John Coltrane: the lost album

The unexpected news of the existence of an unreleased John Coltrane studio session, now issued as Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album, is sure to get the jazz world’s pulse racing. Featuring the classic line-up of Trane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, Stuart Nicholson assesses the importance of its place in the iconic saxophonist’s relentlessly creative canon on the Impulse! label

For some while now, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of jazz legend John Coltrane, has dedicated himself to raising sunken treasures from his late father’s recorded legacy. Thanks to diligent research he brought us One Up, One Down (Impulse!) in 2005, a live 1965 recording from New York’s Half Note that contains what many regard as one of Coltrane’s greatest recorded performances. Now, he has discovered a complete ‘lost’ Impulse! studio session from March 1963, a period where Coltrane’s Classic Quartet was hitting their straps. It is released this month as Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album.

In March 1963, Coltrane was booked into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey for two sessions, one on the 6th with his quartet, and another the following day for the session that produced John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Apparently, Coltrane took a ¼-inch reference tape of the quartet session home to study, a practice quite common in the recording industry. However, nothing further seems to have been done with the tapes, while at some point the studio’s multi-track masters were lost by Impulse!. There things remained until Ravi Coltrane discovered the reference tape in his father’s archive. At the time of the recording session, Coltrane’s career was in the ascendancy, his life a whirl of national and international touring, recording sessions and more touring. When he did get time off, he spent it with his then wife Juanita and their 13-year-old daughter, Toni, at his St. Albans, New York home, listening to his collection of records by harpist Carlos Salzedo.

In 1963, the Impulse! label was entering what many people now consider to be it’s golden period and it was saxophonist John Coltrane who was at the forefront of the label’s ambitions, the poster-boy who had come to personify the label’s slick marketing slogan: ‘The New Wave of Jazz is on Impulse!’. Each album was stylishly produced with a gatefold sleeve, trademark orange and black album spine, attractive laminated cover art and high-quality liner notes that enveloped a well-recorded product, all for $5.98 per album. The brainchild of producer Creed Taylor, the label created a stir from the very beginning with its first batch of releases in 1961 that included Gil Evans’ Out of the Cool, Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, and Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz.

Uniquely, Impulse! was allowed to develop with the mindset of an independent label within a major label infrastructure since ABC Paramount bankrolled the production and promotion costs. In a market already saturated with high-quality jazz and eye-catching cover art – Blue Note, Verve, Atlantic, Contemporary, Pacific Jazz and more – Impulse! raised the bar even higher, and in so doing its sales began approaching those of successful pop recordings. “Within a couple of months Genius + Soul = Jazz had sold over 150,000 LPs and ‘One Mint Julep’ was Top 10,” said Creed Taylor later, “A few months later, Blues and the Abstract Truth did pretty well too.” By the end of 1961, Impulse! had captured the imagination of jazz fans, DJs (essential for radio play), record retailers and, crucially, jazz musicians.

After catching a performance of the John Coltrane Quartet at the Village Vanguard, Creed Taylor phoned Coltrane, who was then recording for Atlantic, and asked him if he would like to record for Impulse! However, the Shaw Agency, who were handling Coltrane at the time, felt the saxophonist should receive special treatment from the label, and a deal was eventually worked out that enabled Taylor to secure Coltrane’s signature for a $10,000 advance for the first year with two year options that rose to $20,000 annually thereafter.

Coltrane was contracted by Impulse! to produce three albums a year. His first was with his regular working quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, augmented by a large ensemble. Oliver Nelson was picked as arranger, but didn’t show at the recording date, so Eric Dolphy hastily wrote some charts for the album, which was subsequently called Africa/Brass. It was at this point that Creed Taylor, after producing six albums for Impulse! and establishing the label’s identity in the marketplace, was approached by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to take over the Verve label, which it had just bought for $2.5 million from Norman Granz. This unique opportunity and a generous offer was enough to tempt Taylor, who completed the editing for Africa/Brass in his new office at Verve.

The man ABC Paramount picked to replace him was Bob Thiele, whose main experience was in the pop field, where he had brought Buddy Holly to Decca’s subsidiary Brunswick, followed by Jackie Wilson. He then moved to Dot Records, followed by Roulette Records, where he pulled off the collaboration between Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He took over at Impulse! in November 1961, “I don’t think I was at Impulse! for more than a week when we decided to record Coltrane at the Village Vanguard,” he recalled. “The first night, as I recall, I was pretty shook up; I was confused. But by staying involved, the music began to make sense to me.”

Thiele hit the ground running with Impulse! – in the last two months of 1961 and through to the end of 1962, he recorded music for 25 Impulse! albums, carefully avoiding the pitfall of reinventing the winning formula created by Taylor and the label continued to grow. So too did Thiele’s association with Coltrane, whom he later admitted had taught him a lot about jazz during the three albums he recorded with the saxophonist in 1962.

Although Coltrane was in the studio only three times in 1963, he was also recorded live twice, at the Newport Jazz Festival on 7 July and at Birdland on 8 October. From these sessions Impulse! released four albums: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Impressions, Live at Birdland and, in 1993, Newport Ö63. Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album fits into this continuum. When looking at the circumstances of the album it must be remembered that Coltrane enjoyed special status at Impulse!. In practical terms this meant a degree of autonomy in the recording studio, where he was allowed space to experiment and arrive at an album in more or less his own time. This was quite different to the way jazz albums were usually produced – a studio would be booked for four or five hours with the expectation that at the end you’d have an album for release. As Bob Thiele later recalled: “People like Coltrane, or Duke Ellington, record so much they almost forget about what was recorded, and it literally piles up.” In such circumstances, it’s possible to see how the tapes for Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album, were overlooked and remained undiscovered for so long.

While it’s the first time in years an unissued Coltrane quartet studio session has been released, The Lost Album does raise a number of intriguing issues. The record company press release claims the session was unknown until 2004 and unheard until now, yet the session was cited on page 90 of the discography that accompanied The Classic Quartet – Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings box set which was released in 1998! Matrix numbers 11382 through to 11388 were even assigned to the seven numbers recorded that day, comprising four ‘Untitled Original’ recordings (two of which were subsequently identified as ‘Impressions’ and ‘One Up, One Down’), plus ‘Vilia’, ‘Nature Boy’, and ‘Slow Blues – Original’. ‘Vilia’ originally appeared on an Impulse! sampler LP back in 1965, The Definitive Jazz Scene Vol. 3, and was added as a bonus track to the 1996 CD, Live at Birdland with this brief explanation: “The bonus track ‘Vilia’ was the first tune recorded at a 6 March, 1963 session that also included the quartet’s first attempt at ‘Nature Boy’ and the five then untitled originals… no master of the other tunes has survived.”

The Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album recordings were made off the back of a two week engagement at Birdland but the question of whether Coltrane was starting to “push in new directions” at the time remains moot. Bootleg recordings of Coltrane at Birdland on 23 February (on the Ozone and Session Disc label) and 2 March (released on the Alto label) give little away in this respect. Equally, we are able to trace Coltrane in live performance during the intervening four months between Ballads, recorded on 13 November 1962, and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, recorded on 7 March 1963, by means of several authorised and unauthorised concert recordings during this period. Again, they do not betray evidence of any new direction, rather sticking night after night to a core repertoire built around pieces such as ‘Impressions’, ‘Chasin’ the Trane’, ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’, ‘Mr PC’ and ‘My Favorite Things’. Certainly the classic quartet was achieving a kind of relaxed cohesion, having performed together for almost three years and were beginning to take liberties with their repertoire (something that can be discerned in the quintets of Miles Davis during the 1950s and 1960s) and Coltrane’s playing seemed more questing as he became more confident in his surroundings, but “a new direction”? That’s a bit of a subjective judgement call, since we might have expected evidence of this on subsequent Impulse! recordings, such as the 29 April 1963 Impulse! date that year which appeared on Dear Old Stockholm or the Newport Jazz Festival recordings from 7 July 1963.

What we do know, however, is that Coltrane gave an interview in Paris on 1 November 1963 where he said he needed to get away from playing the “same tunes over and over” – something he had been doing for more than two years. If we allow ourselves a certain amount of rationalisation with hindsight, we might say that The Lost Album seems to anticipate these thoughts by several months since, other than ‘Impressions’, a staple of his live performances at the time, and a workout on the blues (it is often overlooked that Coltrane was a masterful interpreter of the blues idiom) called ‘Slow Blues’, the rest of The Lost Album is given over to new pieces – Franz Lehar’s ‘Vilia’, two new unnamed originals plus ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘One Up, One Down’. However, it was not until the Crescent session for Impulse! on 27 April 1964, just over a year later, that he introduced a whole new album of originals, and even in the run up to his magnum opus, A Love Supreme, on 9 December 1964, he was continuing to rely on his core repertoire in live performance.

Ultimately, then Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album perhaps should be seen as a valuable addition to Coltrane’s discography, part of a continuum, yes, but no less valuable for that, as he and McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones work with new material – as Coltrane himself put it in an interview just three months before the recording session, “I’ll only give a skeleton or a framework for a song and from then on it’s up to them to create their own parts to it. It sort of shapes itself, through individual contribution and effort. That way everybody can kind of develop, you know, develop in their own sense of musicianship, too, because they have to make their own choices and decisions.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

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