solemn (John Lewis). It has also produced seeming “sinners” like Miles Davis and seeming saints. In that last category, you’ll always find saxophonist John Coltrane, whose classic 1960s quartet produced one recording that had been thought lost. Here it is, angelically appearing over 50 years later.
This recording, discovered by the family of Coltrane’s first wife and brought to release with the help of the legend’s son, Ravi Coltrane, was recorded on March 6, 1963, a notable time in Coltrane’s story. He had moved to Impulse! Records a bit earlier, where he recorded an interesting and thrilling string of albums. Africa/Brass (1961) was a concept album with a large horn section rich in French horns and euphoniums that thrived on the kind of exciting vamp sound that Trane had scored a hit with on his recent version of “My Favorite Things.” Coltrane was the first studio album featuring the “classic quartet” of McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison, and Live! at the Village Vanguard caught a version of the band in concert.
But by 1963, changes were afoot. First, Coltrane’s music was shifting—away from jazz standards or show tunes to music more influenced by Africa, India, or other more harmonically static forms that would allow the band to stretch out, wildly or meditatively, toward something new. At the same time, word was that Coltrane was having some problems with his embouchure and the result was a string of milder concept recordings in 1963 that found him playing more gently and more traditionally. Ballads, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman were quieter records, and all classics of a sort. The encounter with Ellington was lauded, each giant bringing out the best in the other, but seemed like an odd interruption of the younger man’s journey. The Hartman record is a pure beauty, arguably the greatest make-out record of all time, but has moments where Coltrane is so powdery and gentle that he virtually disappears.
The lost album, now titled Both Directions at Once, was recorded exactly one day before the Hartman record, yet it finds the Coltrane Quartet is an utterly different space. Indeed, the best way to hear Both Directions at Once is as a near predecessor of both Crescent (1964) and A Love Supreme (1965). Here is a great band, finding new footing even as it sits at a moment that we all thought was a temporary respite from change.
On the one hand, the band is still playing some songs rooted in its past—but differently. “Nature Boy” may be a ballad associated with Nat “King” Cole, but Coltrane explores it as a pure melody with almost no harmonic motion at all. Tyner’s piano is absent here, and Garrison lays down a funky, throbbing bass part that repeats in a manner reminiscent of Indonesian gamelan music. Jones’s drums rotate and swing, syncopated in a circular manner that keeps a sense of momentum despite the lack of harmonic forward motion. Coltrane plays the well known melody, but its familiar phrases are interrupted by explorations that stay within the song’s mode. It is brief, but rather than a take on a standard, Coltrane turns this “Nature Boy” into an incantation, a meditation on the line, a solemn thing.
Another familiar Coltrane tune is here in a different form. “Impressions” was famously recorded live at the Vanguard in 1961, though it wasn’t released (and named) until the 1963 album called Impressions came out. The tune uses the modal form of Miles Davis’s “So What” (16 bars in Dorian mode, 8 bars up a half step, then 8 more in the original key), with Trane on tenor with only the accompaniment of bass and drums again. The pace is slower than the tune was often taken, as if the musicians were being very deliberate as they thought this through a different way. Coltrane, particularly, has a great, growly weight to his tone. He never shrieks or screams or sets himself fully free from the harmonic structure, but he explores it in a manner so devoid of jazz cliche that it seems that he’s onto something new. Or soon will be.
The most interesting things on this lost session are two new original tunes, untitled, that give us a sense of how 1963 found Coltrane transitioning between eras. “Untitled Original 11383” is a blues of sorts with Coltrane playing an angular melody in the lower range of his soprano saxophone. Jones and Garrison are largely swinging it, mid-tempo, and Tyner is prominent in the mix, really covering the ground with harmony. We’re so used to hearing Coltrane use his soprano on drone or modal tunes, and it’s interesting to hear him work a blues here, particularly at the end of his solo when Tyner and Garrison bow out and he and Jones duet, with the chord changes becoming beside the point. Garrison also has a superb bowed solo where we are reminded how deep a sound he had, how much he grounded the band.
“Untitled Original 11386” is probably the highlight of the lost recording, the one track most likely to emerge into the set of Trane tunes that stick with us. It is set to a relaxed 4/4 walk that alternates between sections of Afro-Cuban drumming from Jones and straight swing feel. The melody is a catchy figure that Trane plays in the low range of his soprano, followed by a section where time is suspended between several stop-time figures. The saxophone improvisation is free-flowing over a single mode, reminiscent of “So What” but without the harmonic shifts, half with the full rhythm section and half a breakdown for just drums and soprano. Tyler’s piano solo is elegant, with the rhythm section playing more conventionally, followed by a Garrison bass solo. The second disc contains two additional takes of this tune, each quite fine but each different, with different approaches to the accompaniment even as the structure of the work is the same.
Disc Two also contains alternate takes for other tunes: three versions of “Impressions,” and one each for “One Up, One Down” and “Vilia.” The latter is the most conventional tune from this date—a Tin Pan Alley show tune that the band takes a mid-tempo lope. Perhaps it’s just hearing this in the context of more challenging material, but the musical approach seems distant from the conventional elegance that’s heard on Ballads, even though the dates were separated by little time. For this session, Coltrane outlines the classic harmonies, sure, but he also finds moments for honking a bit or discovering a more dissonant note that sits between chords. “One Up, One Down” is more blustery still: another middling tempo but one that is all Elvin Jones rumble and, eventually, clobber. Jones and Coltrane get yet another chance to play duet together, showing again the way in which the band is less and less interested in hewing to traditional harmony whenever there is a chance to move to the more abstract.
Inevitably, the question with an unearthed recording from a legend is not whether it is good—and Both Directions at Once is certainly very good—but whether it lives up to a half century of critical praise for the artist and, in Coltrane’s case, a kind of worship. How could it possibly? Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, particularly, struggles to blow us away in 2018 because it is the moving picture of an artist shifting his focus. The clarity of Crescent and A Love Supreme are still in the future, and the surprising fecundity of Giant Steps and My Favorite Things are in the past. What we get to hear, instead, is the very humanity of John Coltrane as he puts one foot in front of the other and, tentatively even, finds his way two steps forward and one step back.
Coltrane was never an angel; he was an artist. Similar though the two species are, the latter makes progress the hard way. But oh, what progress John Coltrane was making in 1963. Hearing it in process is still a treat.