The Lost John Coltrane Album, and Ponderings on Jazz
In a genre as fiercely independent-minded as jazz can be, one of the few universally held truths is the greatness of John Coltrane. While his “A Love Supreme” is often discussed as the greatest of jazz albums, newly released material by Coltrane and his band from earlier in his career has emerged.
In the years leading up to “A Love Supreme,” his explosive 1965 magnum opus, Coltrane produced eight albums for Impulse! Records featuring the members of his so-called classic quartet — the bassist Jimmy Garrison, the drummer Elvin Jones and the pianist McCoy Tyner — but only two of those, “Coltrane” and “Crescent,” were earnest studio efforts aimed at distilling the band’s live ethic.
But now that story needs a major footnote.
On Friday, Impulse! will announce the June 29 release of “Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album,” a full set of material recorded by the quartet on a single day in March 1963, then eventually stashed away and lost. The family of Coltrane’s first wife, Juanita Naima Coltrane, recently discovered his personal copy of the recordings, which she had saved, and brought it to the label’s attention.
There are seven tunes on this collection, a well-hewed mix that clearly suggests Coltrane had his sights on creating a full album that day. From the sound of it, this would have been an important one.
““In 1963, all these musicians are reaching some of the heights of their musical powers,” said the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane’s son, who helped prepare “Both Directions at Once” for release. “On this record, you do get a sense of John with one foot in the past and one foot headed toward his future.”
hat’s true — though as Mr. Coltrane was careful to point out, his father always lived in a state of transition. The poet and critic Amiri Baraka wrote in 1963 that Coltrane’s career was one of simultaneous “changes, resolutions and transmutations.” As the public came to depend on the grounding wisdom of his saxophone sound in the late 1950s and ’60s, Coltrane kept shifting and expanding it.
By the time he signed with Impulse! in 1961, he had mostly left behind the swift harmonic movement of his earlier work. He was resolutely exploring other elements: drones influenced by North African and Indian music; unbounded and jagged melodic phrasing. One of Coltrane’s earliest biographers, C.O. Simpkins, described the quartet’s shows in these years — with Mr. Jones lighting fires and Mr. Tyner splashing them with multihued harmonies — as a kind of euphoric cleanse. The quartet, he wrote, “would beat the unclean air until it begged for mercy.”
— Chris ? (@MixingChris) June 8, 2018
I am not an expert on jazz at all, but I do enjoy it. Our friend Saul has lamented the dire straits Jazz finds itself in. For my own part as someone who wasn’t raised with that kind of music, learning to appreciate it came only after understanding that improvisational heavy jazz cannot be listened to like pop, rock, or even hip-hop. Stumbling into Jim Cullum’s jazz club, The Landing, in San Antonio years ago and actually sitting through live music of that type changed my appreciation for it. In a small atmosphere with jazz played live by masters of the form, you are mindful of the interactions of the musicians almost as much as you are listening to the sounds. The chaos of the noise, at least to my untrained ear, made much more sense watching it being produced live. It slowed it down, seemed more formed, and gave a bit of structure that a recording on its own couldn’t.
To use a poor example, it was rather like walking into a factory, where you are initially overwhelmed by the chaos and cacophony of the production. But after a bit it slows down, and you notice the small things becoming larger things, the clicking together of individual pieces to make a new sum of those parts. The blast of noise of the whole becomes background to the small sounds of the individual processes. Dozens if not hundreds of things happening both separately and conjoined. The final product emerging from the crucible of creation, something almost unimaginable when viewed as a raw material. Then, and only then, can you appreciate the whole thing in retrospect.
So in listening to something like these lost Coltrane recordings I am doing the same in my mind, envisioning a craftsman making something, telling a story in a way that it is ok to not fully understand until the end when he is finished. “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere” John Coltrane was quoted as saying. I may not fully appreciate the sounds that his shoestring makes, but I admire the mastery it takes to play it, and the creativity to realize you can play it at all.
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