Does the “Lost” Coltrane Album Live Up to The Hype?

(Mr. Lui's new Rega P3 has yet arrive following the family's west coast move so he was allowed to review the deluxe CD edition—Ed.)

One of the events covered most by the music press in the last few months has been that a “lost” John Coltrane album has been found and finally released. The original session tape vanished when Impulse moved from New York City to Los Angeles, the label having dumped many tapes of unreleased material in the process. The music was thought to be lost forever, but the family of Trane’s first wife, Naima, found the “take home” session copy in 2004. The story of its discovery is sure to captivate many fans, making it the perfect marketing tool for this new archival release.

Coltrane, at the time of this March 6, 1963 session, was clearly in the midst of a musical transition. While this release suggests that the band was evolving to a freer style, the album John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman recorded the next day features slower, more melodic sax playing with bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones sounding as if they were just “phoning it in.”

On that record (Coltrane’s only recorded collaboration with a vocalist), it feels as if pianist McCoy Tyner is serving as the group’s main backbone. The previous year’s collaboration with Duke Ellington showed Coltrane and Ellington challenging each other, but not yet pushing their limits. 1962’s Coltrane is most similar to this new release as it points to certain future explorations. When listening to all this material, one thing is for sure: Coltrane’s many styles on these albums show that he wasn't sure in which direction he ultimately wanted to go. While it's great to finally hear these recordings, at the end of the day, they aren't significant or important. They simply exist. That’s it.

“Untitled Original 11383” is arguably the highlight of the album. It begins with chatter between Coltrane and producer Bob Thiele; Thiele announcing the beginning of the take, Trane confirming that the song was an original. An energetic soprano number, “11383” features solos from Coltrane, Tyner, and Garrison. This composition makes for essential listening - ear candy for those who enjoy the “classic quartet’s” later, freer work.

The cover of Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy,” famously sung by Nat “King” Cole, has an innovative bass line and is in a different key than the rendition on The John Coltrane Quartet Plays. While the performance on Both Directions At Once is entertaining, it is nothing really special.

Another soprano piece, “Untitled Original 11386” is an album highlight. The standard edition includes only this first take while the deluxe edition adds takes 2 and 5. It's great to finally hear this song after all these years, and like “11383,” it's an essential listen for fans of the group’s later work. Next on the standard edition comes take 3 of “Vilia.” Take 5 of “Vilia” is on the deluxe edition’s second disc, but in my opinion there are no major differences between takes (take 5 had previously been released on the Live At Birdland CD).

There are four takes of “Impressions” on the deluxe edition. The significance of the differences between them really depends upon the listener. The variations might be important to fans that set up a quadraphonic system to listen to each take in a different channel because none of the takes sync up and you might as well be listening to Ascension at that point. But for a normal, sensible human being who is not academically studying this material, the differences are hardly noticeable. Take 2 is the least energetic of the bunch. THE other takes sound almost identical. While the solos are different among the takes, there aren't any glaring changes in tempo, rhythm, or the song’s general sound. “Slow Blues” is just what it says it is; a slow blues that lasts for 11 minutes. Nothing more, nothing less.

Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison, and Jones each get a solo opportunity on “One Up, One Down.” While this is a great demonstration of their individual talents, other quartet recordings such as A Love Supreme and 1962’s Coltrane better demonstrate this. Yes, this album demonstrates the chemistry between the members of the band, but it is displayed in a stronger fashion on their other albums. This isn’t a bad album, but it's not as exceptionally good as many are making it out to be. I have not stumbled upon John Coltrane material that I would consider to be truly awful, but neither is all of it amazing.

The release of this new material might be great news for Coltrane historians, scholars, and completists. But hiding behind all the hype and expensive advertising is the fact that this album is just okay. It was recorded during the time that the quartet had a residency at Birdland, and the music was shelved in favor of releasing the Johnny Hartman collaboration. That had the (unrealized) potential to bring commercial success, plus there really isn't anything special about this newly-released session. I have a feeling that if it was released shortly after it was recorded, it would not have become as highly regarded as A Love Supreme, Ascension, Blue Train, or even the 1962 self-titled Impulse album. Instead, it would have been lost in the sands of time, forgotten and not to be mentioned often á la Crescent or Kulu Sé Mama.

Because of this, Both Directions At Once feels like a cash grab that Impulse happened to release at the perfect time. These recordings are nice to hear if you want to continue piecing together Trane’s full musical evolution, but why didn't they release this 14 years ago when the tape was found? Do we need to hear the bonus alternate takes on disc 2 that are almost the same as the takes on disc 1? This is decent material, but it feels like Coltrane’s label and estate are just scraping the bottom of the barrel for releases at this point. 2015’s deluxe edition of A Love Supreme only contained nine unheard tracks including alternate takes and false starts, but did we really need to hear the “mono reference tapes” for the second side (which was essentially a fold-down with more tape hiss)? This release is in the same vein as that; nice to have, but unnecessary.

The sound of this release is of the same quality as the music itself. Not bad, not amazing, but good. There are minor tape dropouts, which is to be expected from a 55-year-old tape. If you enjoyed the sound of other recent Coltrane releases put out by Universal, you will love the mastering on this. However, compared to audiophile-targeted reissues of other Van Gelder-recorded material, this just sounds average.

(Note: To be more exact, I would have given the music a score of 7.6/11. However, I don’t like this album enough to round the score up to an 8).

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COMMENTS
cgh's picture

Awesome write-up! Keep 'um coming.

I think for this album we need a third wheel, something like "didactic(ness)", or something similar, for which this album was a 9 or 10. This album was recorded just before A Love Supreme, as you mention. He was facing criticism over his "sheets of sound", which critics felt diluted the accomplished rhythm sections that backed him. Also, his favorite mouthpiece broke before this recording session. Finally, he had to record another album with Hartman the very next day. Maybe a combination of all these factors led to to the drums and bass being much more prominent, the sound more chordal (no doubt also due to Tyner being less prone to filling out the chordal structures), and less modal / motivic, as compared to the classic "Coltrane sound". The takes are instructive and provide insight not only into the technical issues JC had that day, but also his thinking about how to incorporate his sound. The title is a reference to a conversation he with someone akaik, about conversations flowing forward and backwards. Musically he was trying to express this on the spectrum bridging those before him and the futuristic sound of his modal improvisation that was to come. This album is a great insight into a great and evolving musical mind.

hans altena's picture

Yes maybe we lovers of Coltrane are a bit swept away by this find of unheard recordings, yet this laconic view of Malachi does not alter my enthousiasm for this new album. The moment I read how Nature Boy did not affect Malachi I knew he was not into this kind of music. Maybe he regards the period of Free jazz for Coltrane as the ultimate, but I just think that the period of 58 until 64 was his peek, and in that realm the music on Both Directions is primal stuff, very riveting. Slow Blues is for me one of the deepest solo's Coltrane made, it could have featured on Love Supreme. And the concise version of Impressions here beats for me all the meandering live blowing sessions, as intense as they are, they lack the vision displayed on this strange day. I count Coltrane 62 and Crescent as his best records together with the masterpieces Giant Steps, Olé and Love Supreme and Both Directions belongs in that row, just as maybe My Favourite Things and Blue Train. And the sound? A refreshing Mono, with just a bit missing in the Van Gelder magic, so music 9 and sound 8,5 yes in my opinion. The best Jazz record of this year together with Charles Lloyd...

firedog's picture

I think the hype about this record was about it’s existence, not the music. Anyone who read more than the headlines understood that this wasn’t a fully realized album, but session tapes.
Even so, the music is good. It reveals a bit about how the quartet was evolving in this period from which we didn’t previously have studio sessions where the quartet is playing what it wants to, and not what the label wants for commercial reasons.
So no, it isn’t one of the great albums. But it’s a good one, and a nice addition for serious fans of Coltrane.

Jim Tavegia's picture

The sound is bad to me considering the time of the recording and should have been much better. IMHO. The work is still important, like a writer in a draft...a work in progress.

hans altena's picture

I agree to some degree about the sound, yet, it is a reference tape, so there's not much to expect... still I like it to be Mono, and it has an honest, not fiddled with feel... and indeed it is important as witness to what the quartet was really about in that period, although the trio of subdued albums: Ballads and those with Duke and Hartman have an ethereal beauty not found anywhere else in his catalogue on Impulse.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I record for our local schools and college, and private individuals, but I will never record something "just to roll tape". That time, that one time only comes around once and something magical might happen and I don't like "dang" moments when it could be recorded the right way with just a little more effort. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right. IMHO.

I always do 2496 just in case magic happens. I have not heard much better from 24192, but I will buy a Tascam DA3000 this year and start also running DSD for the best I could do.

tatifan's picture

I'm not sure (pardon if I misunderstand) you understand why the sound is the way it is. This is quoted from the article "The original session tape vanished when Impulse moved from New York City to Los Angeles, the label having dumped many tapes of unreleased material in the process. The music was thought to be lost forever, but the family of Trane’s first wife, Naima, found the “take home” session copy in 2004"

So the original tape, which would have much better sound, does not exist. It wasn't recorded "just to roll tape" in an ad hoc manner, it simply exists in a copy which doesn't represent the original quality. Similar thing in the Artur Rubinstein Carnegie Hall 1961 items which were only released a few years ago from quick and dirty copies made for Rubinstein's son....RCA lost the originals. History can be cruel!

shawnwes's picture

"the album John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman recorded the next day features slower, more melodic sax playing with bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones sounding as if they were just “phoning it in.”"

Beautiful album. Full stop.

Michael Fremer's picture
But there's no "right" or "wrong". Just opinions.
vmartell's picture

The problem I see is that the statement "Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones sounding as if they were just phoning it in.” needs to be explained and supported. Otherwise is a phrase coined for its shock value with nothing to add to the review. In a review, every statement and asseveration needs to be supported by solid thought that needs to be clearly laid out. Otherwise all reviews will be like Robert Christgau reviews - snippets of clever writing with little relation to the music he is supposed to be writing about...

Merv Smitty's picture

So Fremer is just like Apple. He uses young Asian kids as cheap labour!

NotAgain's picture

Yup ... Frem's definitely bottom-feedin' for content.
His boss (JA) spills no ink on AP. He ain't into anal-log.
Back in 2003, Atkinson made Apple iPod Editor's Choice Product of Year.
Atkinson and Apple ... digital AF.

Michael Fremer's picture
This young man is a good writer and his opinion of the record is shared by many older jazz fans (many in the business, many considered "experts") who shared that with me in private emails. Calling me "bottom feeding" for content is pathetic. JA doesn't write for AnalogPlanet because he doesn't write for AnalogPlanet. Period. I think making the iPod Product of the Year was a smart call for obvious reasons.
John Atkinson's picture
Michael Fremer wrote:
JA doesn't write for AnalogPlanet because he doesn't write for AnalogPlanet. Period.

Tru dat. I have my own outlet for my musings at Stereophile. And for the record, I am not Mikey's "boss." We are colleagues, reporting to the same senior manager at AVTech.

Michael Fremer wrote:
I think making the iPod Product of the Year was a smart call for obvious reasons.

What he said. And I enjoyed Malachi's Coltrane review. Kid's got what it takes...as well as major cojones to use the phrase "phoned it in."

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Merv Smitty's picture

Before anyone gets angry, my preceding comment was just a joke. I'm just messing with Fremer!

MicallefK's picture

To write that Garrison and Jones "phoned it in" invalidates everything in this review and confirms the writer's utter lack of insight or knowledge of jazz and jazz history. Stick with rock n roll, kid.

Wimbo's picture

Compared to you,he's a kid? And you have given him your permission to review Rock and Roll have you mate? People have different views mate, just like me.

MicallefK's picture

...are fine, mate. Uninformed opinions are called out. Jones and Garrison never "phoned it in." You disagree? Take it up with John Coltrane, mate.

Merv Smitty's picture

The kid should stick to Rock and Bose gear.

Michael Fremer's picture
Everyone "phones it in" at one time or another. Don't be silly.
Merv Smitty's picture

We all know you have "phoned in" a few reviews!

NotAgain's picture

Any umpteenth review of KoB, Coltrane, Dark Side of the Moon, etc. (ad nauseam!!!!!!) is PII.

Change a few adjectives, switcheroo sentences...slicker-n'-snot.

Michael Fremer's picture
You are comparing a RECORD often reviewed with an ARTIST? So you think all Coltrane records are the same?
Michael Fremer's picture
Kind of defensive Ken/Mose. How could one quip "totally" invalidate a review? How can that "confirm the writer's utter lack of insight or knowledge of jazz and jazz history"? I think the review confirms the opposite, even if you disagree with that particular assertion about one session. Advising him to "stick with rock n roll" is condescending. I'm surprised.
vinyl listener's picture

nt

volvic's picture

Heard it for the second time on Friday while I was working. I am glad it was found, there are moments that make me very happy. Reading the kid’s review, I couldn’t help but think this could have been written by someone much older, I like the writing and hope he contributes more. I don’t have to agree with him on everything and I don’t much like I don’t agree with some of JVS’ reviews, but I am glad he continues to review and thoroughly respect his opinions. I hope Malachi continues to review on these pages and look forward to his growth as a reviewer.

randybass's picture

Enjoyed the review though I have a difference of opinion of the quality and importance of The Lost Album. (It's the Train Quartet after all whose worst performance rivals most any band's best)

Something that struck me was a reference to the Crescent album as forgotten and unmentioned. Not my experience, but if true that would be a great shame. I regard Crescent as Coltrane's most beautiful, resolving, and profound recording. I realize there's a lot of music to consume but I'd invite the author to spend a couple of days listening intently to nothing except Crescent. I promise it will be worth it.

hans altena's picture

Right! Albums like Crescent, indeed a masterpiece as I said already, maybe even the most beautiful one Coltrane made, need time to get into, they are not in your face like A Love Supreme, they lurk in shady backgrounds, have to be found out, the intricate playing not depending on fireworks, some might say, it looks like they are phoning it in (joking here, let's give Malachi room to grow as a critic, he writes well!), until you explore the depth of ideas. Anyway, it is funy that in this review Both Directions is classified somewhere in the class of Crescent... that may be too much praise, yet it is accurate.

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