“Finding unreleased John Coltrane? It’s like discovering buried treasure.”
That’s how Ravi Coltrane, the late jazz icon’s saxophone-playing son, feels about the release of Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!). This isn’t an air-check, concert performance or collection of outtakes from existing albums. What we have here are 14 studio performances, all recorded on the same day—March 6, 1963—by famed recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder at his Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, studio, with the classic lineup of Coltrane on tenor and soprano, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums.
Even better, the song selection offers fresh insight into the way that quartet developed and grew. For instance, there’s an early, piano-less take on “Nature Boy” that’s quite different in character and approach than the version, recorded almost two years later, that would end up on The John Coltrane Quartet Plays.
There are four takes of “Impressions,” each of which is strikingly unique in terms of tempo and approach, with Tyner sitting out on the last two. There are three untitled originals, and not only does the set offer “One Up One Down” as a studio recording, it gives us two takes of it.
Basically, this is a Coltrane fan’s fantasy come true.
Both Directions At Once will be released in two versions. One will be a seven-track single disc, with one take each of the tunes Coltrane and company cut that day (Ravi Coltrane and Universal Music’s Ken Druker chose the takes and set the order). There will also be a deluxe edition with a second disc that includes seven alternate takes.
Of course, given how deeply the body of Coltrane recordings has been mined over the last five or six decades, it’s worth wondering how an entire album’s worth got made and then somehow lost. The recording date has been noted in several discographies (although incompletely), and one of the 14 tracks—a lithe, swinging soprano saxophone rendition of a tune from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow—turned up as “Vilia” on the 1965 Impulse! anthology The Definitive Jazz Scene, Vol. 3.
Judging from the liner notes (by Ravi Coltrane and Impulse! Records scholar Ashley Khan), these recordings fell between the cracks for three reasons. First, Coltrane and company were back at Van Gelder’s studio the very next day to record what would become the classic album with singer Johnny Hartman. This was a much more mainstream project and would likely have been seen by the label as a better way to broaden Coltrane’s appeal than releasing another instrumental quartet album.
Second, Coltrane’s producer at Impulse!, Bob Thiele (1922–’96), was in the habit of recording the saxophonist far more frequently than his label bosses would have liked. “I was always over budget with Coltrane,” Thiele said in a 1995 interview quoted in the liner notes. “I was finally told, ‘You can’t just keep recording this guy. We’ll never get these albums out.’ Thank God, I did it.”
Indeed, if Thiele hadn’t followed his instincts, many of the great Coltrane albums that were released after the saxophonist’s death in 1967—for instance, Sun Ship, First Meditations (For Quartet) or Interstellar Space—would never have existed.
But the third reason the tracks on Both Directions At Once almost disappeared was corporate stinginess and shortsightedness. After Impulse! moved its operations to the West Coast in 1967, the label’s collection of master recordings was put into storage. By the early ’70s, ABC’s fortunes began to wane, and label executives began to institute cost-cutting “efficiencies,” which included disposing of any stored master tapes for recordings that had never been issued. So the masters from these sessions probably were dumped in the garbage.
Luckily, Rudy Van Gelder also made session tapes—seven-inch mono reels recorded simultaneously with the master tapes—which he gave to the artists. Ravi, whose mother was Alice Coltrane, explained that the source for Both Directions was a tape that had been held by the relatives of Juanita Naima Coltrane (John’s first wife).
“You’d finish a record date at Rudy Van Gelder’s, and he would hand you reel-to-reel tapes for you to review,” Ravi said. “The tapes were in the possession of my father’s first wife’s family. We have many session reels ourselves that made it to John and Alice’s home when they got together. But this is a recording from ’63, so my father was still with Naima at the time, and her family held on to several of these tapes.”
As to why the album wasn’t released before his father’s death, Ravi said that the session may have been intentionally exploratory. “The session was recorded the very same week as the Johnny Hartman session, and the band [was about to conclude] a two-week run at Birdland. For me it did feel like, ‘OK, well, we’re doing a few sessions this week. One of them will maybe get the band warmed up, so why don’t we lay down some of the things we have been performing at Birdland all week?’ It does feel very much like a live set recorded in a studio.”
Part of that may be the amount of space these tracks give Garrison and Jones. For instance, the album-opening “Untitled Original 11383–Take 1” features a rare, driving arco solo by Garrison, while “Nature Boy” relies heavily on the way Jones’ shuffling polyrhythms contrast against Garrison’s repeated use of a syncopated anchor based on two dotted quarter notes followed by a quarter note. The two takes of “One Up One Down” both notably feature a shout chorus with Jones.
“You do get to hear the role of the rhythm section a little bit differently,” Ravi said. “There’s lots of drum solos. There’s lots of bass solos. Again, it does take on the character of a live performance.”
On a more conventional session, such as the one with Hartman, there would be less space for the rhythm section to stretch out or show off. “On those record dates, the arrangements were very, very tight, and if there were any solos at all, it was going to be a saxophone solo and a piano solo,” he added. “But on this record, you get a chance to hear the rhythm section really, really interact. Lots of great moments between Elvin and Jimmy Garrison, for sure.”
Above all, Both Directions At Once works as a snapshot of a great band on the cusp of revolution. “There are elements of the performance that do hark back to John Coltrane’s early days as a blues player and a bebop player,” Ravi said, pointing to “Vilia” and the 11-minute “Slow Blues.” But there is also material like “One Up One Down,” which, he says, “is leaning toward the music that John and the quartet eventually get to, in 1964 and ’65, playing more of these open structures. So it’s kind of a rare glimpse, to see John with one foot in the past, and one foot in the future.” DB