“This is like finding a new room in the Great Pyramid” – Sonny Rollins
So growing up, it seemed like Coltrane was the jazz counterpart to Jimi Hendrix in the record industry: a “new” album seemed to be discovered every two years or so. In reality, these albums consisted of outtakes, jams and experiments that usually never were intended to see the light of day. Which is why the new Coltrane album ‘Both Directions at Once’ is so surprising. For it appears that yes, this actually is a lost album that was intended to be released, and instead it got buried deeper and deeper in the archives until all traces of it were gone. Thankfully, that has been remedied with this release.
Let’s be honest, this is amazing that this could show up in 2018. This is one of the biggest finds in jazz history. The 2005 discovery of a Thelonious Monk concert with Coltrane from 1957-professionally recorded-had turned the jazz scene upside down. It was hailed then as the “musical equivalent of the discovery of a new Mount Everest”. In view of that, Sonny Rollins’ quote above might be a little overstated, but not by much. In the jazz world though? He is spot on. Vultures at ABC and Atlantic had long ago picked the vaults clean-releasing multiple outtakes and song fragments as ‘newly found’ material for decades. This is certainly not the case here-we are presented a full length album that literally everyone had forgotten about until a safety master was discovered in a house closet of a Coltrane family relative. But first, a little back story on 1963 Coltrane:
The quartet of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones had been together for a full two years of recording and gigging. For a jazz scene that often traded out parts, to have a band with the same lineup for that long brought some unseen rewards. They were nearly telepathic with each other in their delicate improvisations. Combine that with a piano and drum section that re-defined jazz-the ability to support and lead simultaneously. Angular piano leads and sharp fills on drums do far more than accentuate-the band became a four headed monster with Garrison’s ability to underpin and never overwhelm on bass. Take a look at what these guys recorded in two short years from May 1961 up to March 1963 (new album slotted in where it was recorded)
This is a fairly fertile period for Coltrane, where he could literally show up for an evening in the studio and knock out a full album with multiple takes. So much material generated would pose a problem for record executives at the time. They would rightly point out that they couldn’t release four albums per year and promote them properly. This one fact would come back eventually to seal the vault on this album. Recorded the day before the Johnny Hartman sessions, and in only five hours, the label likely posed the question: ‘so you have two albums in the can in three days-one with a vocalist that is such a new direction we can commercially promote to a whole new audience, or one you recorded yesterday that is similar to your other recent things. We only can release one, so which one?’ This was a period of post My Favorite Things which pushed Coltrane out from top flight sideman and nascent national star status to genuine ‘jazz world’ and international star. Even the largest aficionados of Coltrane’s purest forms of jazz creation (Bob Thiele and studio owner Rudy Van Gelder) would have chosen the former-if the commercial success angle could be pushed further, well there were no losers in that scenario. If an album could double or triple his audience and his sales, everyone would be on board.
That dilemna covers the origins that triggered the eventual disappearance of this album. Luckily for us, Coltrane’s wife Naima found the mono safety master that had been created in the studio for Coltrane to take home and analyze. It had languished there for over half a century. But what of the master recordings? The masters were catalogued by Van Gelder, then stored in the voluminous Impulse archives until the label relocated from New York to Los Angeles. Any non released masters found in the tape archive in LA were eventually destroyed by the label to save storage space. It appeared this album was destined to be lost forever. Folks had now forgotten about the mono safety master 7″ tape. It lay undiscovered in a box for 55 years until their rediscovery.
Is This Actually a Real Album?
There is some fairly convincing evidence that this was intended to be an actual album. The biggest piece would be the four full takes in recording ‘Impressions’, one of his signature songs in his canon according to McCoy Tyner. This song eventually appeared the next year on the self same titled album, but in a live form recorded in December 1961, but this shows he was after something important. Chasing a perfect studio version of this song would indicate he was after something a little more than just jamming. The quartet also had not recorded in their ‘pushing the envelope’ style since July 1962’s Coltrane-opting for the commercial friendly Ballads and a collaboration with Duke Ellington to continue an expansion of his commercial exposure.
Shorter traditional tunes Nature Boy and Vilia, (which showed up on the subsequent Live at Birdland) contrast with a long slow blues and Impressions, this pair clocking in at nearly half an hour. One Up, One Down (from a conversation Coltrane had with Wayne Shorter before his death) and two untitled instrumentals (called Sun Ship and Triangles on the tape box in Coltrane’s handwriting-not clear on which one was which however) make up the album. Some traditional, some forward looking, this is a perfect picture of an artist in transition. With him flying at such a high level, one can almost see how this album would have been gauged as not quite perfect at the time. And with a glut of top flight Coltrane material in the can awaiting release? Well some hard choices had to be made, and this album was consigned to oblivion. Until now. But make no mistake, this album is amazing-a snapshot of what came before and what was to come that slots perfectly among his better works. Coltrane pushed the boundaries already tested in 1962’s Coltrane, and this album holds its own easily with the upcoming Live at Birdland recorded seven months later in 1963 and Crescent a year later in 1964. In some ways it is even more satisfying than both of those albums.
So yes, this is an actual real lost Coltrane album, and a damn good one to boot-comfortably sliding into his top studio releases. It is one of the biggest events in jazz history to discover any work from an artist like this, but one from his peak period of creativity? Holy shit! Go out and get one immediately.