Delayed Trane: John Coltrane’s Lost Album

The inside story of "Both Directions at Once"

John Coltrane Quartet

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It wasn’t that the session was unknown, but it seemed a given that it would be forever unheard. Researchers and scholars of John Coltrane had long known that on March 6, 1963, the legendary saxophonist had taken his classic quartet (with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones) into Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. They’d laid down seven tunes, including Coltrane’s “Impressions” and four untitled originals, along with two covers.

The existence of the session was documented in the archives of Impulse! Records, Coltrane’s label and the date’s financier. Around 1978, Michael Cuscuna found producer Bob Thiele’s session logbook while working in those archives; musician and discographer David Wild included the information in his 1979 publication The Recordings of John Coltrane. One tune, “Vilia,” was issued on a 1965 compilation of Impulse! outtakes. The others were considered lost, probably for all time, in an early-’70s purge of Impulse!’s tape library.

History, however, had other plans. On July 29 of this year, Verve Label Group, which now owns the Impulse! catalogue, released a package titled Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album. It features all seven tunes, selected as masters and carefully sequenced as an album-length artistic statement. (A two-disc deluxe set is also available, including the alternate complete takes.) “We are treating this as a front-line release,” says Ken Druker, vice president of Jazz Development at Verve Label Group, who coproduced the disc with Coltrane’s son Ravi. “This is not a catalogue release. This is a new album.”

It’s no minor new album, either. The tracks, ballad-less and containing three previously unknown original compositions, are characterized by Coltrane’s rough-hewn lyricism and trademark tonal avalanches, his “sheets of sound”; corresponding avalanches of swing from Jones and Garrison; and Tyner’s lush, complex harmonies and modal vamps. It likely reflects the quartet’s live sound of that moment (the only such document known, aside from a few fragmented, low-fidelity airchecks). They may even have played some or all of these tunes on stage in Manhattan that very night. But while it answers the question of what the long-lost session sounded like, Both Directions at Once presents other questions that are worth exploring. Where did this music come from? Once recorded, where did it go? And how, after 55 years, did it finally reach us?

 

Both Directions at Once
The cover of “Both Directions at Once” by the John Coltrane Quartet

 

Wednesday, March 6, 1963 was the final night of a two-week stint for the Coltrane quartet at Birdland. The following afternoon, they were scheduled to record at Van Gelder Studio with vocalist Johnny Hartman, for an album Thiele had suggested. The band didn’t mind adding another session, however. “John was such a teacher and mentor to me, I was willing to take the time out to allow him to see his vision materialize,” says McCoy Tyner, the pianist and last surviving member of the quartet. “We saw ourselves more as brothers than just bandmates.”

There are no indications that the Wednesday session was specifically intended for any album; it didn’t need to be, per Coltrane’s uniquely privileged arrangement with Impulse! “John at that point had the ability to come in and record music whenever he wanted to,” says Ravi (who wasn’t yet two when his father died). “He could come over when the spirit moved him or he had something to document with his band, whether that was with a specific record release in mind or not. … At one time, he had his own set of keys to the studio!”

The session began with a jaunty take on “Vilia,” a song from Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow that Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, among others, had recorded in the ’30s. Trane completed takes on both tenor and soprano sax. He kept the soprano for the following minor blues, a riffy tune that barrels forward like a tornado. (It was untitled, slated only as 11383.) Next came a deadly somber, thrusting version of the standard “Nature Boy,” markedly more accessible than the version Coltrane recorded in 1965.

They spent the most time that day on the band’s live showpiece “Impressions,” of which Coltrane never released a studio version. There are a whopping four complete takes in the deluxe set, two with the full quartet and two with Tyner laying out. (Though he’d been playing it for a year and a half, it was still unnamed; on the tape box, in Coltrane’s handwriting, Druker and Ravi Coltrane found scrawled “So What”—the Miles Davis tune on whose harmonic structure “Impressions” was based.) Another untitled original for soprano, slated as 11386, followed; this one was a modal piece with a long-note theme and a light Latin feel. Then came an adrenaline-fueled 32-bar tune, known from an aircheck of the February 23 performance at Birdland; bootleggers dubbed it “One Up, One Down” because it resembled Coltrane’s 1965 tune “One Down, One Up.” The session wrapped with a pure, gutbucket 12-bar blues that had one completed take and no title. Thiele described it simply as “original blues, slow blues.”

Then off they went to Birdland. They left behind no indication of what Trane’s motivation or inspiration for the session might have been. Ravi has a theory: “They were in the middle of this Birdland run; again, they were about to come in and make this unique kind of concept record with Johnny Hartman,” he muses. “So I think [the idea was] to come in the day before and get a little bit loose, to test the sounds. It didn’t have to be just a soundcheck.”

The inclusion of “Impressions,” a centerpiece of their live set at the time, as well as “One Up, One Down,” suggests that the entire session may comprise the music they were playing nightly during that two-week Birdland run—including the gig immediately following the session.

Tyner doesn’t remember the session per se, but thinks Ravi might be on to something. “This recording does have a very ‘live to tape’ element to it,” he says. “I would not rule out the ‘live’ factor.”

 

McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane
McCoy Tyner consults with John Coltrane during a break in the sessions for “John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman,” recorded one day after the material on “Both Directions at Once.” (Photo: Courtesy of the Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC)

 

In summer 1965, one take of “Vilia” (take 5) was pulled from the March 6, 1963 session for an Impulse! sampler called The Definitive Jazz Scene, Vol. 3. (More recently, it was included as a bonus track on the CD release of Live at Birdland.) Nothing else from those tapes ever saw the light of day, and they were almost certainly destroyed in the 1970s thanks to a stupefying policy of Impulse!’s parent company, ABC.

“It’s almost beyond belief,” says Lewis Porter, a pianist and scholar who is among the world’s foremost authorities on Coltrane. “It’s something they used to do in the 1930s, companies with material in the vault. They’d say, ‘Well, we’re never gonna use this. Let’s just throw it out and make room for new stuff.’ Now that was stupid enough, but that generally didn’t happen after the 1950s, because somebody started to realize, ‘Hey, someday we might want this stuff!’

“But apparently, as late as the ’70s, Impulse! was running out of space, and once they had issued certain albums by Trane, they figured, ‘Well, why do we need these other things?’” They retained a single master copy of everything that the label had released to that point. If it hadn’t been issued, it was dumped.

Impulse! had already issued plenty of Coltrane product following his 1967 death: Om, Sun Ship, Interstellar Space. But not the March 6, 1963 session, which suggests that the tapes were lost, or simply forgotten about, well before the purge.

Why, though, wasn’t it issued in 1963, when it was still fresh? Porter relates it to the fine print on Coltrane’s recording contract.

“Trane would record anything he wanted, whenever he wanted. But Trane was not the one who decided what was going to be an album: That was the producer’s job,” Porter says. “There’s one time we know of when he completely took control—A Love Supreme. But that’s beyond unusual—it’s unique. Bob Thiele was the one who made decisions about what to release.”

Moreover, he says, Thiele had a particular agenda: “At that time he was obsessed with this idea of making Coltrane accessible.” Indeed, on March 6, 1963, there were two new Coltrane albums on the shelves: Ballads, with the quartet, and the collaboration Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. Next up, of course, would be John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. All three are now rightly regarded as classics, but they’re quite mainstream—far from the cutting-edge exhilarations of 1961’s Live at the Village Vanguard and 1962’s Coltrane.

That, however, was the point. Those earlier releases had generated considerable controversy. Even former Coltrane champions like Martin Williams and Ira Gitler had rejected them, while critic John Tynan had infamously branded the Vanguard performances “anti-jazz.” The Both Directions at Once music wasn’t likely to win those people over.

“We’ve had the virtue of being able to live with this music for the last 50 years; it sounds very familiar to us,” says Ravi Coltrane. “But when these guys were doing this it was brand new. It was kind of this renegade sort of thing that they were doing. … John had a particular kind of notoriety at this time.

“There were certain commercial imperatives, and obviously Bob Thiele was aware of that.”

Still, the Hartman record, released in late July of 1963, was the last attempt in that commercial vein. Despite scolding from critics and naysayers, Coltrane’s popularity with jazz consumers only increased during the early ’60s. By the beginning of 1964, Impulse! no longer needed to market him to a wider audience—he was amassing his own. Crescent, A Love Supreme, Ascension: Whatever he gave them, they knew they could sell.

However, by that time he was developing so quickly that the music on Both Directions at Once was yesterday’s leftovers. “We had the chance to talk to [onetime Coltrane bassist] Reggie Workman,” Druker says. “Reggie said that when Coltrane was on Atlantic, they recorded a lot and then released it much later, and that by the time they released his music he was ahead—people would come to the club and ask for songs on his latest release, but they were songs that he hadn’t played in two or three years and he didn’t want to do it.”

It’s possible that the music of March 6, 1963 didn’t even miss its window of opportunity for public exposure. That window may never have existed.

 

John Coltrane
Same engineer, different date: Coltrane at Van Gelder’s in 1958. (Photo: Esmond Edwards/CTSImages)

 

In late 2004 Guernsey’s, the New York auction house, had developed the concept of a jazz auction. Among the items on the block were instruments and papers owned by Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Coltrane. The auction was to be held at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall in February 2005.

In December, Coltrane’s stepdaughter Antonia (Saida) Andrews (child of his first wife Juanita Naima Grubbs, who died in 1996) and her son Jamail Dennis hand-delivered their consignment to Guernsey’s president Arlan Ettinger for inclusion in the auction. As they discussed the handwritten sheet music and correspondence they were handing off, Dennis casually mentioned that they also had some tapes. Would Ettinger be interested in those?

Thirty-five seven-inch, reel-to-reel tapes thus came into Guernsey’s possession. Dr. Barry Kernfeld, a music historian and consultant for the auction, was assigned to listen to the tapes, identify and catalog their contents, and write up a description for the auction’s printed program. He was given three weeks—no small order.

“The tapes were badly disordered,” Kernfeld recalls. “Wrong reels in the wrong boxes, misidentification in listings of contents on the tape boxes, and mislabeling of the boxes.” But most of them were high-fidelity studio recordings, and before each take producer Bob Thiele would rattle off the slate number for that take. “A lot of the time I knew what the tune was and a lot of the time I didn’t,” says Kernfeld. “But I was able to match up those numbers with David Wild’s discography. So in that sense, it was unambiguous.”

Which was how he discovered that four of the reels contained slates 11382 to 11388—the quartet session of March 6, 1963, unheard by human ears since at least ABC/Impulse!’s ’70s purge.

The question, of course, is how did these long-lost tapes come to be at Coltrane’s house? The answer is surprisingly simple, another aspect of Trane’s unique agreement with Impulse. As the master tape recorder was running, Impulse! also had Van Gelder run a separate seven-inch mono recorder. “Rudy would be recording for him, making a duplicate of the master reel on a mono tape reel,” says Porter. “After each session, Trane would go home with a home-sized tape to listen to.” It was the musical equivalent of dailies on a film set.

Kernfeld regards his navigation through these tapes as one of the great thrills of his life. Before they could go up for bid, however, someone at the Universal Music Group caught word of them and sent a cease-and-desist notice. The tapes, they argued, had been courtesy copies for the artist of what was ultimately Impulse! Records property—never intended for public distribution. “They still owned the rights to disseminate it,” says Kernfeld, “and I don’t see how anyone could argue that.”

Universal spent the next 10 years negotiating a settlement with the Coltrane family that would give them physical access to the tapes. Danny Bennett became president and CEO of the Verve Music Group, Universal’s jazz subsidiary, in 2016, just as the settlement was being finalized. “I think within my first two weeks [marketing senior VP] Jamie Krents came in and said, ‘I’ve gotta tell you something, we have an album that’s never been released before by John Coltrane,’” Bennett recalls. “And it was like, ‘Okay, it’s ordained. This is a gift.’”

“Sometimes you hear the tapes, and you know immediately, you go, ‘Wow, I can see why these didn’t come out,’” Krents adds. “It was a great relief when we heard them and they were up to code. I wish I had taken a picture of Ravi’s face and eyes when he heard the first 30 seconds—and it was clear that he agreed.”

Ravi and Druker selected the best takes and decided how to sequence them. They discovered that Trane had scribbled down possible titles on some of the tape boxes—including “Sun Ship,” which would be used later, and “Triangles”—but it was impossible to say which title was for which piece. After some debate, they decided to leave them identified by the slate numbers: The album opens, for example, with “Untitled Original 11383.”

This, says Porter, was the right decision. “People read too much into titles,” he says. “I get an email from somebody about once a year asking, ‘What is the mystical significance of the title of Coltrane’s piece “26-2”?’ And Coltrane did not title that piece. There’s nothing mystical about it. [Atlantic Records named it—it was the 26th take slated on that recording session’s second day.] Maybe with other musicians it’s okay to title something after the fact, but with Coltrane people are going to read all this deep stuff into it.”

Only the album title came after the fact, from Wayne Shorter’s recollection of something Trane had told him about what he was trying to accomplish musically: “starting a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and the end of it at the same time … both directions at once.”

Even without fabricated track titles, the music is remarkable and revelatory. It offers a fresh new look at how Coltrane was evolving at a previously underdocumented moment in his artistry, and adds new compositions to his catalog. The CD’s packaging proudly extols saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ reaction upon hearing it: “This is like finding a new room in the Great Pyramid,” he said. Danny Bennett has another, more musical comparison.

“In the rock world it’d be like finding a new Sgt. Pepper,” he says. “The global response has been unprecedented. We’ve played it to some people who listened, and they’re holding their heads going, ‘Everything is different now.’”

Check out our news story about the lost Coltrane album.

Listen to, buy or download Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album on Amazon!