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John Coltrane: Both Directions

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On March 6, 1963, saxophonist John Coltrane was at Rudy Van Gelder's recording studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. Between 1 and 6 p.m., Coltrane's “classic quartet" recorded 14 songs, including two untitled Coltrane originals that were recorded just once. As I write in my Wall Street Journal review of the album this week (go here), the newly discovered music is astonishing and hugely important.

The recording session was held on the afternoon of March 6 so the quartet could make their gig that evening at New York's Birdland. While Impulse refers to this new set as a “lost album," I don't believe these tapes represented an unrealized LP. It's more likely a recorded run-through of new Coltrane material. Producer Bob Thiele probably booked the studio as a rehearsal for the “John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman" album the next day. Thiele wouldn't have scheduled two different album projects back-to-back.

Or, he may have scheduled March 6 and 7 for the Johnny Hartman session, but Hartman couldn't make the 6th. So he kept it anyway to record Coltrane playing whatever he wanted to limber up. And thank goodness he did. The music is bold, soulful, hair-raising and deep. I've listened to the album about 20 times, and I love it each time. It's like an exotic adventure. 

Admittedly, Coltrane's free-form playing in the 1960s is sophisticated music that requires your attention and your heart. You have to let yourself go and drift with the exotic, percussive winds created by Coltrane's expressive tenor and soprano saxophones, and the quartet's undertow.

The material on this two-CD set was recorded at an interesting time for Coltrane. Newly signed to Impulse in 1961 by Creed Taylor, Coltrane was handed over to Thiele when Taylor joined Verve. Despite Coltrane's prowess, he wasn't winning vital magazine polls and critics were blasting his music as anti-jazz. So Impulse wanted Coltrane to record easy-going albums that would change minds.

Thiele (above) was under pressure to deliver. Coltrane was fine with the mandate. He happily recorded Ballads and albums with Duke Ellington and singer Johnny Hartman. In between, Thiele recorded Coltrane often in the studio playing the free-jazz approach he used at clubs. To avoid heat from ABC-Paramount's executives, many of whom didn't understand why Thiele was recording way more Coltrane than the label could release, Thiele came up with a work-around.

He stopped telling his bosses what he was going to do and just did it. He'd come in the next day and say he had just recorded Coltrane the night before. Fortunately for us, Thiele understood the urgent importance of documenting Coltrane's pioneering African-American jazz in the '60s. He viewed these sessions as a calling. He knew that if he didn't hold these surreptitious sessions, the music would have been lost forever.

Coltrane appreciated Theile's fealty and dedication. By A Love Supreme in 1965, Coltrane no longer had to record songbook albums. The album made him a poll winner and a star in his own right while his albums sold well enough as national socio-political tensions spread, making the frenzy of his music more cogent.

On this album, we have two untitled originals that were simply designated with numbers. One features multiple takes. There are four takes of Impressions, each more exciting than the next; Nature Boy and two takes of Vilia are lyrical standards; and two takes of One Up, One Down.

So where was this tape hiding all these years? The tape sat on the shelf at Van Gelder’s studio [above] until Coltrane died in July 1967, when Impulse executives came to retrieve them. After ABC Records relocated to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, the tape went into storage. Soon, cost-cutting led ABC to discard reels of warehoused tapes that hadn’t been released as albums. Coltrane’s March 6 recording was purged.

Fortunately, Thiele had run a separate tape reel in the studio that day so Coltrane could take it home to evaluate the music. When Coltrane and his first wife, Naima, divorced in 1966, he left the reel with her. Years later, the family found the reel, and it became the source for “Both Directions.” The sound is fantastic.

As readers know, I love all great jazz—from New Orleans to the abstraction of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra and beyond. If my heart skips a beat as I listen, I love it. Pretty simple. The new Coltrane album, due June 29, is so exciting and among the most adventurous and hypnotic legacy recordings I've heard in some time. Tyner (above) is at his peak, Workman tears into the bass and Jones sounds like three drummers playing at once.

As you listen to this music, remember that John F. Kennedy was in the White House, the Beatles wouldn't arrive for 10 months, the civil rights movement was just heating up and only a handful of Americans could find Vietnam on a map. Coltrane was that far ahead of his time.

As I note when I wrap up my WSJ review, “It’s impossible not to hear the feeling of Both Directions in Coltrane’s solos on his Johnny Hartman album. The two are now forever linked." 

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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