CD Review: John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album

How on earth does anybody “lose” a full album by John Coltrane and his Classic Quartet, a Bob Thiele production no less? This was a group whose every performance, every collective decision, was precious. Thankfully, this monumental oopsy-daisy has been corrected, over half a century later. Restored from reels found in the archives of Coltrane’s first wife Juanita Naima, Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album is a wonderful addition to one of music’s most wonderful catalogs.

Whatever the reason, Coltrane and Thiele never returned to these March, 1963 recordings, cut several months after the sessions for Ballads, and the day before they made the beloved John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman. In contrast to those more commercially directed recordings, this feels like a snapshot of where the Quartet is really at, at this juncture in ’63. As its title suggests, you can hear Coltrane simultaneously reaching deeper into black American musical tradition, and trying to forge a new path forward, that went beyond the limits of that tradition.

The tantalizingly titled “Untitled 11383” and “Untitled 11386” are believed to be be unique Coltrane compositions, that have never been heard before. While neither one will substantially change your mind about this group and its capabilities, now that we have these tunes in the canon, it’s hard to imagine life without them. “11386” features Elvin Jones playing with a Latin flair, something we don’t hear on records nearly often enough. And the slippery bass & drum workout on “11383” alone makes its discovery a cause for celebration.

Pianist McCoy Tyner sits out kind of a lot, most noticeably on “Impressions” and much of “Slow Blues”, where he appears seemingly out of nowhere at the end of the sax solo. Coltrane wants to see what happens when one harmonic element is reduced or removed, allowing the remaining ones to take over the world.

It’s not necessarily tragic that things transpired the way they did. Coltrane and the Quartet would get studio versions of “Nature Boy”, “Valia” and “One Down One Up” that match or surpass these. And the studio versions of “Impressions” heard here (versions, plural, if you have the Deluxe edition) are truly no match for the live take that was ultimately released. But nevertheless, it’s a great experience to wake up into a world where there is slightly more John Coltrane Classic Quartet studio material available for the listening and the pondering, than was available yesterday.

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