On March 6, 1963, John Coltrane and his quartet arrived at Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey to record an album. It was a busy time for the group, which featured pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. They were at the tail end of a two-week residency at the Birdland jazz club in Manhattan, and the very next day they would record an album with singer Johnny Hartman.
But the recordings from that March afternoon session never saw the light of day — until now. Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album is being released by Impulse! Records on June 29 and features two Coltrane compositions that have never been heard before from a time when the quartet was at the height of its musicianship. The album includes unique renditions of the Coltrane classic "Impressions" and several other tracks that the quartet would release down the line.
"To have an entire album of music surface, this is definitely a rare thing," Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane's son, explains in a conversation with NPR's Audie Cornish and Jazz Night In America host Christian McBride. The younger Coltrane, who is also a saxophonist, helped put the album together. "It's kind of like a little time capsule. It gives us a glimpse fifty years into the past of this incredible working band," he says.
Rudy Van Gelder, the sound engineer for the session, had given John Coltrane a copy of the recordings at the time. John gave that copy to his first wife, Juanita Naima Coltrane, whose family recently discovered it.
"Any time you can find a whole album's worth of never-before-heard John Coltrane quartet music, that's very significant," McBride says.
According to McBride, 1963 was a pivotal year for Coltrane. He had left behind his early bebop roots and was beginning to enter the avant-garde, free-jazz phase that would define the last few years of his life. (John Coltrane died in 1967.)
"John Coltrane was the leading voice in balancing both the previous generation — coming from Miles Davis's band — and also leading the way for some of the new school and the freer-thinking players," McBride says.
For Ravi Coltrane, this tension explains the album's title.
"It does feel like he has one foot in the past and one foot in the future," Ravi says. "And with this music you do get sort of both of those directions in John's music at once."
The album's tracks are heavily improvisational, especially the two previously unheard compositions. "Untitled Original 11383" is upbeat and careening, featuring each band member soloing in turn around a short, measure-long central melody. Its companion piece, "Untitled Original 11386," is a swinging and winding journey through nearly nine minutes of improvisation. "The music has a purity to it, that's the one thing you can always rely on," Ravi says. "They're reacting to each other's calls and responses, and riffs, and phrases and textures."
The album also features renditions of "Vilia," "One Up, One Down," "Nature Boy" and different takes of the songs, with substantially varied improvisations.
"It's an incredible buried treasure to have this emerge today," Ravi says.