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Matthew Ruddick

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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Saturday, 30 June 2018 15:53

John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once

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Fascinating studio recording unearthed after 54 years.

As most jazz fans will be aware, this previously unreleased studio session is a major find – which makes this one of the most important releases of the year. The session took place on March 6th, 1963; the first of two days set aside to record an album with singer Johnny Hartman (John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, 1963). That album was eventually recorded next day.

No-one can remember why Hartman didn’t make it that day. But Van Gelder’s studio was booked, producer Bob Thiele was available, and Coltrane was bursting with ideas.

Why bursting with ideas? It’s worth remembering that at this time, Coltrane’s quartet was not to everyone’s taste. His previous two recordings, ‘Live’ At The Village Vanguard (November 1961) and Coltrane (April and June 1962), had met with lukewarm reviews from the jazz critics, who struggled to cope with the band’s unbridled power. 

As a result, Impulse! suggested the band take a step back, and encouraged the recording of Ballads (December 1961 and late 1962), Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (September 1962) and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (March 1963). All three albums are quite beautiful in their own right, but atypical of Coltrane’s live performances at this time.

Despite their incendiary live performances, the quartet had not recorded a regular studio album since June 1962. Given the speed of Coltrane’s development, that must have felt like a long time.

Coltrane took this opportunity to record a few new tunes he’d been working on. The first of these is announced as Untitled Original 11383, which features Coltrane on soprano saxophone. The tune sounds fully formed, and features a bowed bass solo by Jimmy Garrison, which was something of a rarity, and a regular solo too. 

Track two, Nature Boy, is even better, and sounds radically different from the 1965 studio recording (from John Coltrane Quartet Plays). That version played on the mysticism of the lyric, but this version is much tauter, with pianist McCoy Tyner sitting out, and no solos being taken. Garrison pins down the beat, allowing Elvin Jones to float around the beat to good effect.

Untitled Original 11386 is the best of the ‘new’ tunes, and again features Coltrane on soprano. It’s a unusual structure for a Coltrane composition, with the quartet returning to the theme between solos. Coltrane’s own solo is quite breathtaking, and Tyner is also on fine form.

The second cover to appear on Both Directions is Vilia, which was composed by Franz Lehár for the operetta, The Merry Widow. This version is previously unreleased, but the alternative take, featuring Coltrane on soprano – and appears on the Deluxe edition of this album – was previously released on the reissue of Live At Birdland.

Impressions was a regular feature of Coltrane’s live performances at this time, but was unreleased as a studio recording at this time. The quartet recorded the tune as part of the Coltrane sessions in June 1962, but it did not appear on the album. Tyner sits out again here, with Coltrane happy to experiment with the harmonic possibilities of a pianoless trio – something he had apparently discussed with Ornette Coleman. It’s a fine recording, but perhaps inevitably, lacks the fireworks of the much longer live recordings from this era.

Slow Blues was the working title of the sixth tune, and there are similarities with Out Of This World from Coltrane, although to my mind, somewhat less compelling as a tune. The album comes to a close with One Up, One Down, the only studio recording of a tune that was already a feature of their live performances, and features some fine interplay between Coltrane and Jones.

Was this recording intended to be an album? I suspect it was. There was enough material recorded that day for an album, and there were several takes of many of the tunes. In addition, Coltrane was given the reference tape, which suggests that he at least thought it was worth considering. At the end of the day, Coltrane had just recorded three slower, low-key albums, which took care of 1963, and by the time he got to 1964, he probably felt the quartet had moved on, and the album got forgotten. 

The tapes remained in possession of Naima, Coltrane’s first wife, and can finally be heard for the first time. The master tapes had been destroyed, but the reference tape was in surprisingly good condition after fifty-four years. The sound is excellent – far brighter, in fact, than the slightly murky, subdued sound of the original Thiele productions. In many respects, this makes for a stronger album that some of the other previously unreleased ‘albums’ that came out after Coltrane’s untimely death in 1967, such as Om and Stellar Regions – where one felt that Coltrane was never fully satisfied with the results. We’ll never know what Coltrane himself made of Both Directions, but it’s an intriguing document of the quartet at something of a transition – wondering, perhaps, which direction to take.

 

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