I go in many different directions: The new John Coltrane album


I got almost all the way through the first track and then shut it off.  I hate my car, but it has a nice stereo.  Many of the albums you’ve read about on this site were written while I was in that car, listening on that stereo.  But that didn’t matter in this case.  I pulled the car over, ejected the CD from the player, and tossed the new John Coltrane album to the side.

I had just purchased it minutes before.  I drove to Lexington, the nearest city to my current hometown of Frankfort, KY.  I didn’t want to purchase a download of Both Directions At Once.  I also didn’t want to receive it in the mail.  I wanted to relive the experience of buying a new (to me) John Coltrane recording.  Like it used to be.

It used to be that I’d buy a Coltrane album at Jerry’s Record Exchange in Denver, Colorado.  Other than an ending stint in Five Points territory, I set down Denver roots in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.  Just off famed Colfax Avenue and, yes, near the State capitol building, the neighborhood was a mecca of music shops.  Wax Trax pretty much owned half of the storefronts on 13th Street between Washington and Pearl.  There was their flagship store, a used store, a jazz & related specialty store, a music swag store (like posters and stuff).  Wax Trax dominated that wonderful block.  There were several other music stores right around there in a five block radius… I’ve forgotten their names and they probably don’t even exist anymore, but damn, did I buy a lot of music from them.

One store where I did the most of my buying, and not far away, was Jerry’s Record Exchange.  Jerry’s was a true hole in the wall.  It had an impressive supply of music from any genre you can name.  LPs, CDs, cassettes… shit, there may even have been a box of 8-tracks for all I remember.

I was developing a pretty dedicated jazz addiction by the time I landed in Denver, but there was still so much music I had yet to discover.  The owner of Jerry’s, John Loquidis, was a local poet who’d spent some years doing the same out in NYC.  He had anecdotes to share, and he had advice to give on any CD I held up to him to inquire whether I should buy it.  I didn’t need any help with John Coltrane.  I knew I what I liked, and I kept buying more and more CDs, and before I knew it, Coltrane had taken up an entire shelf on the CD rack and was making a dent in the next one down.

I purchased music at a ridiculous clip.  Back in the 90s, it was dirt cheap living in Denver, and with a decent accounting gig, I had plenty of disposable income to burn on music.  But despite my heady rate of accumulation, the process of introducing myself in each new jazz CD was the same.  Sit down in a comfortable spot.  Scan over the personnel and recording info for a bit of up-front context, then lovingly read through the liner notes and drown in the session photos as the music played to my ears for the first time.  There was something special about immersing myself in this music, and the experience was just as important as the music itself… they complemented one another so nicely, and it made me feel like I was living life in the way the instruction manual suggested.  There are certain albums that bring the most visceral sensation of memory from the first time I gave them a spin.

So, that’s what stopped me before the first track, and got me to shelf the album for later.  I wanted to relive that experience.

I must’ve recognized that from the beginning.  I mentioned how I wanted to purchase the album from an actual music store.  And I didn’t have them pre-order the CD or hold it for me or even ask if they carried it.  I went into Lexington for a day of fun, and buying music was on that list.  The new Coltrane was one of several things I was looking for.

I do miss that whole experience.  Even after I’d moved back to Chicago, I kept on going.  Jazz Record Mart downtown, Laurie’s Planet of Sound on North Lincoln, Evil Clown Records over on Halstead, Disc Revival on North Clark, and Groovin’ High on Belmont all got plenty of my cash in trade for new music.  But far and away my biggest supplier of new music was Reckless Records, split equally between their Lakeview and Wicker Park outlets.  The simple act of walking into a music store, a few artists and albums in mind, but mostly just browsing the shelves and buying anything that looks interesting.  I miss that.

I love my new hometown.  It’s a tiny town, and that’s a good thing in so many ways.  But I do miss having a music store to visit at will.  My life has been richer for those experiences.  The drive to CD Central in Lexington, situated on the edge of the University of Kentucky campus’s nightlife stomping grounds, filled that need quite nicely.  In addition to the new Coltrane (which was sitting on a featured shelf!), I also scooped up a couple Tzadik Records releases from the trio of Frisell, Emanuel and Wollesen.  I owned the downloads, but adore their trio albums so much, I really wanted to own the physical disc.  Also, going to Kentucky music stores and buying Tzadik Records releases hits another nostalgic sweet spot… but that’s a subject for another post series entirely.

It was awesome just to be browsing the jazz section and see new releases for Mehldau and Kamasi and Still Dreaming as well as older releases on ECM and Blue Note and a cool Sun Ra reissue.  Y’know, like a normal jazz section at a decent record store.

The second time I tried listening to the new Coltrane album, I stopped before the third track was over.  It was a Friday night, and the electricity in the room and how it flowed through my head & heart clashed with the music.  Something just felt off, so I nixed that whole thing right there.  Sitting around the house and listening to music just wasn’t in the plans.  I went out for dinner and drinks, and that turned out to be the right decision.

I took a sick day from work today.  It’s a Tuesday.  The day job has been wearing me out, and after a migraine Monday night stacked on top of some pretty severe physical and mental exhaustion, I decided it was best to nip that shit in the bud and just have a relaxation day.  The cats snored most of the afternoon away, and eventually it began storming.  I was suddenly overcome by the desire to hear that new Coltrane album right now.  I’m listening to it as I type this.  I have some thoughts about Both Directions at Once… the lost album that lit a spark under the jazz community.

It’s a special thing to find a lost Coltrane recording.  Of course it is.  But most of these previously unreleased albums tend to be pretty underwhelming.  In some instances, it becomes pretty obvious why the album was shelved in the first place.  They tend to be on the mediocre side of greatness, and it doesn’t take much imagination to hear the words of the musician echo from decades long ago to the tune of “Lose it. I can do better.”

But I understand the compulsion to release these previously unreleased albums newly discovered.  The music of these artists lives on forever, but the immediacy of the knowledge that they’ll never record anything new ever again is pretty damn awful to face.  The desire to hear more of this beautiful music, and the unmet need to see where that musician would’ve gone to next, to see the uncompleted creative trajectory hit its intended mark, is something that will never achieve closure.  I get that, and I sympathize.

The new one from Coltrane stands up pretty well on its own merits.  I’m enjoying it.  Even the second disc of the deluxe ecition, which is just a bunch of alternate takes, but pretty cool as far as that goes.  Previous deluxe editions of Coltrane recordings have provided some really nice alternate takes.  The deluxe edition of A Love Supreme, and the contribution of Archie Shepp comes to mind.  It’s nice that the alternate takes were included.  I’m glad this album saw the light of day.

But will I listen to it again?  Maybe?  Sporadically, perhaps.  But it won’t be as much about the music as it will be to relive a nice day of driving into Lexington and hitting the record shop.  But for me, that’s enough.

I love Coltrane’s Blue Train, but sometimes I give it a listen just because I recall a memory of driving through Colorado’s San Luis Valley, surrounded by mountains, and the sound of it playing over the car stereo.  A Love Supreme is one of my all-time favorite albums, but sometimes the motivation to give it a spin is to trigger a memory of it playing on the iPod as I walked along Chicago’s lakeshore on a crisp autumn day.  Africa/Brass is my very favorite Coltrane recording, and one strong association that will never fade is that long, miserable Denver summer when the depression was so thick that all I could was listen to Africa/Brass all day long until the night had dug in and I felt safe going to a neighborhood bar and getting shitfaced drunk just so I could face waking up again for one more morning.  That insane album is what helped keep me sane, and it’ll always be a reminder that music can save lives.  And then there’s those 1961 Village Vanguard recordings.  The melody of “India” resonating from Coltrane’s and Dolphy’s intonations, and how it felt like a spiritual mainline will always be a reminder that music breathes life into everything.

Recorded in 1963, Both Directions At Once features Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet” of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones.  As far as bird of a feather recordings, it’s most comparable to the eponymous 1962 release Coltrane, which was the first with this quartet.  For me personally, Both Directions At Once is the lesser of those two recordings.  There’s a moodiness and intensity to Coltrane that just makes everything resonate so much stronger.

A brief reverie on “Nature Boy” engenders a bit of interest.  The track simply titled “Untitled Original 11386” has Coltrane inciting a melody to greater and greater heights in staggered leaps and descents, as if feeding a flame’s intensity by occasionally starving it of oxygen.  There’s a crisp rendition of “Impressions” that won’t trigger any buyer’s remorse.

The release is broken into two discs. Disc one could be considered the true album, while disc two is alternate takes and similar ephemera.  Three separate alternate takes of “Impressions,” however, is a bit much.  Even though with each take Coltrane turns the piece in his hands to see how the light shines through it with different angles, it still boils down to the same melody on repeat, and the repetition saps the song of a bit of its magic.  Some of you will prefer to break up the second disc into separate listening sessions, while others may get a charge out of hearing the alternate perspectives back to back and drawing comparisons and noting the contrasts.  A lot of the music on this album, while plenty good, comes off as unfocused… not so much as in the meandering sense or lacking direction, but it sounds more like Coltrane is throwing punches rather than trying to land them.

There’s also something missing from the other quartet members.  The presence of each musician on the great Classic Quartet recordings left its imprint on a recording.  Tyner, Garrison and Jones aren’t pushed to the back on this recording.  Jones’s rhythmic waves on “One Up, One Down,” Garrison’s bass arco on “Untitled Original 11383,” and Tyner’s rapier-like swings of melody on the second take of the same piece are all highlights.  But those are moments.  The absence of their presence is something that informs the totality of the recording, and it’s the difference between a Classic Quartet album or John Coltrane and his quartet.  Both Directions At Once leans more towards the latter, and that is disappointing.

The CD production is solid.  It’s obvious the care that was put into its development.  There’s a standard and deluxe edition.  There’s some studio photos from the session that accompany liner notes from Sonny Rollins and Ravi Coltrane.  The sound doesn’t disappoint.  I like how they kept the studio voices announcing the track titles.  It adds a little touch of being there.  The gatefold design with the cutout pattern is sharp, and, seriously, is there a jazz fan out there who doesn’t get a charge out of seeing the Impulse orange & black?

I hope time changes my opinion of the album.  If not, then at least I’ll always possess the joyful memory of purchasing the album and the first time I really got to sit down and spend an afternoon giving it a listen.  Because now I can add the city of Lexington, Kentucky to the memories of times past in other cities when I got to go to my local record store and buy a new John Coltrane album.  And that will always be pretty special to me.

Released on Impulse Records.

Here’s a nifty video of Ravi Coltrane breaking it all down…

You can purchase the album at Amazon.