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'Lost Album' Offers A Fresh Look At Peak Coltrane


This is FRESH AIR. ON March 6, 1963, saxophonist John Coltrane's Classic Quartet recorded a studio session. The master tapes got filed away and eventually were lost. Now we know that Coltrane had given his own tapes from that date to his then-wife Naima. That lost session has become a new album. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has more.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's an original, isn't it?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: 11382 - 383. Original.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: John Coltrane's quartet playing a new untitled blues, March 6, 1963. The newly issued music from that studio session is a trove of vintage Coltrane from a very productive period. The session wasn't unknown. Discographies list a few titles and untitled pieces. There are, in fact, three new tunes here. One performance from the date had been anthologized - Franz Lehar's "Vilja," which Coltrane played on soprano sax. Now we also have a tenor version. And there's an early, more subdued run through of a tune Coltrane would rerecord - the Nat King Cole oldie "Nature Boy." This 3 1/2-minute trio version, which begins and ends with a fade, has the feel of a preliminary study. Not that Coltrane's coasting. His busy variations preserve the melody's downward trajectory.


WHITEHEAD: This music is collected on the double CD set "Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album" on Impulse. I am less convinced than the folks behind it that the fruits of this session were intended to be a free-standing album. Special projects aside, John Coltrane's early Impulse records drew from several dates, often mixing live and studio material. One mystery is how Impulse failed to place one new tune on LP, this untitled soprano anthem.


WHITEHEAD: There are seven tunes here in all, the second CD fleshed out with worthy, if sometimes lightly blemished, alternate takes. There are four versions of Coltrane's blowing tune impressions, even though the live version, soon to be released on LP, had been in the can over a year. One of the new takes is for saxophone, bass and drums, minus pianist McCoy Tyner. That's not such a big departure. Tyner often dropped out for minutes behind Coltrane on that one, leaving the rhythm to Jimmy Garrison's deep throb bass and the cataclysmic drumming of Elvin Jones. Elvin sounds particularly fine on this session.


WHITEHEAD: Playing with Coltrane made McCoy Tyner one of the most influential jazz pianist for decades. His splashy approach to rhythm stamped hundreds of colleagues. Tune after tune, he had the unenviable job of having to solo right after John Coltrane. It's not like he could start quietly and build from there. He had to pick up where the boss left off. Listen to Tyner preach on that new blues we started with.


WHITEHEAD: John Coltrane made some great records for Impulse in the early '60s with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman and Eric Dolphy and his own quartet, records many people know by heart. I can't say this newly issued date is a revelation, exactly. Even with those trios, there are no bombshells to make us rethink what we already know. So jazz fans will just have to make do with a fresh 88 minutes of well-recorded, peak John Coltrane.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure. He reviewed "Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album" by John Coltrane's Classic Quartet.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about President Trump and Russia. My guest will be Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Obama. We'll talk about the upcoming Trump-Putin summit, what McFaul's experience was like in the room with Putin and the techniques McFaul fears Russia will use to interfere in our midterm election. Putin blamed McFaul and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the protests surrounding Putin's third election as president. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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