The Wire’s longtime US jazz correspondent visits the studio of engineer Rudy Van Gelder to check out three previously unheard Coltrane compositions
Like pilgrims approaching a hallowed shrine anticipating divine revelations, some three dozen music critics from Belgium, Ireland, Japan, Holland and Canada, as well as writers for US publications including Rolling Stone, DownBeat and JazzTimes, gathered at a small recording studio tucked away behind trees off a commercial route in New Jersey at midday on 10 June. Excitement was justified, as we'd come from Manhattan by bus or Uber as arranged by Verve Records to preview Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album by The John Coltrane Quartet, recorded on 6 March 1963 in these same premises and by engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who gave modern jazz its sound.
Van Gelder's studio is clean and modest, a simple cinderblock square topped by a wood-beamed pyramid and now (but not in 63) including three separation booths and a mixing desk room. We crowded in wide eyed, as Van Gelder (who died at age 91 in 2016) never welcomed hangers-on at sessions here; allowed no food or drink inside; let no one else touch his equipment, and wore gloves while working. Here, from 1961–2011, the meticulous, innovative, secretive recordist helped create masterpieces for Prestige, Blue Note, Impulse! and CTI Records by Art Blakey, Grant Green, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Tony Williams and many more, and not least of all Coltrane, documented in "live stereo". Prior to multitrack recording, Van Gelder's artfully placed microphones captured the saxophonist, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones for programmes issued as Africa/Brass, A Love Supreme, Crescent, Transition, Ascension, Kulu Sé Mama, Sun Ship, Meditations and Om, among 37 dates in all.
Ravi Coltrane, saxophonist son of Coltrane (who died in 1967, when Ravi was two) and Alice McLeod Coltrane, greeted everyone; his own teenage son sat in a front row. Electric bassist Matt Garrison, son of Coltrane's upright bassist Jimmy Garrison and Ravi’s partner in a trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette, was in attendance with his own son. McCoy Tyner was absent, performing that night at New York's Blue Note club. Elvin Jones died in 2004, but was present from downbeat and cymbal splash kicking off of "Untitled Original 11383”, as the first track of Both Directions At Once came from the studio's speakers.
A blues in b-flat minor with Coltrane playing soprano sax, this tune named for its slate number breaks opens fast, as do all three of the album's previously unheard compositions (out of seven tracks on the standard edition comprising 48 minutes, selected by Ravi, or 14 including alternate takes in a deluxe edition; both to be released on 29 June). The session's circumstances may explain why: the band was concluding a week stand at Birdland and took the opportunity to document what they'd been playing. They knew exactly what they wanted to showcase. They'd last been at Van Gelder's six months earlier, recording the Duke Ellington & John Coltrane collaboration. Having spent the afternoon in New Jersey, they packed up and travelled back across the Hudson to play at Birdland. They returned to Van Gelder's the very next day to record the six songs of John Coltrane and jazz singer Johnny Hartman, providing sensitive backgrounds and obbligati for the suave vocalist Coltrane had never previously met, and would never meet again.
"11383 (Take 1)" is distinguished by a compressed, contorted head. Coltrane's second chorus launches into his horn's upper register and characteristic probing outreach, followed by a sparkling Tyner solo, and Garrison's unusual low, bowed solo which without pause turns into plucking. The listening party skipped "Nature Boy" and "Villa", both previously released on Impulse! collections, and "One Up One Down", known only from a bootleg. We heard "Untitled Original 11386", another soprano outing with Coltrane in his quasi-Indian element, Jones laying down an African tom-tom motif and Tyner setting his right hand free. The critics grinned, bounced and nodded in time as Jones and Garrison duetted, applauding when the tune stopped.
We next heard the only studio version of Coltrane's repertoire staple "Impression", less than four minutes with him on tenor and no Tyner at all, then "Slow Blues". Coltrane confidently turned phrases upside down, inside and out, built tension by varying phrase lengths, cried, declaimed and muttered asides while the rhythm section simply swung.
Ravi and Ken Drucker, the Verve Label Group vice president of jazz development, sat on stools in the music room's centre (where photos showed the quartet had set up), and spoke between each track. They explained that this session's masters had been misplaced or destroyed when ABC Records moved the Impulse! archive to Los Angeles in the late 60s. But Van Gelder made mono reference copies for musicians to take away from their dates, and Coltrane's was found in the possession of the children of his first wife Naima. Ravi vetted the music as complete and releasable.
"To call something an album connotes it has a beginning, middle, end and arc or thread pulling through it," he said. "That's the case here. The quartet recorded enough to fit perfectly on two sides of an LP, with extra takes but nothing wasted. The music's more than half a century old and we're acclimated to it now, but when it was made people spoke of Coltrane as a renegade, and 'anti-jazz'. Well, he was so influential that he affected everything that came after. Today this sounds as modern as when it was recorded." He smiled, concluding, "It's not a bad record. These guys can play."
Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album by The John Coltrane Quartet is released by Impulse!/Universal Music Group on 29 June.