Ravi Coltrane On the State of Jazz & Why John Coltrane's Lost Album Couldn't Have Been Found at a Better Time
A trip to the late Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. is always a little like time traveling; at least for any jazz fan, knowing the hundreds of classic records that were first heard inside the vaulted, wood-paneled space makes stepping inside all the more transporting. But when a group of press and industry figures gathered there earlier this month, they may as well have been visiting in the midst of the studio’s heyday -- albeit after fighting through significantly worse traffic.
The occasion? The release of a new album from jazz legend John Coltrane, recorded in that same hallowed room in 1963. Never mind that 55 years have passed, the material is brand-new -- not a reissue, not a live release, not a collection of B-sides and rarities -- and includes two never-before-heard compositions. Titled In Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album, the 14-track, two-disc album (out June 29 on Impulse!) consists of remastered session tapes long assumed to be lost. They were discovered in the possession of Coltrane’s family, specifically descendants of him and his first wife Naima. (For a more in-depth exploration of the session’s genesis and discovery, see WBGO’s recent piece on the topic by Coltrane scholar Lewis Porter.)
“We were all over the moon listening to the music we found,” said Ravi Coltrane, John’s son and a fellow jazz musician, just after the listening session at the studio. The album features what’s considered to be John Coltrane’s classic quartet: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. The following year that same ensemble would record the Coltrane album most familiar to those who aren’t jazz aficionados, A Love Supreme, in the same room where the listening took place. As guests heard Both Directions, they sat facing the piano Tyner played on both recordings, drinking in the combination of familiar swing and unfamiliar solos and sounds. “We spend our lives following these players, recording, studying them, transcribing them -- you go at the new material like it's sustenance,” Ravi said.
The album finds the band in the middle of a two-week stint at Birdland, which spotlights them at their most experimental for the period: testing the limits of standards like “Nature Boy,” but still not quite at the total departures from conventional structure and harmony that Coltrane would arrive at within a few years. The only similar incidence of this kind of untapped well of material being recorded, according to the younger Coltrane, came with the 1995 album Stellar Regions, which was recorded just a few months before his father died in July 1967.
“This is a much more accessible group in many ways,” Ravi says of the Both Directions record. “The band was clearly just in a groove. It's almost a document of what they would do within a club performance during that period.”
Adding a chapter to Ravi’s encyclopedic knowledge of his father’s work via this album will eventually mean gaining new insights -- musical and otherwise -- from it. But right now, he’s still mostly just in awe of its existence. “These guys were just burning all the time,” he says. “There was just a real power in their conviction that comes through both on a recording that was lost and put on the shelf, or on A Love Supreme, which was very deliberate statement. Here the guys are kind of stretching out and getting loose and blowing, having a good time in the studio. There's a lot to be said for both approaches, I suppose.”
McCoy Tyner, the only musician on the record still alive today (now 79, he was just 24 at the time of the Both Directions session), happened to be playing in a club the same night as the listening: New York’s Blue Note, which was packed to the brim to see the legend in action. Tyner has, naturally, heard and endorsed the new release, though he didn’t mention it that night. Instead he attempted, just like at the listening, to make the phrase "jazz history" an oxymoron -- to show the vibrancy and life still evident in a music that just celebrated its recorded centennial. Though he was barely strong enough to lift himself off the piano bench, Tyner still gave his all to classics like “Evidence” and “Contemplation,” flashing the occasional grin when he heard something he liked.
Though performances from giants like Tyner are few and far between in 2018, the new album is being released to an audience that -- somewhat paradoxically -- might be more excited about it than they would have been had it been released five or 10 years ago. Jazz is having a moment in the critical mainstream, but not because of the persistence of its golden age heroes.
“Jazz is something that's way out there on the fringes, until there's a gateway performer or band,” says Ravi Coltrane. “My cousin Steven Ellison, Flying Lotus, has been incorporating a lot of music inspired by people like Pharoah Sanders and my mother [Alice Coltrane] as have Kamasi [Washington] and Kendrick [Lamar]. That helps get the music into the zeitgeist, into the ears of younger audiences.”
Another facet of the new album’s improbable timeliness comes from the unprecedented access to all music of the past -- but especially jazz, given its enormous recorded catalog -- that has come with the proliferation of streaming services. It can be a double-edged sword, however: contemporary jazz artists have long battled the records of the genre’s legends for sales and attention. Now, it’s even easier to remain enveloped in jazz’s past: anyone looking to familiarize themselves with John Coltrane’s oeuvre need only open an app on their phone; live video is easily surfaced on YouTube.
Spotify was betting on that connection with its first-ever jazz event, a listening party for Both Directions that the company hosted at New York’s The Django. The club, explicitly designed to recreate the kind of basements where John Coltrane and his peers would have spent most nights, hosted two representatives of the Onyx Collective who preceded the album with a sparse, edgy saxophone and drum duet still staunchly rooted in jazz’s history. Like the visit to Van Gelder’s studio, it was transporting; instead of confronting ghosts, however, attendees saw the fruits of John Coltrane’s labor in the artists still trying to digest and continue his work.
“From the 1940s to the 1960s, these were some of the most modern creators that had ever appeared: rock musicians, jazz musicians, funk musicians,” Ravi Coltrane says. “There was a lot there to compel the next couple generations. I think we're still feeling that, and we're still reacting to it as artists and creative people. We're still informed by it.”
That is part of what drives the continued search for more albums to release, a process that the younger Coltrane acknowledges is fraught given the desire to not tarnish his father’s legacy, while also ensuring that records with historical significance are accessible. (He jokes about the profits, which will almost certainly be a boon for the Coltrane estate and the label.) “We still have some tapes and I'm sure his first wife's family still has tapes,” he says, unwilling to totally rule out the possibility that some other previously-lost album lies in the vault. “It was very, very special to have one standalone session. There are tapes with one or two outtakes of things that have never been heard, but this is an entire album. That's pretty rare. I hope another lost album appears.”
Whether this is the last album or not, Ravi Coltrane still hopes that, even all these years later, it might bring some new fans to his father’s music, and to jazz. “John Coltrane is a name that people do recognize, even if they haven't heard his music before,” he says. “They associate that name with something that's elevated or grand or important. So if a record comes along to put a sonic stamp on that name, hopefully it's something they can recognize and embrace in some ways -- because they have been hearing music influenced by these guys for their whole lives.”