If Both Directions At Once has sparked huge interest then it is not just because a discovery has been made. Not just another gemstone tape by the innovative saxophonist. It is an album by the ‘Classic Quartet’ – drummer Elvin Jones, double bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner – that fully lives up to its billing.
The ‘lost album’ has become a staple for music industry marketing, especially the legacy department. As is the case with the numerous alternate takes that fill out reissues liberties are sometimes taken on the issue of quality control. Shelved recordings are not necessarily damaged goods, but we’d also be unwise to assume that they are buried treasure. Material can remain unreleased for reasons of qualitative inadequacy as well as desultory, if not shortsighted record company strategy.
However, John Coltrane belongs to the elite troop of artists whose body of work is consistently rewarding. His vast catalogue, which includes the overlooked albums for Prestige in the ‘50s as well as the celebrated work for Atlantic and Impulse! In the years that followed, he was compared to that of most of his peers, a notable surfeit that is largely free of sub-standard entries. Low-key releases such as Black Pearls are worth a dust-free berth in any record collection as well as an undimmed corner of one’s open mind.
If Both Directions At Once has sparked huge interest then it is not just because a discovery has been made. Not just another gemstone tape by the innovative saxophonist. It is an album by the ‘Classic Quartet’ – drummer Elvin Jones, double bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner – that fully lives up to its billing. These musicians formed one of the great ensembles in any genre of music. Towering a figure as Coltrane was he did not cast his accompanists into shadow, to the extent that the pyramidal A Love Supreme is arguably as much their masterwork as it is his.
As if to symbolize the degree of unity in the ranks the stately monochrome sleeve of Both Directions… shows Jones in the foreground, while Coltrane is in the back.
Cut in 1963, four years before Coltrane’s untimely death, it also has the distinction of being an entire studio album rather than a concert. Given the heavy touring schedules of A-list artists of that era, it is, lest we forget, the live session that often provides grist to the modern profit-making mill, especially if attached to a name as iconic as Trane or Miles. The acquisition of every single note played at every single gig in every single city can be akin to the Holy Grail for their most devoted followers. Here the storied studio – Rudy Van Gelder’s handsomely appointed workroom, which became something of a study-cum-laboratory for Coltrane at the height of his experimentation – is part of the appeal of the overall package, not least because that gloriously warm, up-against-your-ear, burn-the-air mix that the master engineer was able to craft presents a potent force like Coltrane’s band in the best possible light.
At the time the quartet had a two-week booking at Birdland and was rehearsing the material for John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, a sumptuous collaboration with the urbane, luminous singer, so this set of 7 tracks was knocked off in a single day.
Which is a reminder of the swift, decisive nature of the praxis of the saxophonist and accompanists. But what really stands out, right from the opening bars of “Untitled Original 11383”, is the familiarity as well as the beauty of the music. The habit of leaving a composition unnamed, with nothing other than a tape reference as an ident – think of “Untitled Original 90320” from Living Space – tells an intriguing story of a musician fully focused on the pursuit of sound rather than its evocation in words, and the net result of harnessing all the individual energies in the ensemble is a panorama of notes and tones that is dazzlingly distinctive. It was honed and refined through the quartet’s absorption and personalization of Gillespie and Parker’s bebop sophistry and the finely spun, wistful weavings of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking modal work.
It became recognized, patented Coltrane vocabulary, though: that piercing, braying burst of the soprano into rousing theme and daredevil improvisation; the hard chime of Tyner’s chording; the kinetic throb of Jones’ drums and Garrison’s double bass.
The percolation of the rhythm section, the relentless probing and embellishing of the snare work on the central pulse and the pneumatic drive of the bass underline the existence of swing as a building block of the music, regardless of its advanced harmonic flights of fancy. Fascinatingly, Jones’ stream of ideas, from the endlessly inventive tidal rolls to the fleet, in-a-flash fills are a proto-funk, a busy, weighty imprint that James Brown’s sticksmen would distill into revolutionary, danceable use a few years down the line. Yet Jones and Garrison are capable of astute restraint, no more so than on a gorgeous reading of ‘Nature Boy’, where Tyner lays out, and the superb quartet becomes a stellar trio. Coltrane produces some of his most affecting solos, breaking up the theme with glancing repeated figures or coiling deconstructions in which his timbre hardens and his volume rises while the underlying mood remains steady in its gravitas. Furthermore, the song again shows the major continuities of the Coltrane oeuvre – its drone foundation being a clear outgrowth of 1960s’s Equinox.
This album is thus a clear, cogent summary of what the ensemble had achieved musically and how its leader operated intellectually at that point in time. Wayne Shorter said “a song is like a person… it grows.” Hence the very act of revisiting previously played melodies, ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘Impressions’ – taken here on tenor rather than soprano – was instrumental to the band’s sturdy march forward, as was the observance of core values such as the blues. It is indeed ‘Slow Blues’ that proves one of the highlights of the repertoire – an impassioned investigation and expansion of an enduring musical formula, an unknown destination from a known point of departure.
John Coltrane, Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!)