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‘Lost’ album from Jazz’s early supergroup is found

For John Coltrane fans, the 'lost' album is also the second bonanza of the year

Fans of John Coltrane are in for a bonanza for the second time this year. Photo: Alamy
Fans of John Coltrane are in for a bonanza for the second time this year. Photo: Alamy

If you were to look for jazz’s equivalent of a supergroup in the 1960s, you wouldn’t have to look further than the musicians who formed John Coltrane’s quartet in the first few years of that decade. Those were the years (roughly from 1962-65, or till two years before Coltrane died) when the saxophonist, composer and bandleader, along with pianist McCoy Tyner, double bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, recorded 11 albums for the still fledgling record label impulse! Those albums included A Love Supreme, one of the sax virtuoso’s highest-selling studio records and one that is widely acclaimed as his best work. But the list also included the scintillating Live At Birdland, which, despite its title, had only three of the five original tracks on it recorded during live performances at Birdland, New York City’s storied jazz club.

To those 11, you can now add another. Late this June, impulse! released the quartet’s Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album. The album is teeming with stories. First, the bit about it being “lost". Coltrane’s quartet recorded the tracks on the album in a single day on 3 March 1963 in a New Jersey studio. Whether that recording session was aimed at producing an album is not known but this is what happened. The master tape got destroyed and the recordings were forgotten. But Coltrane had made a copy of the source tape he had given, perhaps for safekeeping, to his first wife, Juanita Naima. A few years back, the tape was discovered in the basement of her home, and, with the help of Coltrane’s son Ravi, it has been remastered and released by impulse! as an album.

The other story about the album relates to the first part of its title, believed to have been given by Ravi, himself an accomplished jazz saxophonist and music producer. Legend has it that in a conversation with fellow saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Coltrane once described his style of improvisational music as something that began from the middle and then proceeded to either side, or as moving in “both directions at once"— this inspired Ravi to name the album thus. Then there’s a third little story—or fact, really—that’s part of the album: None other than another legendary saxophonist, Sonny Rollins, has written its liner notes.

The original Both Directions At Once has seven tracks; the deluxe edition has seven more that are really alternative takes on some of the first seven. If you are a Coltrane devotee (which jazz lover isn’t?), you would want the deluxe version, which, incidentally, is also available in the album’s digital format. Those familiar with Coltrane’s catalogue will find some of his warhorses on the “lost" album. The melodic Vilia, based on the Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s operatic song; and Impressions, a jazz standard composed by Coltrane that appears on many of his live recordings. But there’s also Nature Boy, a song originally recorded by singer Nat King Cole; Slow Blues, on which Coltrane’s tenor sax solos reach superlative heights; and One Up, One Down, an uptempo Coltrane composition that also features on his other albums and in live recordings.

At the tail end of his stint with trumpeter Miles Davis in the beginning of the 1960s, Coltrane had already begun demonstrating his own singular style: He was pushing the boundaries of the genre by playing loud and screaming solos and improvising in a manner that many purists of that era were unable to fathom. “Sheets of sound" was how his music was described then. Later, when he formed his band with Tyner, Garrison and Jones, a group that came to be known as the “classic quartet", that style was on display in full bloom. On Both Directions At Once, as on the other 11 albums, the chemistry between the four is strikingly evident. Each musician—whether it is Tyner on his magnificent piano solos, Garrison with his double bass lines that are often delivered with the help of a bow, or Jones and his unconventional drumming—seems to share the same DNA strain as their band-leader.

At 90 minutes, the deluxe version of Both Directions At Once can seem less like a conventionally curated album and more like a freewheeling jam session. That’s because there are several versions or takes of the same composition; and also because the tunes appear to vary in mood—a few of them, such as Vilia, are uplifting, while others are deeply introspective. Yet, and perhaps because the recording session was not edited immediately into an album, it’s one on which one of the genre’s earliest supergroups can be heard in full resplendence. Shortly after it was released last month, Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album sold nearly 100,000 copies (all formats included) and found a spot at No.21 on the billboard charts.

For Coltrane fans, the “lost" album is also the second bonanza of the year. In March, they were treated to The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol.6, live recordings from a tour of Europe in 1960 on which Coltrane played his last gigs with Davis. It was also one on which you could get glimpses of what would come when his sizzling solo career would take off.


The Lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Slow Blues’ by John Coltrane from ‘Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album’

2. ‘Vilia’ by John Coltrane from ‘Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album’

3. ‘A Love Supreme’, the album, by John Coltrane

4. ‘Afro Blue’ by John Coltrane from ‘Live At Birdland’

5. ‘Out Of This World’ by John Coltrane from ‘Coltrane’

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