John Coltrane




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John Coltrane. Chuck Stewart Photography.

Fifty-five years ago the most explosive band in jazz history trooped into their favourite studio and recorded an album that was never released. Until now. Both Directions At Once – The Lost album is almost a holy relic, blessed with some sensational music, sound quality to match, and even four previously unheard compositions by the towering saxophonist that was John Coltrane.

On March 6, 1963, his “classic quartet” with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, was coming to the end of a two-week residency at New York’s Birdland. They drove out to Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio for a five-hour session, before having to race back to Manhattan for their evening gig. If there was any pressure in the air you don’t hear it. You hear a band at home in its own skin; one already acclaimed for its crushing potency, yet still 21 months away from recording its ultimate masterpiece, A Love Supreme.

The recording falls four months after the band’s final session for the Ballads album and the day before cutting John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. From the duration of the material (47 minutes) it seems the clear intent was to record an album, rather than just lay down a few tracks. Hence the new material, some of which had been aired during the Birdland residency.

John Coltrane © Jim Marshall Photography LLC.
John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. Photo: Jim Marshall Photography.

Because the putative album was not released Coltrane never named the originals, which are delineated by Impulse’s numbering system. A bucking, pitching minor blues taken on soprano, 11383, has a rare arco-to-pizzicato solo from Garrison. The airier 11386 has the sort of soprano solo that, were it light rather than sound, would blind you, behind which Tyner lays out, while Jones divides the groove between Latin and swing feels, and Garrison again features. Designated Slow Blues for obvious reasons, 11388 has Tyner again sitting out behind an extended tenor solo that uses shifting densities as primary building blocks. The pianist’s own sprightly solo beckons the rhythm section to double the time, which they maintain when ‘Trane returns, although you sense some crossed purposes in the restatement of the head. Christened One Up, One Down (a corollary to the later One Down, One Up), by Coltrane’s son Ravi (the album’s co-producer), 11387 is a storming tenor piece with features from Jones and Garrison. The one regular item from the live repertoire is a typically scintillating Impressions, which sounds oddly abridged when one is used to the live extravaganzas.

The two non-originals are a moody, piano-less Nature Boy on tenor over an intriguing groove (which, at less than three-and-half minutes, feels like an experiment that was not pursued), and, almost as light relief, Franz Lehar’s Vilia, which has Tyner at his most gorgeously lyrical. The deluxe edition contains a second album with alternate takes of most tracks.

colt resThe set’s defining attributes include the striking warmth of Garrison’s bass sound, which is featured more prominently than usual both as a solo instrument and in the ensemble mix. Another is how often Tyner lays out to let the majesty and testifying rapture of Coltrane’s tenor and soprano saxophones command the foreground against the high-voltage undercurrent of Jones’s impossibly swinging drumming.

So how did this treasure come to be “lost” for all those years? The tape from which it was mastered turned up in the possession of the family of Coltrane’s first wife, Naima, with whom, even after their divorce, he continued to share his new recordings. As to why Impulse never released it at the time, I can only suggest that they may have been keen to prioritise the broad commercial appeal of the album recorded the next day with Hartman, and by the time another studio release was due Coltrane may have felt the quartet had moved on from this phase.

Four years ago a hitherto unknown live Coltrane recording, Offering, emerged amid much fanfare (including from this writer), but that, with its patchy sound, is of a different order to this, performed by a band approaching its artistic pinnacle, and recorded by the doyen of engineers. Don’t hesitate.