“Start in the Middle of a Sentence and Move in Both Directions at Once” – New Facets to Coltrane’s Genius

We are a generation that likes to publish little photographic excerpts of our lives, cropped and filtered, to share in full colour the best bits of our weeks. I’m no exception, having been Latergramming last year’s summer sojourn this morning – but as is often said, these posts don’t depict life as it is lived, so much as encapsulate the moments we choose to remember. A staggering thing about Both Directions at Once is that it’s an afternoon in the life of John Coltrane. Never intended to be a full album, this snapshot from a single recording session nonetheless shows multiple sides of its composer, and the excellence of the band around him.

Another staggering thing: ‘Untitled Original 11383’. Since 1963, it’s been on a tape in Naima Coltrane’s attic. Now unearthed, it could be hailed as a sacred relic were there not so much life in it: Coltrane’s soprano sax hops around at modal intervals over an urbane 12-bar made complex and fresh through pianist McCoy Tyner’s chord voicings. Jimmy Garrison’s (unusually, bowed) bass solo soon sees the other players shutting up entirely. This composition, substantial enough in itself to warrant this release, belongs to its leader – the liberality of his genius was such that, freeze-frame it anywhere in its flow, and it’s still genius, maybe a different facet than you saw him show one minute ago. Coltrane’s expansion into larger bands, freer jazz and overt spiritual expression was still a year away, but the modality and nightingale flourishes of his playing show these qualities about to bloom.

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After opening with a high point, the joy of this whole session is the brilliance of its ensemble. Tyner’s solo steals the show in ‘Untitled Original 11386’, all indigo chords and Simone-esque classicalisms; the delicious ‘Slow Blues’ finds drummer Elvin Jones audibly itching to raise the tempo, until he gets his wish five minutes in; his powerful and good-humoured soloing (the peal of the ride, cheeky snare rolls and sudden flips of metre) makes closer ‘One Up One Down’ incendiary. This is the latter track’s first official release. A couple of standards feel inessential – a perfunctory ‘Nature Boy’, ‘Vilia’ smooth like an Impulse outtake – but the take of ‘’Impressions’ rivals any of its previously released incarnations.

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Throughout, the clarity and punch of the recording allows us to imagine being there in the recording studio: watching the rhythm section get sidetracked and have a musical conversation amongst themselves; hearing the producer read out the wrong session number. As an LP it’s maybe not the ideal primer for a curious listener, though ‘11383’ may be exactly that in song form. I barely even know what an album is anymore (thanks, Chance the Rapper and the Carters), but Both Directions at Once stands up as a sonic Latergram of a classic quartet and a mercurial mind, with no filters but with vitality in spades.

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