Review: John Coltrane’s New ‘Lost Album’ Captures a Day in the Life of His Greatest Band
Any newly discovered music from a legend on the order of John Coltrane is an event. But the reason advance buzz has been particularly feverish for Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, a previously unissued session from March of 1963, is that it comes from the era of his so-called Classic Quartet. Simply put, the group – featuring pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones – was Coltrane’s greatest band, a unit perfectly poised between hard-edged swing and gravity-defying exploration. And here, suddenly, we have 90 minutes of excellent-sounding material from them that most never knew existed.
The Lost Album fills a gap in full-length studio recordings by the band (sans guests or subs) between the beloved LPs Coltrane, recorded in the spring and summer of ’62, and Crescent, tracked two years later. Less cohesive than either of those, this set has its own scrappy, off-the-cuff appeal.
Most importantly for Coltrane buffs, The Lost Album offers compelling clues about where the saxophonist was headed, especially on the many occasions when Tyner drops out, either for full or partial tracks. This selective scaling down of the quartet to a more harmonically open trio – a setting popularized by Sonny Rollins in the late Fifties – harks back to Coltrane’s 1961 live milestone “Chasin’ the Trane.” It also foreshadows his later search for even more elemental approaches, leading up to moments (or, near the end of his life, an entire session) when he would perform accompanied by only a drummer. Coltrane didn’t come up with the Both Directions at Once title – it was chosen by the saxophonist’s son Ravi Coltrane and producer Ken Druker, based on a comment about John’s playing made by fellow saxophone giant Wayne Shorter – but in light of the material, it seems entirely apt.
The Classic Quartet visited engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s now-legendary studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, regularly in the early-to-mid–Sixties. Sometimes their dates would yield an album’s worth of material – most famously A Love Supreme, written in a burst of inspiration and recorded in one session in December 1964 – but just as often, releases were cobbled together from various dates. Consequently, there’s no way of knowing exactly what Coltrane and producer Bob Thiele intended to do with the music heard on The Lost Album and the deluxe edition’s companion disc of alternate takes – or exactly why it was shelved. (The tapes apparently disappeared from the vault of ABC, the parent company of Impulse!, Coltrane’s label; the family of the saxophonist’s first wife recently discovered his own copy of the date and offered it up for possible release.)
So was The Lost Album in fact slated to be an album at all? It’s possible, given the variety of the material, from Coltrane staple “Impressions” to the well-worn standard “Nature Boy,” the self-explanatory “Slow Blues” and a theme by the Hungarian composer Franz Lehár (“Vilia,” one take of which is the only track from this entire package to have been officially released before, on an obscure comp). Or it simply could have been a run-through of some new and old repertoire that the group might have been trying out at New York’s Birdland, where they were then playing a two-week residency. (At a recent Lost Album listening session at Van Gelder Studios, when asked why the release merited the “album” distinction, Ravi deadpanned, with a laugh, “We have to call it something so we can market it and sell it.”) Regardless of the intent, there’s plenty to savor here, from an era when the saxophonist was edging ever further from the center of jazz and closer to the increasingly ambitious and ecstatic approach he would take in the three years before his death in 1967.
Two of the album’s compositions are entirely new finds, unheard elsewhere in the known Coltrane discography. The one presented as “Untitled Original 11386” is the crown jewel of the session and a showcase for many of the quartet’s core strengths. The take on The Lost Album proper opens on a catchy, dancing theme with a Latin feel, and rockets into a remarkable soprano-sax solo from Coltrane, full of his trademark brain-scrambling swoops, tumbles and pirouettes. Underneath, Jones provides a raucous yet rock-solid rhythmic bed, demonstrating how essential he was to the band’s earthy, inimitable feel. When Tyner solos, the group shifts into an entirely different gear, more buttoned-down but no less riveting. Near the end of the piece, as on the two additional takes heard on the deluxe version, Jones and bassist Garrison embark on an unusual sort of dual solo that sums up their profound chemistry as a team.
“Slow Blues,” featuring Coltrane on tenor, is another must-hear. With Tyner absent for a full six minutes of the 11-and-a-half-minute run time, and Jones and Garrison laying down a deep groove at an ambling tempo, the saxophonist alternates between soulful, in-the-pocket phrases and the kind of clipped runs and hoarse growls that were a hallmark of his mature style. The Coltrane discography is filled with examples of him reeling off epic solos at brisk tempos, but to hear him dig in at such a relaxed pace feels revelatory.
Two entirely piano-less takes of Coltrane’s live staple “Impressions,” one apiece on the standard and deluxe editions, also show flashes of spontaneous brilliance – even if, like the other two full-quartet takes of the tune heard here, they seem to conclude just as they’re picking up real steam. Given that “Impressions” could stretch to 15 minutes or more live, these run-throughs (all under five minutes) raise the question of why Coltrane felt compelled to capture such compact versions on this particular day. “Nature Boy,” from which Tyner is also absent, starts out promisingly but fades out after little more than three minutes.
The two takes of “Vilia,” featuring Coltrane on tenor and soprano, respectively, are the most polite performances here. In line with the Both Directions at Once theme, they represent a more conventional, reined-in mode that Coltrane was already in the process of leaving behind. (Though there were no absolute borders in the saxophonist’s world: The day after this session, he and the band were back at Van Gelder’s recording a soon-to-be-classic album with romantic crooner Johnny Hartman.)
Two of the remaining tracks – “Untitled Original 11383,” the other previously unheard tune, and “One Up, One Down,” not to be confused with the saxophonist’s later “One Down, One Up” – are punchy, exuberant swingers. The former features an uncommon example of Garrison, whose stirring unaccompanied strummed and plucked solos served a key function in the group’s marathon performances, soloing on bowed bass. A series of fearsome Jones drum breaks concludes both the latter track and the Lost Album proper with a satisfying bang.
So where does this release rank within the Coltrane canon? Don’t expect a readymade masterpiece on the order of Blue Train or A Love Supreme; better to view The Lost Album as a key transitional document. For the die-hards, the ones who have charted the Classic Quartet’s every move, from the early glories of the Coltrane LP to the fiery outpourings heard on albums like Sun Ship from 1965, it’s another small but crucial puzzle piece in the group’s still-stunning evolution during its roughly three-year lifespan. For everyone else, it’s an unvarnished, day-in-the-life portrait of an icon – and the three musical giants that helped him achieve that status – at work.
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