How did John Coltrane’s Lost Album get lost?

Rosie Pentreath

Here are some possible reasons for the very delayed album release

It’s not as rare as it may seem to rock up with a “lost” John Coltrane recording. Indeed, 2005’s Live at the Half Note: One Down, One Up is an album of 1965 Coltrane recordings that were lost and rediscovered, and a recording of one of the last concerts Coltrane played was found and released as Offering: Live At Temple University as late as 2014.

But what makes Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album, released at the end of last month on Impulse! Records, so exciting is that it’s an entire album-length collection of original Coltrane tracks—some familiar territory, some entirely groundbreaking—that the John Coltrane Quartet recorded on a single day in 1963 at recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio at the very height of their output. The amount of previously unheard Coltrane stuff on there makes it an incredible find.

How, then, was it “lost”? Why wasn’t it released by Coltrane’s label at that time? Here are some possible reasons the saxophonist’s contemporaneous fan base wasn’t able to enjoy the brilliant collection of tracks we have been treated to 55 years after it was recorded.

 

The Coltrane Quartet was too prolific for it’s own good

Coltrane’s producer, Bob Thiele, had a habit of recording Coltrane more frequently than Coltrane’s label, Impulse! Records, wanted to release Coltrane. “I was always over budget with Coltrane,” Thiele says in a 1995 interview that’s reproduced in the sleeve notes for The Lost Album. “I was finally told, ‘You can’t just keep recording this guy. We’ll never get these albums out’”, Thiele divulges. Boy, are we glad he did.

 

Coltrane recorded his iconic Johnny Hartman collab the next day

The John Coltrane Quartet did have an incredibly busy schedule when these lost tracks were recorded on March 6, 1963. Indeed, they were back in Van Gelder’s studio the very next day to make a record with popular jazz singer, Johnny Hartman, which would have been an important project for Coltrane’s label.

Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartmann achieved as much mainstream success as it did critical acclaim, so it’s easy to see why it was prioritised over what became The Lost Album, which is much more exploratory and experimental in its nature (and therefore less commercial). Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

 

The tapes for Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album remained in the care of Coltrane’s first wife Naima’s family

Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album survived on a session tape recorded by Van Gelder at the same time as he made the master recordings of the album. Coltrane took the tape home to his then wife, Naima, and it has been in the procession of her family ever since.

Coltrane was to meet Alice, his second wife, in the same year the Lost Album was recorded, and it is Alice Coltrane, and her and John’s saxophonist son, Ravi Coltrane, who are traditionally responsible for releasing Coltrane’s unheard music posthumously. Naima’s family had this gem of an album tucked safely away for years and were just a little slower of the mark to get it found by the right people and heard by grateful fans. The saving grace in this situation is that the album is well worth the wait.