Album Review: John Coltrane - Both Directions at Once (The Lost Album)

How does one lose an album?

In some cases, a ‘lost’ album, or ‘lost’ recordings aren’t really lost at all—the artist themselves may opt, at any point, to shelve material originally intended to be released onto the public—both Prince and Ryan Adams come to mind almost immediately as figures who did/do this with some regularity.

In other cases, the album falls into some kind of woe with the record label—whether its turned in and deemed ‘unreleaseable’ at the time, or if there’s some kind of legal issues that cause it to be shelved indefinitely.

How does one ‘lose’ an album by an artist like John Coltrane?

Unearthed after 55 years, Both Directions at Once, is, indeed, a ‘lost’ Coltrane album—conceived as a seven-song effort, the material included was committed to tape when Coltrane was still signed to Impulse Records—recording with the label for the last six years of his life, he would often book studio time and built an output of material that the label could barely keep up with in releasing. Both Directions at Once was recorded in a one-day session on March 6th, 1963, with players considered to be Coltrane’s ‘classic quartet.’

Recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey, the master tapes went into storage at Impulse Records in 1967, following Coltrane’s death—eventually being destroyed during a downsizing at Impulse; however, Van Gelder made copies of every session for Coltrane to take with him and listen to at home—with these sessions in particular, Coltrane gave the tapes to his first wife, Juanita Naima.

Arriving 51 years after Coltrane’s passing from liver cancer, Both Directions at Once was compiled by Ravi Coltrane and jazz producer and music executive Ken Druker, and the album is available in two editions: the standard edition, comprised of the seven song album as Coltrane conceived it, and the deluxe edition, which includes a second collection of additional takes from the March 6th, 1963 recording session.

One should, by all accounts, approach a ‘lost’ album with caution. I mean, is there a reason it was lost in the first place? Last year, when Warner Brothers reissued the Purple Rain soundtrack, tacking on a second disc of previously unreleased (though heavily bootlegged) material, there becomes a point where, as you are listening, you understand why something was shelved in the first place.

However, that is not the case with Both Directions at Once—or, at least, not the standard edition of the album; the deluxe edition may be a little much for the passing fan, or for someone who doesn’t really need to hear the possible subtleties between three additional takes of the song “Impressions.” Either way, Both Directions is an exciting record to hear, and even after 55 years of being housed on reel-to-reel tapes, unheard by the world at large, this material is still brimming with a surprisingly blistering urgency.

Recorded roughly a year before his opus, A Love Supreme, Both Directions at Once finds Coltrane and his band—Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums—operating with a similar level of exuberance and passion for the material, though these songs are relatively short and self-contained, so they are a far cry from the utter focus and otherworldliness of A Love Supreme’s transcendental statement.

Comprised of two covers or interpretations, the rest of Both Directions are Coltrane originals—two of which remained untitled at the time of recording; and it’s those originals that find the band at their most playful, and are the most memorable material. Yes, jazz music may be having a ‘moment’ right now thanks in part to the uncompromising music being made by auteur Kamasi Washington, as well as ‘nu jazz’ players like Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin—though the music these artists make is a far cry from the ‘classic’ jazz sound from the formative years for the genre—specifically, the 1960s. So it is both quaint, and nostalgic, rather, as well as comforting, to be listening to a new album of old recordings from a legacy artist like John Coltrane.

 On the standard edition of the album, both untitled originals “11,383” and “11,386” are among the early standouts—rollicking and jaunty, they both are structured around clear and infectious musical ideas, or themes, while still leaving room for straying, improvisation, and solos for each player. The covers, “Nature Boy,” and “Vilia,” leave less room for that spirit, though “Vilia,” a reinterpretation of “Vilija Song” from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, is fast in its tempo, and arrives sounding almost unsettlingly familiar.

The album’s second side begins with the third take of “Impressions” (there are four total on the collection) and of all the material Both Directions presents, it’s the only piece that people have previous heard—Coltrane played it live a number of times, and recorded a live version of it in 1961, and included that on an album titled Impressions, released shortly after the Both Directions studio sessions. The album’s second side also contains some of its most sprawling music—“Slow Blues” unravels over 11 minutes, and the album’s final track, “One Up, One Down,” is eight minutes.

The deluxe, or expanded edition, of Both Direction at Once is truly for the Coltrane aficionado, or, at the very least, listeners who believes themselves to very well versed in jazz music. An additional seven tracks, the second LP is pure ephemera—including three additional takes at “Impressions,” two additional takes at the untitled track “11,386,” and then later attempts at both “One Up, One Down,” and “Vilia.”

The inclusion of this bonus material neither adds nor subtracts from the proper album—listening to it immediately after finishing the first LP is, however, not recommended, because as it unfolds, hearing three extra takes of “Impressions,” all sequenced in a row, may both begin to grow a little monotonous, as well as create some confusion after having heard the version of the song included within the album’s track list. In the case of “Impressions,” however, you can pick up on some of the subtle differences from take to take, and it becomes a little easier to listen for that fine line of when the band is hitting its stride, or when they may be burning out on playing the same piece—the final take of “Impressions” (take four) clips along exponentially faster than the other three, including the one selected for the proper album. You can also hear minor things like if the band seems to be playing with slightly more reserve on one take in comparison to another, which is something that seems to come across when you compare versions of the untitled track “11,386”—notably in take five, they slow it down quite a bit.

But for more miniscule take for take comparisons, you’d need to create a playlist, sequencing everything in order by song, and really listen carefully.

For an album recorded in the 1960s, and left on a reel to reel tape for many, many years, the quality of Both Directions at Once is remarkable—you do hear some tape imperfections here and there, especially if you are listening with a set of headphones, but in the modern landscape of very slick sounding records, the quaintness of an imperfect medium is refreshing in a sense. Because these songs were record in one take each, with the band performing together, and with the original masters gone forever, there’s really no way to ‘remaster’ how the album sounds, or to rebalance the levels between instruments. The mix, originally done by Van Gelder, leans very heavily on Coltrane (of course), as the piano and drums fight it out for second place, with the upright bass holding things down just underneath everything else.

A ‘lost album’ by a legacy artist who passed away over 50 years ago isn’t out to win Coltrane any new listeners, however, it does get his name back out in the mainstream with a ‘new album’ even if it is old material. A handful of years removed from his most accessible, Blue Train, and arriving a mere two years before his masterful, game changing A Love Supreme, the music recorded for Both Directions at Once—it can be fun and rollicking, but also dense and brainy; it finds Coltrane, literally, moving in both directions—away from his most listener friendly and casual, and slowly toward the high concept and challenging.

Both Directions at Once is out now as both standard and deluxe editions, via Impulse/Verve. Please note the vinyl does not come with an mp3 download option.