The Fascination in John Coltrane’s ‘Lost’ Album Lies in its Incompleteness

Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record

‘Lost’, or previously unheard, albums by the great saxophonist John Coltrane show up relatively often. In 2005, a set recorded by the John Coltrane Quartet at a downtown Manhattan jazz club in 1965 was released as Live at the Half Note: One Down, One Up; in 2014 one of Coltrane’s final concert performances was served up as Offering: Live At Temple University; and in 2015 a definitive reissue of his masterwork A Love Supreme incorporated a rarely heard live performance alongside a bunch of previously unreleased studio outtakes. Such albums are invariably released to tremendous fanfare, only for Coltrane obsessives to claim on internet jazz forums that they are hearing nothing new – this supposedly ‘new’ Coltrane has, in fact, been circulating for years in various unofficial versions of dubious legal provenance.

But Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album (2018) is different. Freshly released last week on Impulse! Records, the set makes available nearly 90 minutes’s worth of hitherto unheard music recorded by the John Coltrane Quartet on 6 March 1963 at the Englewood Cliffs studio in New Jersey. Englewood Cliffs, owned by the legendary record engineer Rudy Van Gelder, was where Coltrane recorded a string of albums that have proved central to the development of modern jazz: Africa/Brass (1961), A Love Supreme (1965) and Ascension (1966), and his quartet in 1963 included McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums), a meeting of profound musical minds and a group of unparalleled visceral force and enduring influence. Little wonder jazz fans have been salivating at the prospect.

John Coltrane with McCoy Tyner, Van Gelder Studios, New Jersey, 1963. Courtesy: Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC; photograph: Joe Alper

John Coltrane with McCoy Tyner, Van Gelder Studios, New Jersey, 1963. Courtesy: Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC; photograph: Joe Alper

John Coltrane with McCoy Tyner, Van Gelder Studios, New Jersey, 1963. Courtesy: Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC; photograph: Joe Alper

The release borrows its title from remarks Coltrane made to his fellow saxophonist Wayne Shorter (who would effectively succeed Coltrane inside a new incarnation of the Miles Davis Quintet). At this point, he inferred, his career was looking ‘in both directions at once’ – much had already been achieved but, ever restless, he was wise to the radical turns his music was about to take. At the Half Note in 1965 we witness him pushing the forms of ‘Afro Blue’ and ‘My Favourite Things’, two longstanding pieces in his repertoire, until their frames buckle; a year later, at Temple University in Philadelphia, we hear Coltrane transcend the saxophone itself mid-solo, creating sound by beating his chest and vocalizing a brutally intense guttural yodel.

Both Directions At Once can’t boast anything quite so striking or unforeseen; Coltrane keeps his saxophone in his mouth throughout and never breaks the fourth wall. Even Ravi Coltrane, Coltrane’s son who helped prepare the record for release, describes it as ‘a kicking-the-tires kind of session’, and some have noised about the necessity of releasing this music. Derek Walmsley, editor of The Wire magazine, tweeted: ‘It is always wonderful to hear new recordings by the great quartet. But it is more of a session than an album; and much of it is familiar if you already love Coltrane.’ Others, too, have questioned whether the jazz critic and author Ashley Kahn might have got carried away with claims, in his booklet note, that the tracks add up to a bona fide album.

John Coltrane, 1964. Courtesy: © Chuck Stewart Photography LLC; photograph: Chuck Stewart

John Coltrane, 1964. Courtesy: © Chuck Stewart Photography LLC; photograph: Chuck Stewart

John Coltrane, 1964. Courtesy: © Chuck Stewart Photography LLC; photograph: Chuck Stewart

But such complaints miss the point. No one would wish away a newly discovered sketch by Leonardo da Vinci because it didn’t aspire to the philosophical splendour of Vitruvian Man. If music by such a transformational artist as Coltrane is out there then it should be made available; and better to do it properly than have the material passed between private collectors in grubby brown envelopes. And then it’s up to us to figure where this new discovery sits within the totality of the Coltrane discography.

Coltrane’s interest in ‘Vilia’ from Franz Lehár’s 1905 operetta The Merry Widow, a contender for the corniest song ever written, might seem unlikely, but the song makes a memorable appearance as a bonus track on the reissue of Coltrane’s 1964 album Live At Birdland and, in March 1963, the quartet deliver an utterly gorgeous performance square in the tenor saxophone mid-tempo ballad tradition of Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster: Coltrane imbues Lehar’s theme with a soulful wink as he overhauls each note and phrase, claiming its melodic contours as his own.

John Coltrane, Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album, 2018, album cover. Courtesy: Impulse!

John Coltrane, Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album, 2018, album cover. Courtesy: Impulse!

John Coltrane, Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album, 2018, album cover. Courtesy: Impulse!

Looking the other way, forwards into the future, ‘Untitled Original 11383’ and ‘Untitled Original 11386’ both stake out freer terrain. Coltrane’s soprano saxophone and improvizational instincts move from generating lines towards a deluge of stacked-up overtones and crosshatched clusters, the fabric of sound itself; his bass player, Jimmy Garrison, responds with an extraordinary display of twisted, distended tones as he variously drags and slams his bow across, and into, his strings. The longest piece, ‘Slow Blues’, is both ecstatic and incendiary, featuring two Coltrane solos that utilize hollering high notes as architectural markers – an imposing blues as he would ever record.

Could Coltrane have knitted all this disparate music into a structurally robust album? Perhaps not. But the joy and fascination of this new release is precisely its incompleteness: that the music has not been fashioned into any completed form. Calling it a lost ‘session’ might have been more appropriate, implying a chance to eavesdrop on Coltrane and his musicians trying material out: flexing its boundaries, without any of the pressure of ‘legacy’ that inevitably came with a monumental statement like A Love Supreme. But albums, I suppose, are more likely to sell than sessions.

Main image: John Coltrane and band, Van Gelder Studios, 1963. Courtesy: © Jim Marshall Photography LLC; photograph: Jim Marshall

Philip Clark has written for The Wire, Gramophone, The Guardian and the London Review of Books. He is currently working on a biography of Dave Brubeck, to be published in 2019.

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018