John Coltrane's Lost Album A 'Buried Treasure' For Jazz Fans

Jun 23, 2018
Originally published on August 20, 2018 1:51 pm

On March 6, 1963, John Coltrane and his quartet arrived at Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey to record an album. It was a busy time for the group, which featured pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. They were at the tail end of a two-week residency at the Birdland jazz club in Manhattan, and the very next day they would record an album with singer Johnny Hartman.

But the recordings from that March afternoon session never saw the light of day — until now. Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album is being released by Impulse! Records on June 29 and features two Coltrane compositions that have never been heard before from a time when the quartet was at the height of its musicianship. The album includes unique renditions of the Coltrane classic "Impressions" and several other tracks that the quartet would release down the line.

"To have an entire album of music surface, this is definitely a rare thing," Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane's son, explains in a conversation with NPR's Audie Cornish and Jazz Night In America host Christian McBride. The younger Coltrane, who is also a saxophonist, helped put the album together. "It's kind of like a little time capsule. It gives us a glimpse fifty years into the past of this incredible working band," he says.

Rudy Van Gelder, the sound engineer for the session, had given John Coltrane a copy of the recordings at the time. John gave that copy to his first wife, Juanita Naima Coltrane, whose family recently discovered it.

"Any time you can find a whole album's worth of never-before-heard John Coltrane quartet music, that's very significant," McBride says.

According to McBride, 1963 was a pivotal year for Coltrane. He had left behind his early bebop roots and was beginning to enter the avant-garde, free-jazz phase that would define the last few years of his life. (John Coltrane died in 1967.)

"John Coltrane was the leading voice in balancing both the previous generation — coming from Miles Davis's band — and also leading the way for some of the new school and the freer-thinking players," McBride says.

For Ravi Coltrane, this tension explains the album's title.

"It does feel like he has one foot in the past and one foot in the future," Ravi says. "And with this music you do get sort of both of those directions in John's music at once."

The album's tracks are heavily improvisational, especially the two previously unheard compositions. "Untitled Original 11383" is upbeat and careening, featuring each band member soloing in turn around a short, measure-long central melody. Its companion piece, "Untitled Original 11386," is a swinging and winding journey through nearly nine minutes of improvisation. "The music has a purity to it, that's the one thing you can always rely on," Ravi says. "They're reacting to each other's calls and responses, and riffs, and phrases and textures."

The album also features renditions of "Vilia," "One Up, One Down," "Nature Boy" and different takes of the songs, with substantially varied improvisations.

"It's an incredible buried treasure to have this emerge today," Ravi says.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 11382 - 383 original.


11383 original - the track you are listening to right now is special not only because of who plays it - John Coltrane's quartet - but because until now, hardly anyone had ever heard it. The song is part of a never-released studio album from 1963.

RAVI COLTRANE: To have an entire album of music surface - this is definitely a rare thing.

CORNISH: Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane's son, stopped by our studio to tell us more about the uncovered recording.

COLTRANE: This recording was originally lost by ABC Records, which is now Universal Music. The engineer for this session, Rudy Van Gelder, would often make copies for the musicians for them to reference after the session. So these are my father's original copies of that session.

CORNISH: The recording was found by the family of Coltrane's first wife, Juanita Naima Coltrane. She had saved the copy. John Coltrane and his bandmates, bassist Jimmy Garrison, the drummer Elwyn Jones and the pianist McCoy Tyner, recorded this session in one day on March 6, 1963. Ravi Coltrane compiled the tracks. It's on a new album called "Both Directions At Once: The Lost Studio Album." To talk more about the exciting news, we also invited back our favorite jazz guide...

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: That sounds like my brother Ravi.


CORNISH: ...Bassist Christian McBride, host of NPR's Jazz Night In America. I started by asking Christian to give us a sense of Coltrane's career at that time.

MCBRIDE: You could say it was a very healthy period in the history of jazz. And John Coltrane was the leading voice in balancing both the previous generation, you know, coming from Miles Davis' band and then also leading the way for some of the new school and the freer-thinking players.

CORNISH: So Ravi Coltrane, is this why the album is called "Both Directions At Once"?

COLTRANE: Well, for us and for why that phrase seemed to make a very relevant title for this album is because of the period that the record was recorded at. 1963, as Christian did point out - it's a very fertile period for John Coltrane and this band. But it's also a - kind of a midpoint between his earlier musical life which did consist of playing lots of blueses (ph), slow blueses (laughter) and bebop tunes to where he would eventually end up, you know, in his musical explorations - you know, much freer music. So for John Coltrane in 1963 - does feel like he has one foot in the past and one foot in the future, you know? And with this music, you do get sort of both of those directions in John's music at once.


CORNISH: Ravi Coltrane, you helped order the songs, right? And I notice that they don't have titles - for instance, "Untitled 11383" (ph).

COLTRANE: You don't like that title?

CORNISH: Well...


COLTRANE: It's kind of catchy.

CORNISH: I was wondering why they had those titles.

COLTRANE: Well, those titles are actually the original slate numbers that the producer of the session would apply to any recorded material so they could organize which songs had been recorded that day. So it's just a serial number to identify the tape.


CORNISH: For those of us who aren't sure what to listen for, how do you listen to music like this that, like, wasn't in the end released? How are you listening in terms of the development of the group?

MCBRIDE: Well, listening to these newly found tracks, I had to put into context. You know, remembering the recordings that the Coltrane Quartet made the previous year, the album "Coltrane" and then the record with Duke Ellington and to think that - you know, where they will go in the following year with "Crescent" and "A Love Supreme"...

COLTRANE: That's right.

MCBRIDE: ...This is sort of, like, maybe toward the beginning of the second half of this band's development.


COLTRANE: The music has a purity to it. I mean, that's the one thing that you can always rely on. And the foundation of this music, jazz music, is improvisation. They're reacting to each other's calls and responses and riffs and phrases and textures. And it has a very sort of in-the-moment sort of impetus, you know? So there isn't one (laughter) specific way to hear this music. You have to kind of open up your ears. Open up your sensibilities a bit, you know? Be open for a new experience, you know, if this is new music for you.


CORNISH: Christian, for you, is there a song in particular that struck your ear?

MCBRIDE: I really enjoyed listening to "Slow Blues" 'cause Trane never got enough of the blues.


MCBRIDE: The blues form and the blues sound, I think even in his later days as he was starting to really embrace more of an abstract sort of sound - that blues never left. The sound of the blues never left his horn.


COLTRANE: Of course I would agree with what Christian says about John and his blues playing that he was really a blues man, I mean, throughout his entire career even into the avant-garde period. But the unique feature of this tune - it's - I mean, they start off trio without piano accompaniment.


COLTRANE: The saxophone solo stretches out for a little bit.


COLTRANE: So you think it is a trio piece, and suddenly in the middle of this long track, you know, we hear the entrance of McCoy Tyner.


COLTRANE: I don't think they had ever really done anything like that in the studio. That was something more that was a feature of their live performances. It sort of gives it a new feel, new touch.


CORNISH: Now that you guys have had time to really live with this music - you especially, Ravi - what do you think is the value of people hearing it today?

COLTRANE: You know, it just - it's kind of like a little time capsule. I mean, it gives us a glimpse 50 years in the past, you know, of this incredible working band, John Coltrane Quartet. And what they were doing, I mean, has the utmost depth and sincerity. I mean, these guys were not trying to be hip. These guys were very, very hardworking players, you know? And they happened to be innovative, creative-thinking individuals, you know? I mean, it's an incredible buried treasure to have this emerge today.


CORNISH: Bassist Christian McBride, thank you so much.

MCBRIDE: Always a pleasure, Audie.

CORNISH: And saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, thank you for talking about this album with us.

COLTRANE: It was a pleasure. Thank you so much.

CORNISH: John Coltrane's recently discovered music is being released on the album "Both Directions At Once: The Lost Studio Album." It's out June 29.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "IMPRESSIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.