Reviewed by Henry Cherry
While much of John Coltrane’s posthumously issued work filters the mysticism of his live performances, those mystic shadows do spread into Both Directions at Once, the newly released studio recording from March 6th 1963. At the time, Coltrane was working out transformative sounds while trying to retain a marketable presence. He wanted to sell more records, but he also wanted to explore the parameters of his band, his horn, and his mind. The two co-led sessions that bookend this album on Coltrane’s studio timeline certify his urge to remain in demand, while live outings like Newport ‘63 and Live in Stockholm 1963 validate his experimental needs.
The immediate predecessor to BDaO, a beatific outing with Duke Ellington from September ‘62 framed Coltrane’s expressionistic curiosity with Ellington’s rarefied compositional depth. The two giants delivered an album saturated with finesse. On March 7th, 1963, the succeeding session to Both Directions at Once, saw the quartet along with Johnny Hartman birth the magisterial John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, a consummate assemblage of balladeer and band. It was also Coltrane’s lone team-up with a vocalist as a solo artist. He needed to mollify critics, like the poet and critic Philip Larkin, to whom Coltrane’s modal system was “metallic and passionless.” With the Ellington and Hartman sides winning back critics, Coltrane was ready to climb back into his own sound.
The past five years have seen an uptick in Coltrane focused media. Six rolls of unseen photographs featuring Coltrane and band making A Love Supreme came to light in 2014. A new documentary, Chasing Trane, arrived in 2017. The San Francisco church dedicated to “Saint” John Coltrane faced eviction and moved to a new location in 2016. Blue Note released a collection of Coltrane working as a sideman. And also in 2014, upstart Resonance Records put out Offering- Live at Temple University, a 1966 performance recorded months before the musician succumbed to liver cancer. That live date highlighted a completely different band than the classic quartet featured on Both Directions at Once. In Offering, Coltrane stares death in the face with a bone-withering performance that is well removed from the exploratory but percolating distillations of March 1963.
Both Directions at Once is a mid-week workday session recorded in late winter featuring drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and Coltrane leading on reeds. Together with Miles Davis’s second quintet they would become the last influential jazz bands to form before the genre was boxed up and placed in the back rooms of record stores. At the time, though, criticisms abounded. To face them, the quartet leaned on each other, and they leaned hard. Coltrane’s marriage was coming apart. Elvin Jones briefly left the band to get treatment for heroin addiction. Tyner was the youngest, starting with Coltrane at 22. Garrison the newest addition, had a burgeoning family. Each of them described the quartet’s output as spiritual, the music of John Coltrane directly connected to god.
Branford Marsalis related a story about Jones, in Ken Burns’s episodic documentary Jazz. A group of younger musicians gathered around the drummer and one asked Jones how the band members remained so uniquely focused. “You gotta be willing to die for the motherfucker,” the drummer told them. Everyone in the room broke up to laughter, everyone, that is, but Jones.
Previous to the quartet, Coltrane assembled a who’s who of accompanists for his recordings and gigs. But with Tyner, Jones and Garrison, along with the wildly gifted reedsman Eric Dolphy, something else happened. They transcended. They burrowed into and back out of Coltrane’s mind. When Dolphy left to pursue his own turn as a leader, Coltrane decided against finding a replacement. Who could replace Dolphy? They’d have to do it on their own. The band remained a quartet over the course of three years. And they stretched those short years into a century of sound, producing 6 albums that marched into the stratosphere.
There has been a rush to both deify Both Directions at Once and to file it among second tier Coltrane albums. In mid July, the Pulitzer Prizes website, Pulitzer.org, streamed the 55 year old recordings. The previous week, Universal Music ran full-page ads announcing the “lost album” in newspapers internationally. The record landed in the top 40 of the Billboard 200, the highest rank of any Coltrane release. Jazz musician Andrew Lamb, a natural descendant to the saxophonist’s spiritual sound and late era freedom, tapped the brakes in an email, stressing that the music of BDaO is a rehearsal recorded for posterity. When prodded, Lamb doubled down, saying it was likely preparation for the Hartman recording the next day, a tune-up.
Nevertheless, the news of unheard John Coltrane music has activated musicians, fans and critics alike. All the members of the band are dead, save for Tyner, who indeed played the music but didn’t recall the session. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s colossal rival on the horn, wrote the liner notes and compared the discovery to that of a new room in the Great Pyramid. The marketing campaign surrounding the release certainly provided the sort of zealotry such a revelation would merit. Lost photos, new music — John Coltrane briefly outranked Kanye West on the Top 40. This new release, then, can also be interpreted as a cultural reprieve during a bleak era, perhaps a rebirth of gauzy, modal, optimism. Ok, it’s just jazz. But it’s new and relevant jazz from a long dead master. Snap your fingers and say yeah!
One block up from De Longpre and ten blocks south on Sunset from where I’m writing this sits United Recording Studio. Coltrane recorded there in September of 1960. Those songs featured the first pairing of Coltrane with pianist Tyner. But by March of 1963, Coltrane’s main studio was Rudy Van Gelder’s vaulted ceilinged room in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, often referred to as the cathedral of jazz. The songs of Both Directions at Once came to life beneath Van Gelder’s 39-foot tall acoustically primed ceiling. And that is where they lived until Coltrane died, when the label people moved them to Los Angeles.
Bearing out Lamb’s take on the music, producer Bob Thiele rarely, if ever, booked Coltrane back-to-back album sessions. In fact, due to Coltrane’s idiosyncratic reputation among label honchos, Thiele usually recorded Coltrane on the sly, mentioning recordings to his bosses only after they were in the bag. Same was true for the music the quartet made on March 6, 1963. With the music recorded by early evening, the band set off for a live date in Manhattan. Van Gelder and Thiele produced a secondary tape for Coltrane to listen to at home. Those reels stayed with his first wife after the couple broke up, remaining with her after Coltrane died. Good thing too, because during an economic squeeze in the 70s, the label trashed all the contents of the warehouse where the BDaO master tapes were stored. Eventually, the guide tapes were recovered after Naima Coltrane died. Universal owned the rights so the head of the jazz division turned them over to Coltrane’s son Ravi and head of jazz development Ken Druker to clean up and create a track sequence.
So much of the beauty found in Both Directions at Once comes from hearing the band take shape and turn toward the sounds that would become A Love Supreme, the pinnacle of Coltrane’s achievement. Recorded less than two years after BDaO, A Love Supreme also signaled an end. The following album, Ascension, finalized Coltrane’s shift to the avant-garde, while expanding the band with several new musicians. By 1965, the classic quartet was finished.
Back in March of 1963, Jones, Tyner, Garrison and their leader tugged and manipulated the exotic sounds percolating in each of them, trying to make that music accessible. Much of Both Directions at Once allows Tyner to stretch out on the piano, again hinting at the preparatory nature of the session, as Tyner’s performance on the Coltrane/Hartman recording would be the dominant instrument. In fact, Coltrane takes just one solo across the course of the entire album.
The Nat King Cole hit, “Nature Boy,” is a standout of Both Directions at Once. But Tyner lays out. In his absence, the song builds on the propulsive interplay of Garrison and Jones, with Coltrane kindling the short but surprising take with slow mournful phrases until he’s charmed into an impassioned blur of modes. In previously released versions, the band focuses on the robust arrangement of Nat King Cole’s version. On BDaO, Coltrane, Garrison and Jones arrive at that same orchestral lushness by way of a commanding deconstruction.
Several takes of Impressions appear throughout. These are the quartet’s only studio takes of the song. Not as exalted as the live performances of the song, theses versions do bear exhilarating witness to the band’s musical precision and their individual ability interpret and expand the song. Truthfully though, the song is most powerful live. Here, as outtakes, it defines the quartet’s regimental allegiance.
Untitled Original 11386
On both renditions of “Untitled Song 11386,” Tyner plays with a devotional frenzy, curving into the phrasing that sets up each of his compatriots, while Coltrane raises in the eaves of the melodic passage, snaking back around Tyner and company, then laying out, only to rise again in the wake of the song. In both takes, the quartet circle Coltrane’s glinting ascent and pass the music back and forth around him as the song ends. If not a masterpiece in conception, these performances display the organic nature of the band and their exceptional ability to resolve the musical conversation.
The fourth song, “Vilia,” is the best known of the bunch, having led a 1965 Impulse! compilation album and the performance was well praised. There are two takes here and both reveal a composed and airy band. The released version shows how adroitly Coltrane passed through the underpinning of the quartet without inhibiting their structure. For the other take of “Vilia,” Coltrane tilts with the soprano, as he does with on the release’s lead off song, “Untitled Original 11383,” that also showcases an arco performance by Garrison that wings into the improvisational poetry of expert technique.
Untitled Original 11383
“Slow Blues” comes at the end of the first disc and features Garrison, Jones and Tyner loping behind a furious Coltrane. Tyner kicks up the tempo as he takes the forefront near the end of the almost 12 minute piece. “Slow Blues” maybe be more masterful than “Nature Boy,” and was likely relegated to the vault because of its lengthiness.
On the second disc, the outtakes advance the quartet’s attentive and bladelike capabilities as they color in different segments of the songs. The impact is educational, but also brings along some head bopping melody.
Jazz critic Gary Giddins noted in his 1998 book, Visions of Jazz, that Coltrane made, “an abrupt detour” with the Ellington and Hartman albums of 62/63. Both Directions at Once indicates that the session work of 62/63 came less as a detour than as an ablution, less sidestep than an exertion. He needed to cleanse himself with Ellington, with Hartman before journeying for the outer bands of sound. If anything, the BDoA songs provide the framework of modal changes that would dominate Coltrane’s sound before he dove headlong into the adrenalized liberty of his last music. These songs are the blocks he stacked together to form the intensity of the forthcoming Crescent and A Love Supreme.
One thing this recording is not is casual. These guys were workers, and they took their vocation seriously. Reaching beyond the musical significance of a new product from a foregone era, the songs also denote the ascent of jazz’s last hurrah before the more marketable music of rock and roll overran everything. Jones wallops, Garrison thumps, Tyner spreads out the mystery all so Coltrane can contemplate a new realm. That new realm might not be totally contained within, but most of its pieces are. So, if this is a rehearsal tape, what a rehearsal it is. As, McCoy Tyner told an interviewer in 2003, “We were giving everything we had, and you never knew what would happen. There was no time for ego.” You can almost hear the rivulets of sweat forming on their brows.
Hank Cherry is a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. His work has appeared in Huck, PBS, Newsweek, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website- www.henrycherry.com