Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Enough already. You’d think they unearthed the Holy Grail or the Arc of the Covenant, given the way John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album has been hyped, replete with a Sonny Rollins blurb that likens it to a newly discovered chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza. It is the marketing of a miracle, albeit one created by corporate negligence: recovered more than a half-century after this March 1963 session at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, The Lost Album is a details-rich snapshot of a great artist surging towards the pinnacle of his art – with two previously unknown Coltrane compositions to boot.

”The Lost Album” is deceptive on two counts. For starters, the session wasn’t lost, misfiled in the vaults or misidentified in an inventory; it was discarded, thrown out, chucked in the early 1970s by ABC Records, Impulse’s parent corporation. That Coltrane was able to leave a reference copy of this staggeringly productive five-hour session with his first wife Naima is a measure of his unusual clout with the label. It’s no miracle that families keep stuff; it’s what they do.

Granted, the disposing of the March 1963 Coltrane session is not unique; it was a practice not only of myopic record companies, but such venerated cultural stewards as the BBC and NDR, who have tossed rarities by Albert Ayler, Steve Lacy and who knows who else. If one really needs to marvel over the recovery of this session, it should be within the context of the vast, ultimately unknowable totality of great music that has literally been consigned to landfills.

Secondly, and no less importantly, it’s no album, no matter how hard Impulse and Universal, the label’s current corporate overlord, spin it; and despite Ashley Kahn’s typically thorough, forensically minded booklet notes, which make a simple, seemingly reasonable case: The complete takes from the session were enough to fill two LP sides, and they included a variety of materials typical of Coltrane’s early Impulses.

Let’s stipulate for a moment that Coltrane intended to record an album, rather than stockpile tapes, rehearse new material, or to prime the band for the closing night of a two-week stand at Birdland. This begs the question of Bob Thiele’s role in this rather tremendous session going nowhere, given how he manicured Coltrane’s early Impulses – he supervised Coltrane’s collaboration with Johnny Hartman the next day, a session essential to the label’s balancing act for marketing the saxophonist.

To date, Impulse had released only one studio quartet album – Coltrane which was gleaned from four sessions spanning the middle of April to the end of June, ‘62. Subsequent quartet albums like Impressions and Live at Birdland were also aggregated from multiple sessions – the live album included a studio cut. It is therefore improbable, if not impossible that Thiele saw the March ‘63 session as providing all the music for the next quartet release. More likely, it was closer to this: The time is booked; let them use it; the main event is the session with Hartman the day after.

Despite the abundance of releasable material Coltrane’s quartet recorded that day, only one take of Franz Lehár’s “Vilia” made its way – two years later – onto the sampler, The Definitive Jazz Scene Volume 3. The rest was shelved; Coltrane’s new compositions remained unnamed, and no catalog number was assigned to any album associated with the date.Even if Coltrane sought to record an entire quartet album that day, it was, at best, a quixotic endeavor, given Thiele’s control of the operation.

Still, producers Ken Druker and Ravi Coltrane perpetuate this fanciful notion in their sequencing of tracks for the first CD. The first four tracks comprise the more plausible LP side; these include the first takes of the “new” compositions, both of which would have worked well on a late Atlantic date. “Original Composition 11383 (Take 1)” is an excellent opener, an up-tempo blues variant with a Coltrane soprano solo that is as concise as it is soaring. Placing the only take of “Nature Boy” second would be a smart follow-up had Coltrane’s tenor not squeezed out the wistfulness of the tune; at less than four minutes, it almost short enough not to notice it is a trio performance without McCoy Tyner. Another winning vehicle for Coltrane’s soprano, “Composition 11386 (Take 1)” is a wind-up theme that ultimately springs skyward. And, “Vilia (Take 3)” is an amiably bright and swinging tenor feature. Despite their flow, the four tracks clock in around 24 minutes, appreciably longer than the duration of Coltrane’s early Impulse LP sides.

The key to Impulse’s marketing was not simply making Coltrane all things to all people, but something essentially paradoxical: an unthreatening revolutionary. This could be accomplished to a degree with a two-sided medium like vinyl; they could minimize the perceived potential downside to “Chasin’ the Trane” by placing it on the B side of “Live” at the Village Vanguard, softeningits impact by closing the A side with “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.”

Subsequently, it is a real stretch to think that a scorching trio version of “Impressions (Take 3),” a hard-hitting “Slow Blues” that doesn’t stay that slow over the course of eleven minutes, and a blistering first take of “One Up, One Down” would all appear on a Coltrane album issued in ‘63, even if they were distributed over two sides. This is the kind of material Thiele carefully meted out on Coltrane’s early albums; there’s nothing to suggest he would suddenly change course.

The producers and the label had nothing to lose by foregoing their indulgence in counterfactuals and calling the collection Both Directions at Once: The Lost Session. Honesty would have not reduced the lavish critical praise it has received nor would it have stifled sales. It is unheard Coltrane, after all; and much of the music on both CDs is terrific evidence of the Coltrane quartet’s greatness.

Arguably, this was a session that would benefit both Coltrane’s longtime and new-generation fans by being presented in chronological order. Coltrane plays soprano on the “Vilia” included on the second CD; the back-to-back would provide an excellent example of the loft he generated on both instruments. Having the four “impressions” in order would reveal how Coltrane shaped – and reconsidered – material in the studio, and how a near-miss by this group is still rather enthralling. Both takes of “One Up, One Down” are tour de forces for Elvin Jones. As is, the collection is such that when, upon repeated plays, connections between takes become apparent, the listener will, in short order, shuttle between discs.

Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album will undoubtedly leave this year’s bevy of archival releases in the dust in year-end polls. It adds a new facet to Coltrane’s legacy. But it doesn’t rewrite it.

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