A sound supreme: lost John Coltrane treasures rediscovered
The great jazz musician left a gift to the world – seven tracks recorded 55 years ago, unheard until now
The album cover of ‘Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album’, recorded in 1963. Photograph: Impulse! Records/PA Wire
From the street, the Rudy Van Gelder studio doesn’t look like much at all. Half an hour’s drive from Manhattan, across the George Washington Bridge onto the Jersey side, and half way along Sylvan Avenue in Englewood Cliffs, the bus pulls to the side of the road and we peer into the leafy shadows looking for the most famous recording studio in the history of jazz. There is no sign outside, no plaque marking the spot, nothing to say the anonymous breeze-block building with the oddly pitched roof that we can barely see through the trees is the place where musical history was made.
The Irish Times is feeling absurdly fortunate to be among a select group of journalists, musicians and music industry insiders who have been invited here to Englewood Cliffs to hear a lost John Coltrane album played back in the room where it was recorded 55 years ago.
As we step inside, and our gaze is drawn up into the soaring wooden rafters overhead, there’s a giddy sense of excitement. The press corps is, inevitably, made up almost entirely of men of a certain age, and it’s a safe bet that most of us have shelves groaning with records, worn smooth from many listenings, that were made in this very room, so this moment has the air of a religious experience, as if we’re Christians being ushered into a certain stable in Bethlehem. That we are about to hear a recording that has been lost for half a century, by what many of us regard as the greatest small group in jazz history, in the same acoustic space that the music first issued forth into the world, seems frankly surreal.
Greats of jazz
It was Wednesday March 6th, 1963, when John Coltrane and his three colleagues – pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones – made that same trip from New York. It was a trip they had made many times before. Indeed, it was a route taken by most of the greats of jazz over the years – Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock – they all came out to New Jersey to record with Rudy Van Gelder. Sure, the piano they all used is still sitting there in the studio, as if it was just any piano.
John F Kennedy was still president in March 1963, and Walk Like a Man by the Four Seasons was playing on the radio. The sense of outrage in the African-American community and the clamour for civil rights was reaching fever pitch. Later that year, Martin Luther King would lead the march on Washington and announce that he had a dream.
The John Coltrane quartet were in the middle of a two-week run at Birdland, the famous jazz club in midtown Manhattan, so they probably didn’t arrive at the studio too early. They would have to pack up again and go back to Manhattan that evening to play another couple of sets at Birdland, and the following day, they would be back in Englewood Cliffs to record the legendary John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman session, so they were clearly going through an intense period of playing and recording. All of which bodes well for the recording we are about to hear.
The first thing we hear is a disembodied voice from the control room, much as the musicians would have heard it.
“About 10 years ago we learned of the existence of a bunch of tapes,” says Jamie Krents from Universal Music, the company that would own the master tapes if they still existed. “There were rumours about what as on them. These tapes were in the possession of [Coltrane’s first wife] Naima’s family and our big concern was ‘Was there a reason why these tapes didn’t come out?’ It was a great relief when we heard them and heard that this music was very much up to code.”
“But ultimately,” adds Krents, pointing to the man next to him who looks remarkably like John Coltrane, “the arbiter of that needed to be the Coltrane family, and Ravi as the head of the estate. I wish I had taken a picture of Ravi the first time he heard the tapes [because] it was clear that he agreed.”
Ravi Coltrane was less than two years old when his father died in 1967, but the son of Coltrane has spent much of his career bearing witness to his lineage. Some might have been overwhelmed by such a legacy, but Ravi Coltrane has found his own voice in the music, and it’s fair to say that today he is a respected saxophonist in his own right. If he sounds a little like his father, well, that would just place him in a category with pretty much every other horn player of the last 50 years.
“Rudy would run several machines when he was recording,” says Ravi, pointing at the engineer’s booth behind us. “He would run a separate mono machine to give to the artist to take home to review the material, so that’s where this tape comes from. It’s a session reel that was given to my father.”
In all, Coltrane seems to have brought four session reels back to New York that evening, to the home on Mexico Street in Queens that he shared with his first wife, Naima – there the tapes remained, apparently unheard. John and Naima broke up soon after that, which may explain why the saxophonist never went back to retrieve his tapes.
A silence falls in the studio as Maureen Sickler, Van Gelder’s long-time assistant, presses play in the booth. The first thing we hear is a disembodied voice from the control room, much as the musicians would have heard it.
“It’s an original, isn’t it?” says producer Bob Thiele.
“Yeh,” is the curt reply, presumably from Coltrane.
“11382” says Thille. “Eh, no, 383” he corrects himself, “an original.”
As the music suddenly fills the cavernous space above us, played back from two old reference speakers mounted high on the back wall, it’s impossible to know what to think. From the first note, it’s that familiar sound, Coltrane’s soprano saxophone, every note invested with such passion and conviction that the heart fills up and overflows.
And yet, 11383 is brand new, a Coltrane-penned minor blues none of us has ever heard before, as clean and pristine as the day it was laid down on that quarter-inch tape machine in the booth behind us. I’m trying to be in the moment and just listen to the music, but the mind races with speculation. I may be sitting now in the very spot that Elvin Jones sat when he played this powerful ‘medium up’ groove that is driving Coltrane through a magnificent solo. I look up into the rafters above our heads and try to imagine the sound as it was that day in 1963. Later, veteran sound engineer Bernard Drayton, who has the distinction of being the last man to record Coltrane live – and who refers to the great saxophonist unselfconsciously as “John” – quips that the acoustics in the room are so good that the crackle of Elvin’s snare drum is probably still up there somewhere, still reverberating in the cathedral-like space.
There are seven tracks in all on Both Directions at Once (with a further seven other takes to be included on the deluxe edition), including two untitled originals, 11383 and 11386, named for Thiele’s slate numbers, along with versions of Vilia, a theme by Hungarian composer Franz Lehár that Coltrane had taken to playing live, and Nature Boy, the song made famous by Nat King Cole. There’s also a marvellous take of One Up One Down, a Coltrane tune previously only known from a bootleg live recording, and another new tune simply called Slow Blues. Most exciting, the new album also contains the only studio recording the saxophonist ever made of Impressions, a staple of his live performances.
Whether the artists on this particular day set out to make an album, I don’t think they operated that way in those days
“This music is a half century old,’ Ravi tells us later, “and it was made at a time when these players were really cultivating a new sound in jazz. For us, 50 years later, our ears are acclimated to this style of playing, this approach to improvisation. The energy and impetus that these guys put out then, it just influenced everything that came after it, so our ears are very ready for that sound. But when these guys were doing it, it was brand new, and it was almost a sort of renegade thing that they were doing. They often said John Coltrane was going to end jazz, they called it anti-jazz, it was so different to what was the norm for jazz musicians at the time. These guys were playing a style of music they essentially invented, you know, they obviously had their roots and their influences, but when John Coltrane went in this direction, especially with Impressions, it was such a shift, and it did reshape the way that music was thought about and approached.”
With a musician – and a spirit – as great as Coltrane, there is little point in trying to parse his output, or place particular recordings in any kind of hierarchy. Both Directions at Once is a gift to the world, and like an undiscovered Mozart or a new Michelangelo.
The quartet would return to Englewood Cliffs little more than a year later to record A Love Supreme, one of the most powerfully moving and eloquent musical statements of the 20th century. This new album is not that, not a lost Love Supreme. Listening to it, there is occasionally the sense of musicians who are experimenting, recording for their own purposes, so they can listen back and see what works and what doesn’t.
We’ll take it, and be even more grateful than we already were.
“Whether the artists on this particular day set out to make an album, I don’t think they operated that way in those days,” says Ravi. “I think John Coltrane was at that position in his career that he could come in on his own terms and make a recording when he wanted to.
I feel that the music that was recorded on this date, they were in the middle of this Birdland run, and they were planning this very unique, almost concept record with Johnny Hartman the next day, so to come in the day before, to get a little bit loose, to test the sounds. But clearly they recorded enough music to fit onto two sides of an LP almost perfectly. When we sat down to sequence the record, everything just played out, a very logical LP format. The whole record is 40 minutes long, so yes, it does feel like an album.”
A new album by the great John Coltrane quartet? We’ll take it, and be even more grateful than we already were.