Deep Dive with Lewis Porter: Considering John Coltrane's 'Lost Album,' From All Directions

Jun 28, 2018

You’ve surely seen reports about the newly discovered studio session by the John Coltrane Quartet, recorded on March 6, 1963.

I’ve devoted a significant portion of my professional life to studying this band — as a jazz performer, a Coltrane biographer and researcher, and an educator — and discoveries of this scale are few and far between.

It’s been known for many years that the session occurred, but the master tapes were gone and it was not known that any copies existed. The new release, Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album, is a truly significant event. First and foremost, of course, the music is topnotch Coltrane Quartet in the midpoint of the group’s career.

Besides, this is the first new studio album to be released by the group since the 1970s, which saw Transition, Sun Ship and the quartet version of Meditations (released under the album title First Meditations). And all three of those were recorded in 1965, near the end of the band’s lifespan. Here we have a representation of what it sounded like early in 1963, a period that’s only documented on a few short radio broadcasts.

That’s particularly important, because this was the period when producer Bob Thiele, with Coltrane’s cooperation, was on a campaign to establish Coltrane as an accessible artist. The album Duke Ellington and John Coltrane was released in Feb. 1963, Ballads was released in March, and the album with Johnny Hartman, recorded the day after Both Directions, was released in July along with Impressions, most of which had been recorded at the Village Vanguard in Nov. 1961.

That last album may seem contrary to Thiele’s goal, but by then he felt he needed to pair the “commercial” albums with something for the hardcore jazz audience. In any case, none of what the public had access to in 1963 (remember, the bootlegs came much later) represented the current quartet. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Hartman album as much as you probably do — not only for Hartman’s subtle and expressive singing, but also for McCoy Tyner’s magnificent accompaniments, which are less often noted. But that album was a one-off, nothing to do with the usual sound of the quartet.

The album packaging for 'Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album'
Credit Impulse/Verve/UMe

On Both Directions you get the group intact. In fact, Thiele’s mission of presenting Coltrane’s gentle side was surely one reason this didn’t get released at the time. The album didn’t fit into this plan. And by the end of the year, when enough time had passed that perhaps yet another album could have been released, Coltrane and Thiele probably both felt that the March session was old news.

More important, Coltrane had decided not to keep any of the tunes from March in his repertory, with the exception of “Impressions,” of which they had just released the definitive live version. And John surely didn’t want to be committed to performing them at gigs, which would be expected if they put out an album of those pieces. That is not to diminish the strength of the album at all — it just means that here, as always, Coltrane moved on quickly.

It was atypical of Coltrane to plan an entire album out, with the exception of A Love Supreme, so I’m not persuaded by the argument that he saw all this music as going on one album. It was and still is typically the producer who puts the recordings together into an album, and chooses a sequence of tunes. Besides, the first CD runs way too long for an Impulse! LP, which were typically around 35 minutes in total length, both sides combined.

Nor can we be certain that this is the music that the group was playing in person, such as during their stint at Birdland that week. Coltrane famously liked to throw new material at his bandmates in the studio, something he learned from Miles (think Kind of Blue). Most likely, this was a spontaneous recording date inspired by some ideas that came to Coltrane during the Birdland engagement, the kind of last-minute session that Thiele encouraged with Coltrane, regardless of the expense.

John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman and McCoy Tyner at Van Gelder Studios, March 7, 1963
Credit Joe Alper

Further proof of that is the fact that it came just a day before the Hartman session, which had been planned well in advance. (Hartman said he’d been on tour and they had to choose a date that fit his schedule, and plan a short rehearsal a week before.) Besides, why record two unrelated sets of music two days in a row, creating undue pressure, unless the first day had been added at the last minute?  

There’s a bit of a story as to why it took 55 years for this terrific music to see the light of day. So for this installment of Deep Dive, my ongoing series of jazz history posts, I’d like to review the history of the tapes, and make a few points about the album and its music.

Previously unknown recordings come from a number of sources. Sometimes they’re taped from radio broadcasts (particularly in Europe, which has a much better track record of broadcasting jazz on radio and television than the United States). Less often they might be audience recordings, or even recorded in someone’s home. Frequently they are studio recordings that have been “in the can”— sitting in the record company’s storage vault but not yet released for various reasons. Often it’s a simple matter of timing, such as it being too soon after another album was issued.

In the case of the album Expression, the music had already been assembled from recordings that Coltrane made during the first months of 1967, and he and Bob Thiele had agreed on the title, according to my late friend Nat Hentoff. But then Coltrane died unexpectedly on July 17, so that when the album was released, around Coltrane’s birth date in late September, it became the first posthumous release, with Hentoff’s liner notes serving in memoriam. Wikipedia’s claim that this was “the last studio album to be approved for release by Coltrane” is misleading, because labels are generally not required to get “approval” from the artist. Still, it is true that Thiele was in the habit of consulting with Coltrane on album plans.

As a prime instance of releasing material without the artist’s approval, there are many cases of outtakes that were unissued because they were “second choices,” but that are still clearly excellent and deserve to be heard. Atlantic Records started to release alternate takes in 1970 (The Coltrane Legacy) and ‘74 (Alternate Takes), but during Coltrane’s lifetime they had already released two albums of tracks recorded in 1960 that had been “in the can”— Coltrane Plays the Blues and Coltrane’s Sound. There is no reason to assume Coltrane was consulted about either one of these.

Probably the most notorious of these “outtake” releases was The Last Trane, released in 1966 on Prestige. The liner notes, written in May ‘65, explained that this album consisted of the last remaining unissued tracks in the Prestige vaults that included Coltrane. Recorded in ‘57 and ‘58, these were hardly the “last recordings” to be made by John, as the title seemed to imply.

Sometimes tapes are found through sheer luck. The Heavyweight Champion, a boxed set of the complete Atlantic recordings, on which I assisted the late producer Joel Dorn, includes a full CD of never-issued outtakes from the album Giant Steps. In addition, there were about 20 minutes of outtakes distributed among the other CDs, but mistakenly omitted from all descriptions of the set.

It was well known that Atlantic’s outtake reels had been destroyed in a catastrophic warehouse fire in 1978. So where did the tapes come from? Well, I still remember the phone call from Joel telling me that he’d sent two of his Atlantic colleagues to scour the shelves in search of Coltrane material, and that they’d found some backup tapes that producer Ilhan Mimaroglu had made when he was deciding what to include on the Alternate Takes album. In fact, these reels contained only what Mimaroglu had chosen not to release — he’d cut off the parts of the tapes that he’d chosen to release and wound them onto a “master” reel — but the unissued items were exactly what we needed! These were on 10-inch reels, and the tapes were a half-inch wide, so they were not professional quality, but very good. (Today we talk about sampling rates, but it’s always been true that bigger media and higher speeds capture more information and detail.)

A funny side-note: On one tape box, Ilhan had written the titles of tracks 1, 2, and 3, but as Joel and I listened, a fourth track came on. I had a mental block as to the title, so I wrote “4. Village Blues or Mr. Day?” on the back of the tape box. When our creative art director, Geoff Gans, decided to place the “bonus disc” in a miniature replica of a tape box, that’s the box he chose. If you have the set, you’ll see my handwriting on the back of that inner box!

Both Directions At Once is also the lucky result of finding backup tapes. In the liner notes to Expression, Hentoff wrote: “Bob Thiele intends to release everything Coltrane recorded for Impulse.” But when Impulse was moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s by its owner, ABC, somebody — I feel like saying somebody crazy! — decided that to save storage space, many of the outtake reels would be thrown out. It’s hard to believe that this late in the game, there was not yet a sense of historicity and preservation. David Wild, my fellow Coltrane researcher and pianist, reports that “when Impulse and Blue Note producer Michael Cuscuna and I were in the old Beverly Boulevard vault in the ‘70s, a lot of the outtake reels were gone. We were extremely lucky that the 1961 Village Vanguard material was still in storage, and that a set of stereo tapes existed for Africa/Brass. The reels that were missing seemed to follow no pattern.” (Cuscuna adds, “tapes from ‘61 and ’65 were there, but absolutely no ’62, ’63, ’64, ’66 or ’67.”)

Thiele’s session log book listed recording session dates and tune titles, or numbers for untitled tunes (but not exactly how many takes of each). So thanks to Wild’s research, we knew what recordings had been made and when. But as far as anybody knew, they no longer existed, and certainly nobody had copies.

Then, in late 2004, Guernsey’s auction house started contacting the families of jazz legends in order to put together a major auction of jazz materials. Naima had passed away and her daughter Antonia Andrews (Coltrane’s step-daughter, and the dedicatee of “Syeeda’s Song Flute”), Antonia's son Zaid Bettis and brother Jamail Coltrane came forward with a stack of home quality, monaural, 7-inch diameter reels containing quarter-inch tapes. As it turned out, Coltrane had a special arrangement with recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder. He really liked to listen to the results right after a recording session, so Rudy would record for John on a home-quality tape deck, simultaneously with recording the session onto professional tape. At the end of the session, John would go home with his set of tapes. These tapes, probably unplayed for 45 years, are what they had uncovered!

In short order, Impulse intervened and declared, quite rightly, that these tapes could not be auctioned off to private parties scattered throughout the globe. The label began talks to purchase them back from the family for eventual release. The 2015 deluxe edition of A Love Supreme came from these tapes, which have also now yielded Both Directions At Once.

As for the title of the album, it comes from something that Wayne Shorter has said in at least four printed interviews going back to at least 1982. Shorter said that John once told him that he’d like to be able to “begin in the middle of a sentence and speak in both directions simultaneously.” (Black Music & Jazz Review, vol. 5, p. 25, 1982)

Who knows what John meant by that? Perhaps, as author Kenny Mathieson interpreted it in his Giant Steps: Bebop and the Creators of Modern Jazz, 1945-65 (2012), this was evidence of Coltrane’s “endlessly fertile imagination,” and his wish to be able to play several things at once. (Thank to Ashley Kahn for sharing with me these sources, given to him by a researcher at Encyclopedia Britannica.) To me, it’s also a typically cryptic Wayne statement — but Wayne did say he got it from John, and it’s been repeated by Wayne several times since.

Musically it’s a very strong album indeed, with a good deal of variety. It’s fascinating to hear John trying things different ways. He plays “Vilia” on tenor and then on soprano. He tries “Impressions” (still untitled, until Coltrane had to decide so that the album of that name could be issued in July) slow with piano, and faster without piano. He plays “Nature Boy” without piano, to be redone on a later session. All of this is yet another indication that that he hadn’t an album in mind.

By the way, “Vilia” is a song about the legend of a female “woodland sprite” from the famous operetta The Merry Widow by Franz Lehár. (You might think of operettas as a step between opera and musicals.) Here is an audio version featuring the spectacular Elaine Malbin; you’ll hear the theme briefly as an intro, and then it is sung starting at about 1:10.

“Vilia” had been recorded as an instrumental by Artie Shaw (1939) and Glenn Miller (1941), but it was not well known. However, significantly, it was in Hartman’s repertory at this time, as noted in The New York Times. It seems likely that Hartman turned Coltrane on to this song (though he himself never recorded it).

Throughout this new material, McCoy plays with his typical brilliance.  But it’s notable how many tracks have no piano: “Nature Boy,” the last two versions of “Impressions,” much of “Slow Blues.” McCoy also drops out during John’s solos on every take of “11386” (these are the Impulse reference numbers), and doesn’t play during the first three minutes of “One Up, One Down,” nor during the end of John’s solo on the blues “11383.” It’s probably fair to assume that this was happening on gigs as well, and when Tyner finally left the group at the end of 1965, one reason he gave was that John didn’t want a piano playing all the time anyway.

Garrison, little as it’s recognized, often broke up the beat in interesting ways — listen, for example, to the beginning of the last take of “Impressions.” On the new blues “11383,” Garrison solos fluently with the bow, à la Paul Chambers — enough to dispel the notion that he wasn’t facile with a bow.

“One Up, One Down” is an interesting case, in that the only other recording of it is from a tape of a radio broadcast from Birdland less than two weeks before this studio session. It has been issued on bootlegs under this title. But since Coltrane was not in the habit of announcing song titles, it’s not known whether this title came from him or from a creative and musically knowledgeable bootlegger! At this point in time, people are used to referring to it by that title, including Ravi Coltrane himself, and its use on this album makes the title official. The piece does make an effective contrast with “One Down, One Up,” which was released by Impulse during John’s life, and must have been named by him. Interestingly, the theme of “One Up” is slightly similar to that of “Transition,” to be recorded in 1965 — not the same by any stretch, but with a family resemblance that makes me wonder if “One Up” was a direct precursor.

But it’s the untitled piece “11386” that I have the most to say about, partly because I love it —but mainly because I just can’t imagine that Coltrane wrote it. Not only does it not sound to me like a Coltrane piece, but there is an unknown person directing this piece on the session reels, heard in short segments not released to the public. (The two-CD version is complete but omits some brief incomplete takes and a few seconds of talk here and there.) The piece is in F minor (or Dorian mode, if you prefer — Coltrane once described “My Favorite Things” as being in minor, though we might call it Dorian) and follows an AABA form. After the sax solo, the entire theme is reprised. After the piano solo, only the AA is played, followed by a bass and drum duo. Then the entire AABA form repeats at the end.

The sequence of events heard on the reels is as follows: Two complete takes of the piece are finished. Then for take 3, the arrangement is changed around a bit, with an added drum introduction and a significantly revised piano part that has Tyner trilling during the theme, before playing part of it with John. After about 90 seconds, they stop, and a voice, evidently the one who stopped them, says “Let me hear it.” (Meaning: “Play it back so I can hear how that sounds on the recording.”) This voice is, to my ear, not one of the members of the quartet.

Take 4 is another try at the drum introduction. As soon as the others come in, it is cut short, and the unidentified person, clearly dissatisfied, says “What was that, man? What was…” (the engineer turns it off there). Then they perform the complete take 5. (Both Directions includes the three complete takes, 1, 2, and 5.)

John Coltrane (right) with McCoy Tyner at Van Gelder Studios in 1963, one day after the session that would become 'Both Directions at Once.'
Credit Joe Alper / Joe Alper Photo Collection LLC

It seems clear to me that the unidentified person directing this piece is the composer. Unfortunately, Tyner no longer remembers who wrote the piece, or even if he wrote it (which was my initial hunch until I heard this other voice). I’ve tried other research methods — for example, my researcher colleague Bertrand Uberall has looked into handwritten unpublished sheet music at the Library of Congress — but so far there’s no luck. 

Although I believe that the unidentified person most likely wrote it, I’m not ready to rule out that it might have been Coltrane after all, or Tyner. It certainly is compatible with Tyner’s style, and after all, John did record Tyner’s compositions, if infrequently — “The Believer” on Prestige back in 1958, “Aisha” on Atlantic for Tyner’s wife, and “Not Yet,” a piano feature from 1962 first issued as a bonus track on the album Coltrane. “Not Yet,” somewhat in the tradition of Bobby Timmons’ hit “Moanin’,” is, like “11386,” in F minor.

I’m still pursuing a few leads regarding “11386.” If anything turns up, I’ll post an update here. I suppose this is what fascinates me about research. There’s new information to process, or new context, all the time – often when you least expect it. In fact, from the discovery of the tapes to the identification of the tunes, Both Directions is a perfect case in point.

Dr. Lewis Porter has published acclaimed books on John Coltrane, Lester Young, and jazz history, and has taught at institutions including Rutgers and The New School. He’s also a prolific pianist whose latest album as a leader, Beauty & Mystery (Altrisuoni), features Terri Lyne Carrington, John Patitucci and Tia Fuller.

Deep Dive with Lewis Porter carries on a project originally known as You Don't Know Jazz! with Lewis Porter, produced for WBGO by Alex W. Rodriguez and Tim Wilkins.