John Coltrane’s Lost Album and His Enduring Legacy

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When the iconic jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins compares a musical discovery to “finding a new room in the Great Pyramid,” it’s bound to create both curiosity and excitement. Such was the case when the archeologists cum treasure hunters at Impulse! Records located a copy of a lost John Coltrane studio recording that had been discarded back in the late 1970’s, probably winding up in dumpster. Released just last week, the newly-discovered tracks were recorded over 55 years ago at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary Englewood Cliffs studio on March 6, 1963. The buzz on this new album—called Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album—exceeds anything I’ve ever seen for any jazz album or artist, with extensive coverage by all the major media outlets. Less than a week after its release, the album already shares the top 10 charts on iTunes and Amazon with mainstream pop and hip-hop acts. It’s a tribute to the power of Coltrane’s music and his enduring legacy.

John Coltrane (Photo © Chuck Stewart Photography, LLC) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I discovered John Coltrane as a 16-year old in 1963, the same year of the lost album recording. My surfing club buddies and I had caged a ride to Wallichs Music City at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, and I picked up a copy of Coltrane’s new album Impressions. I don’t actually remember why I bought it, since I had never heard Coltrane’s music before. It could have been the beautiful cover art and graphic design, or perhaps the shiny, classy gatefold presentation. I took it home and dropped the needle on the primitive record player in my tiny bedroom. What followed was an unexpected revelation and a transformative experience.

I sat in place with my eyes shut as I listened to “India,” recorded in November 1961 at the Village Vanguard, and went into a trance. Mesmerized and transfixed, I realized at that moment how deeply music penetrates into your soul. To this day, so many years later, Coltrane remains my greatest musical love and influence. He paved the way in opening my ears to new musical experiences, such as Indian raga, sufi qawwali from Pakistan, Moroccan gnawa trance music, and so many other sonic worlds.

I previously thought that Coltrane’s various labels—Savoy, Prestige, Atlantic and Impulse!—had mined all that existed of his work. Now comes Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, recorded in one hurried afternoon by Coltrane’s famous quartet consisting of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. The group had been up late the night before performing at Birdland, and had another set later that night. The next day, March 7, 1963, the quartet returned to Van Gelder’s to record the famous John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album, which sold a ton of copies.

The Lost Album recordings were intended for a studio album, but for some reason producer Bob Thiele and others at Impulse! were not persuaded to release it. My own guess, given the close timing of the two recordings, is that once the decision was made to release the Coltrane-Hartman album first, it became so successful that there was no need to release the Lost Album sessions from the day before.

When MCA Records acquired Impulse! in 1979, master tapes which had not been issued were unceremoniously tossed. Rudy Van Gelder hated clutter and never kept sessions after they were cut. Luckily, The Lost Album sessions remained preserved in the form of 7” reel-to-reel “reference tapes” that Van Gelder would give to artists after recording sessions. The tapes wound up in the possession of Naima Coltrane (the artist’s first wife and inspiration for the beautiful ballad, “Naima”), who held on to the tapes her entire life.

The title of the new album, Both Directions at Once, stems from a remark Coltrane once made about his improvisations—that if you played a certain way, you could go in both directions—“inside” and “outside”—simultaneously. Jazz at the time was considered either ‘inside” the mainstream and conventional (à la Dave Brubeck or Stan Getz), or “outside” (à la Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman). The terms were used in common jazz parlance as well as referenced in record titles, e.g. Yusef Lateef The Doctor Is In…and Out, or Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. Coltrane mastered both the mainstream as well as the avant garde, more challenging territories during his career. Such is Trane’s genius.

Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album comes in two versions—a single CD with first takes as well as a 2-CD version (my preference) that includes additional takes of “Impressions” and other Coltrane originals. Jazz musicians never play a song the same way twice. I find it interesting to hear, in this instance, four different versions of “Impressions”—a major-minor modal song following the template of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” and based on a melody of Morton Gould’s “Pavanne” from the 1940’s.

If you don’t already like Coltrane’s music, you probably won’t buy this record. If you are a Coltrane fan like me, you will absolutely want to hear it. It’s a rare new glimpse of the famous quartet at the height of their powers. And there are, after all, never-before-heard compositions—unnamed songs with titles taken from the numbers penned on the tape boxes by producer Bob Thiel, such as “Untitled Original 11383” and “Untitled Original 11386.” Whichever version of Both Directions at Once you choose, this buried treasure is a must for any Coltrane or jazz fan.

Check out these takes of the two previously unreleased original songs: