John Coltrane's missing link

August 6, 2018

 

After a long hiatus, John Coltrane is back on the jazz charts with a new album called Both Directions At Once (Impulse!). This exciting and previously unheard set of recordings will go down in jazz history as what I characterize as the missing link. It’s like dis-

covering J.R.R. Tolkien wrote another book in the Lord of the Rings series that's meant to fit between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. It’s the musical link of what had come before in Coltrane’s growth and where he and his band mates were going. The tracks on this album were done before Crescent and A Love Supreme, two of the group’s seminal discs years later.

Wayne Shorter, who once described Coltrane’s music as starting in the middle and going off in two directions, named the album. It was recorded on March 6, 1963, the day before the timeless album  John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse!) was recorded in the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey. This newly discovered tape of recordings, that once sat in a dresser drawer for years, reveals a band coming into its own as a relaxed and often powerful unit featuring McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Elvin Jones (drums), one of the finest rhythm sections to ever back Coltrane. With this new release we get to hear the group merge into a solid, unified band, and they sound confident and focused.


The story of this album should be a lesson in archiving best practices since the original tapes were lost in the mid-seventies. At the time, the parent company ABC/Paramount needed storage space, which was at a premium. Some fool tossed the originals to make space for something new, quite possibly a pop recording which was probably making money. But in 1963 Rudy Van Gelder, one of the top recording engineers in jazz history, captured the band on a couple of reels of tape. When the session was finished the trusted engineer handed Coltrane a copy of the tracks for his own use, presumably to play back at home. But the tape was misplaced until 2005 when some of Coltrane’s artifacts were about to be auctioned. The tape he was handed some 40 years earlier turned up in that auction and sequestered by the parent label, Impulse!. (In his extensive analysis, Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter puts this release into its proper perspective.) That said, if the world heard it upon release some 55 years ago, I’m certain fans would agree that this “album” has some great music on it. 

 

The record opens with “Untitled Original 11383,” which is absolutely striking in its execution.

On this F-minor blues, Coltrane was interested in composing straightforward, bebop-inspired licks with open-ended chord changes. This track has a simple structure and the band seems willing to free itself from the core of the tune, while improvising within its musical context. I would say the same for the gorgeous “Untitled Original 11386,” but the melody is much more intact, quite possibly because Coltrane may not have written it, as Porter suggests. Nevertheless the band probably rehearsed the untitled opening tune a couple of times before rolling tape. It’s a majestic, up-tempo piece that I would rate as just as good as anything else in the quartet’s discography.

I was quite taken by the many rehearsal takes of Coltrane’s famous composition “Impressions.” On the deluxe version of the album, we hear four takes, each with an interesting variation. Take 3, for instance, features Coltrane playing without his trusted piano player McCoy Tyner, thus creating a freely interpreted trio version, that not only opens up more musical possibilities to my ear, but sharpens the main theme and the rhythm section’s ability to go with Coltrane’s tempo. Up until now, fans didn’t know of these studio takes, only the first-rate performance version on Impressions  recorded two years earlier at the Village Vanguard. It’s interesting to hear Coltrane retrace his musical steps in this manner. Clearly he was looking back at what the band had accomplished and, like a painter, he wanted to add more colours to his composition. It was understood that the band would continue to play the tune in performance as a part of their set. In fact, about a dozen performances exist, in various forms, up to 1965 with the band really stretching itself over time. 

Looking forward, the band’s exhilarating performance on take 1 of “One Up, One Down” really pushes the limits of the whole group. Jones is driving the bus on this song and his powerful trades with Coltrane on tenor sax, then breaking into a bass solo by Jimmy Garrison, shows why this quartet sounded so good. In contrast, it is nice to hear a brief take of the ballad “Nature Boy.” Coltrane could easily melt your heart with a ballad, and although nobody takes a solo, this 3:25 version has all the ingredients that made Coltrane’s slow tunes so beautiful. He recorded several more adventurous versions again in 1965 with a second bass player, Art Davis. 

On July 17, 1967, two years after the quartet broke up, John Coltrane died. At the time of his passing, he was described as a “work in progress.” With the release of this important album, music fans now have a better understanding of the progress of his work. First published on Critics At Large, July 11,2018.

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