Lost Coltrane Recording From 1963 Will Be Released at Last

Posted June 7, 2018 2:59 p.m. EDT

If you heard the John Coltrane Quartet live in the early to mid-1960s, you were at risk of having your entire understanding of performance rewired. This was a ground-shaking band, an almost physical being, bearing a promise that seemed to reach far beyond music.

The quartet’s relationship to the studio, however, was something different. In the years leading up to “A Love Supreme,” his explosive 1965 magnum opus, Coltrane produced eight albums for Impulse! Records featuring the members of his so-called classic quartet — bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner — but only two of those, “Coltrane” and “Crescent,” were earnest studio efforts aimed at distilling the band’s live ethic.

But now that story needs a major footnote.

On Friday, Impulse! will announce the June 29 release of “Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album,” a full set of material recorded by the quartet on a single day in March 1963, then eventually stashed away and lost. The family of Coltrane’s first wife, Juanita Naima Coltrane, recently discovered his personal copy of the recordings, which she had saved, and brought it to the label’s attention.

There are seven tunes on this collection, a well-hewed mix that clearly suggests Coltrane had his sights on creating a full album that day. From the sound of it, this would have been an important one.

“In 1963, all these musicians are reaching some of the heights of their musical powers,” said saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane’s son, who helped prepare “Both Directions at Once” for release. “On this record, you do get a sense of John with one foot in the past and one foot headed toward his future.” That’s true — though as Coltrane was careful to point out, his father always lived in a state of transition. Poet and critic Amiri Baraka wrote in 1963 that Coltrane’s career was one of simultaneous “changes, resolutions and transmutations.” As the public came to depend on the grounding wisdom of his saxophone sound in the late 1950s and ‘60s, Coltrane kept shifting and expanding it.

By the time he signed with Impulse! in 1961, he had mostly left behind the swift harmonic movement of his earlier work. He was resolutely exploring other elements: drones influenced by North African and Indian music, unbounded and jagged melodic phrasing. One of Coltrane’s earliest biographers, C.O. Simpkins, described the quartet’s shows in these years — with Jones lighting fires and Tyner splashing them with multihued harmonies — as a kind of euphoric cleanse. The quartet, he wrote, “would beat the unclean air until it begged for mercy.”

But Coltrane had a funny problem: He was also quite commercially successful, particularly for an improvising musician of such rigor. He had arrived at Impulse! shortly after scoring a megahit with “My Favorite Things,” and producer Bob Thiele felt obligated to provide a stream of concept-driven and consumer-friendly projects. The other albums he made in 1963 with Coltrane were “Ballads,” “Duke Ellington and John Coltrane” and “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.”

“Coltrane” and “Crescent,” the albums that show us Coltrane condensing his quartet’s live persona for posterity, are marvelous. They balance deep blues playing with lengthy, minor-key chants, laced through with an explosively rhythmic group dynamic. But in the two years between their recording — spring 1962 to spring 1964 — we had little to go on until now.

“Both Directions at Once” was recorded at the Rudy Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey, small-group jazz’s premier recording habitat, on March 6, 1963. Two days earlier, Tyner had taped “Nights of Ballads and Blues” there (it is an underrated gem that shows the lush shading and ardent poise of his playing). The day after “Both Directions at Once” was recorded, Coltrane’s quartet — which was in the midst of a two-week run at Birdland in New York City — returned to the studio with Hartman, a baritone crooner, to knock out that album, which became a classic.

But on this newly discovered collection, we hear something close to the breadth of what Coltrane and his associates were delivering onstage. “You get a lot of that musical meat, but in a context that will be more accessible to a lot of listeners,” said Lewis Porter, a pianist and scholar, who was sent an early copy of the album.

On “Slow Blues,” Coltrane lights into split-toned incantation almost immediately, then carries a steady improvisation forward for nearly the entire 11 1/2 minutes of the track, interrupted only by a brief Tyner solo.

Impulse! is releasing the album as a single disc, featuring one rendition each of the seven tunes the band cut that day. (Ravi Coltrane and record executive Ken Druker chose the order.) But for those who buy the deluxe edition, with seven alternate takes from the same session on a separate disc, the biggest score will be the four renditions of “Impressions.” Meditative but headlong, this piece had been the quartet’s concert centerpiece for two years at that point, but Coltrane still hadn’t given it a name. (On the tape box that was found, it was untitled.)

An expansive live version would be released later in 1963, on an album called “Impressions,” but this March recording session marked the second and, apparently, final time Coltrane would attempt to wrangle “Impressions” into a studio recording. All the versions hover around the four-minute mark, but each take is different; on two of them, the band rides along at a comfortable, medium tempo with Tyner adding a chiming, two-chord pattern. On the final two takes, Coltrane ticks the tempo up higher, and slashes boldly without a piano beneath him.

The album also includes two original tunes that seem to have been committed to tape here for the first and only time. They are identified by the numbering system that Thiele used in the studio. The first, “11383,” is a brisk minor blues, with the swirling momentum typical of Coltrane’s live performances and his most affecting records.

Then there’s “11386,” a shimmying melody that begins with a wide-flung first section — pulpy chords resounding from Garrison’s bass — then a passage of beaming swing. It bears some structural similarity to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” arrangement. But as Porter pointed out, the tune also sounds a lot like the writing of Tyner. Indeed, throughout the 1960s, the pianist was writing pieces with this same kind of fast, dancing melody, and a similar balancing act between swing and straight rhythms. “He’s so on top of that piece. It’s just a thought,” Porter said, referring to Tyner’s avid playing on all three versions of “11386” featured here. “Where is it written that everything they played had to be by Coltrane?”

It’s a tempting, provocative question, and a good one. It’s one of many that this discovery allows us to start asking about the work of an epochal band in its prime.