What if there were one more Shakespeare comedy out there featuring Benedick and Beatrice that we didn’t know existed? What if there were another novel by Willa Cather set out on the plains of Nebraska that referenced characters in My Antonía, packed away in a forgotten trunk somewhere? What if there were one more vivid painting by Van Gogh that was instantly recognizable because of the way he handled a brush and layered his paint?
On June 29, something very much like all of these, encompassing in its own way each of these possibilities, will finally see the light of day for the first time in over 55 years: a previously unreleased album by jazz giant John Coltrane, recorded on March 6, 1963. Coltrane and the other three players in what was known as his “classic” quartet were right in the middle of a two-week gig at a famous jazz club in Manhattan called Birdland when they came over to a small New Jersey studio and recorded seven different tunes. After the session Coltrane himself took a tape of what they’d done home with him. Then it simply disappeared, apparently forgotten or at least set aside in light of the other projects and recording sessions that the quartet had scheduled.
The recording wound up with a collection of other tapes that were in the possession of the family of Coltrane’s first wife whom he had married in 1955. The two broke up in 1963 with Coltrane moving out of their house just a few months after this recording session took place. He died in 1967.
Since the mid-1970s a few people knew the recording was out there somewhere, but it wasn’t finally tracked down until 2004. Jazz great Sonny Rollins, a friend of Coltrane’s, compared the recording to finding a new room in the Great Pyramid. Coltrane’s son Ravi helped prepare it for release and said thatin 1963 his father and his quartet were approaching the height of their musical powers, and the playing here is indeed self-assured, creative, and solid. “On this record,” he said, you get a sense of John “with one foot in the past and one foot headed toward his future.”
The new album is fittingly entitled Both Directions at Once because it sets us down between albums we already knew existed and lets us look forward and backward to sense an evolution. It’s fully formed complete album, in other words not a collection of outtakes or bootleg recordings. It links his earlier concentration on melodic improvisations—he recorded versions of “My Favorite Things” and “Summertime” in 1961—and his later embrace of avant-garde free jazz, best exemplified by his astonishing and deeply spiritual album A Love Supreme which he recorded with this same line-up of players in 1964 and which is regarded as one of the most original and acclaimed albums of all time.
Happily for impatient people like me, iTunes has made one of the cuts from the album available early and I’ve been listening to it as I write this. It’s a tune labeled only as #11383. Before it begins you can hear the engineer ask “It’s an original isn’t it?” and Coltrane answer “Yeah,” from the studio floor. The playing is immediately recognizable as him. On this cut he’s playing soprano sax, and the sound is sparkling, with crystal clear differentiation between the piano, bass, and drums. This is the only time this song was ever recorded and the world apparently knew nothing of its existence until now. There are two more originals here as well, songs that were never recorded again. The album also contains the only known studio versions of his live gig landmark numbers “Impressions” and “One Up, One Down.”
On the radio earlier this week, I spoke about how knowing an artist’s influences helps make sense of what she or he creates. It illuminates for us the context in which new art exists. In the same way, knowing the steps through which an artist passes as he reacts to his own work also reveals a great deal, particularly in terms of how an individual artist develops through time. What we hear in this new Coltrane album enlarges our appreciation of his gifts by filling in a step in his development that was up until now a silent gap. And it lets us much more from an artist from whom we thought we had heard all there was to hear.