Everyone in jazzland seems to be weighing in on the release this week of Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album, a previously-unknown 1963 John Coltrane studio session, by the current custodians of Impulse!, Universal’s Verve Label Group.
Putting things in perspective, though, this is just the latest in a succession of posthumous discoveries, all with similar fanfare, of unreleased Coltrane material in this century – like the Olatunji Center, One Down One Up, and Offering concerts; the outtakes from the Coltrane, A Love Supreme (in more than one edition), and Ballads albums; or the sessions and concerts with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.
And there is no shortage of Coltrane material in any case. When you peruse the jazz sections of what passes for record stores in America, the two most loaded bins by far belong to Coltrane, dead for 51 years, and Miles, gone for 27 years. That this latest Coltrane set has generated so much hype and so much attention – more, I believe, than any other jazz release of the year so far – says something about the rudderless current state of jazz.
To call this package The Lost Album smacks of a misnomer since there was no album per se to lose. We have no idea how Coltrane and his brave producer Bob Thiele would have chosen and sequenced this material. What we have here is a speculative compilation by Coltrane’s son Ravi of single takes of the session’s seven tunes on Disc One, with the “deluxe” two-CD edition containing the rest of the takes on Disc Two. Moreover, Ravi’s selection occupies over 47 minutes of playing time, which was well beyond the 30-to-40 minutes that was the standard on Coltrane’s Impulse! LPs at the time.
All of that said, my reaction to the red flag of hype pales before the quality of the music on this album, which finds the classic quartet (Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones) nearing the peak of its form.
The official LP releases of the time – albums of standards, meetings with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman (indeed, the Hartman recordings took place the very next day after this) – gave the impression of this being a time of consolidation for Coltrane. But this session plays it both ways, split between commercial tunes like “Nature Boy” and “Vilia” – one of the most sentimental numbers from The Merry Widow and also the only fragment of the session that was officially released – and exploratory Coltrane originals, including four takes of “Impressions” and two that just go by the title of ‘Untitled Original” followed by five-digit numbers.
Hence, the other half of the title of this session – Both Directions At Once – is accurate, and it fills in some corroborative detail to Coltrane’s Impulse! period. The great saxophonist often cuts loose the tether with Tyner and spirals out on his own with just Garrison and Jones underneath, cautiously pushing the limits on where to go next. The sound is excellent for a mono reference copy (no stereo master apparently exists), much better than the bootleg quality, however enhanced, of some previous posthumous Coltrane blockbusters.
Now, will we ever see an official release of a live tape at the 1961 Monterey Jazz Festival of the Coltrane group in which Wes Montgomery was briefly a member? That would really be a blockbuster.