A Trove Supreme: On John Coltrane’s Lost Album, Both Directions at Once

Jordan Pedersen writes his impressions (pun intended) on the Coltrane album, released fifty-five years after its recording.
By    October 2, 2018

Allow him to reintroduce himself, his name is Jordan Pedersen.

Before he ascended to interstellar space, even before modal jazz * had become one of his favorite things, John Coltrane, the man with the saxophone that could rend universes with a single run, simply made beautiful music.

By 1966, Coltrane was deep into his Ornette Coleman-inspired free jazz period. But don’t forget that just three years earlier he still had time to put out a live set of Tin Pan Alley standards with singer Johnny Hartman. On his studio albums, he was determined to break barriers and embody the shape of jazz to come. But listen to the delicate playing on “You Are Too Beautiful” and tell me Mr. Coltrane didn’t love a pretty song.

Both Directions at Once comes from a session Trane cut the same year with his classic quartet – Jimmy Garrison on double bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and McCoy Tyner on piano. Coltrane’s record company destroyed the tapes to save space, and the session was believed to be lost for decades. But Coltrane gave a copy to his then-wife Juanita Naima, and Coltrane’s producer – the legendary Rudy Van Gelder – made another copy for Trane himself to listen to. Coltrane’s record label intervened when the auction house Guersny’s announced plans to sell the tapes in 2005, and his son Ravi and producer Ken Druker helped assemble the tracks into an album.

“John Coltrane was the leading voice in balancing both the previous generation — coming from Miles Davis’s band — and also leading the way for some of the new school and the freer-thinking players,” NPR’s Christian McBride said earlier this year. Both Directions at Once. It’s right there in the name.

You can hear him trying out the untethered melodic soul searching he would perfect on A Love Supreme on the two untitled cuts. “Villa,” on the other hand, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Vince Guaraldi record. And “Slow Blues” finds both directions meeting in the middle: the song finds Coltrane by turns dancing around Jones’ delicate drumming, and then being seized by a trademark squawking Coltrane fit. Tyner waits until minute six to swoop in and knit the two halves together with his soulful, acrobatic keys.

But the track that might sum up the project is Coltrane’s take on “Nature Boy” – woo – a standard made famous by Nat King Cole but composed by eden ahbez, a hirsute sandal-wearing itinerant mystic who claimed to live on three dollars a week. ** Cole’s original, with its fluttering flutes and swooning orchestra, evinces all the polite sophistication that characterized his career. Coltrane’s version is brutalist, with a few nods to the recognizable melody line before it wanders into the forest.

It’s more in keeping with the ahbez’s lyrics anyway: The titular boy wanders very far over land and sea and speaks of fools and kings. In the end though, his credo is simple: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

Over the coming years, Coltrane would help lead jazz to its next frontier, and by 1967 he’d be dead in a Long Island Hospital, a victim of liver cancer. He would leave behind, among a career rife with classics, A Love Supreme, perhaps the greatest expression of peace and gratitude in the history of popular music. For all its compositional complexity, Coltrane’s greatest work is simple: love and be loved in return.

* Without getting too jazzbo about it, modal jazz is distinguished by a freer sound that allows the musicians to solo off of a mode – a type of scale – rather than a simple chord progression.

** And to make things even weirder, an Eastern European Jewish named Herman Yablokuff sued ahbez, claiming he ripped off the melody from his song “Shvayg mayn harts (Be Still, My Heart).” He won the suit.

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