John Coltrane's Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album Debuts at Englewood Cliffs

A stunning jazz discovery presented at a historic citadel of recording technology. That event took place June 11, when the new John Coltrane recording, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, which will be released June 29, was unveiled at Van Gelder Studio, the fabled location where the celebrated engineer recorded many jazz masterpieces.

From the early 1950s to his death, Rudy Van Gelder recorded 1000s of sessions for such iconic jazz labels as Savoy, Impulse!, CTI, Prestige and Blue Note at his Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio. Notoriously tight-lipped regarding the details of his recording processes, which included innovative close-miking techniques, direct to two-track recording, in-house mastering and lacquer cutting, much of it before the era of multitrack recording, Van Gelder's secrets died with him at age 91 on August 25, 2016.

One "RVG" (the Van Gelder signature etched or stamped in a vinyl's dead wax) session that somehow escaped release was recently discovered in the form of a 7" reference tape reel found among the belongings of John Coltrane's first wife, Juanita Grubbs, or as Trane fans know her, "Naima." That reel became Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album.

Ravi Coltrane with Verve Records VP of Jazz Development Ken Druker

"Rudy had refined this sensibility for recording jazz artists," recalled saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane's son, to a packed house of journalists and family friends at Van Gelder Studio, a large, vaulted, wood-and-masonry-block space that feels like a holy place—the church of John Coltrane. "The first time I played in this room was on a record date with Elvin Jones."

"This music is over a half century old," Coltrane continued, "and was made at a time when these players were really cultivating a new sound in jazz. 50 years later, our ears are acclimated to this style of playing. But this approach to improvisation, the energy, the fearlessness these guys put out there . . . it influenced everything that came after it."

Recorded at Van Gelder Studio on March 6, 1963, Both Directions at Once marked a transitional period for Coltrane's classic quartet of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Also recorded by Coltrane in 1963 at RVG's: Ballads, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, and one day after the Both Directions . . . session, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, all considerably more conservative albums than his later Impulse! efforts. Both Directions . . . straddles the two eras, documenting Coltrane's ongoing use of American songbook standards (which began with "While My Lady Sleeps" from 1957's Coltrane recorded at Rudy's Hackensack, New Jersey studio), and his emergent improvisation and composition style, the latter hinting at 1964's Crescent and Trane's 1965 masterpiece, A Love Supreme. Both Directions at Once is a worthy addition to the Coltrane canon.

"There's an arc of consciousness that carries the listener throughout the A side," Ravi Coltrane noted in conversation with Verve Records VP of Jazz Development, Ken Druker. "John's relationship with Bob Thiele, the producer at ABC, they were close . . . and also, John's relationship with Rudy Van Gelder, John almost had a set of keys to this studio. When the spirit moved him, or he felt he had something to document, he was at a point in his career where he could and did make music as he wanted to. The quartet was in the middle of a [two-week] run at Birdland, and they were planning on this very unique concept record. They came to Rudy's to get a little loose . . . they recorded enough music to fit on two sides of a record almost perfectly."

To give you an idea of Van Gelder's work load during that heady jazz era, in that same March week Van Gelder recorded McCoy Tyner's Nights Of Ballads & Blues for Impulse!, Hank Mobley's No Room For Squares and The Turnaround! for Blue Note, the Coltrane Quartet/Hartman session, and Lucky Thompson Plays Jerome Kern and No More for Prestige. (See Ashley Kahn's excellent liner notes for Both Directions . . . for further history of the session.)

The standard version of Both Directions . . . begins with "Untitled Original 11383," titled as such because the tape reel lacked notation beyond the word "Triangles," the title referring instead to the song's slate number. "11383" blasts off, Coltrane on soprano and drummer Elvin Jones kicking it forward with knotty, rolling, hard swinging intent, a solid choice for an "Impressions" bookend. "Nature Boy," which Trane also recorded for 1965's The John Coltrane Quartet Plays sounds hot and humid, Elvin popping the dry, mournful air with heated jabs. "Untitled Original 11386" follows, sweeter in intent, the rhythm veering from Afro Cuban to swing with an easy gait. "Vilia," from Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow, shows Trane working standards-type territory, another breezy swing treat. "Impressions (Take 3)" follows, a piano-less trio version with Elvin and Jimmy Garrison driving hard—tumbling, circling, pummeling. This first ever studio version of the Coltrane classic is a revelation. "Slow Blues" could be straight off 1962's Coltrane Plays the Blues, but Trane's solo is more exploratory, adventurous and assured. "One Up, One Down (Take 1)," "Impressions," and the two untitled originals form the album's highlights. "One Up"s acerbic, jagged opening gives way to a classic Trane/Jones battle, a seismic, eruptive, disruptive improvisational tour de force with machine gun-to-the-skull breaks from Elvin and an equally powerful solo by Jimmy Garrison.

Impulse! is releasing Both Directions . . . on June 29 as a single LP and CD (the black and white cover) featuring one rendition each of the seven tunes the band recorded. A deluxe edition (the in-studio photograph) includes seven alternate takes from the same session on a separate disc, including four trio versions of the piano-less "Impressions." As well as the two originals, 'Untitled Original 11383' and 'Untitled Original 11386', both album versions feature the studio version of "One Up, One Down," previously released only as a live bootleg recording. Sequencing looks like this: Disc #1: "Untitled Original 11383 (Take 1)," "Nature Boy," "Untitled Original 11386," "Vilia (Take 3)," "Impressions (Take 3)," "Slow Blues, One Up, One Down (Take 1)." Disc #2 (deluxe version): "Vilia (Take 5)," "Impressions (Take 1)," "Impressions (Take 2)," "Impressions (Take 4)," "Untitled Original 11386 (Take 2)," "Untitled Original 11386 (Take 5)," "One Up, One Down (Take 6)."

Visiting Van Gelder Studio is no simple thing. There are no busloads of Japanese tourists stopping off on their way to Harlem for hush puppies at Sylvia's. And no tours of local historic interest, though that may occur one day. Ordinarily, you had to be a musician with a scheduled session to enter Van Gelder's hallowed hall of sound. So, walking into this studio where so many geniuses of jazz have recorded is akin to approaching Mecca, or in pop music terms, Liverpool's Cavern Club. It's holy ground zero for jazz.

Van Gelder Studio and its neighboring mid-century modern home were designed in 1959 by Frank Lloyd Wright associate David Henken. The studio's stunning interior space is reflected in its subtle exterior design. Listening to Coltrane's music where it was recorded, the eyes and mind wander, poring over every detail of the large space:

The Scully cutting lathe where Van Gelder etched, then stamped his initials "RVG" and finally, "VAN GELDER," into each disc.

An Ampex open-reel tape machine, now discarded, covered in plastic (Van Gelder fully embraced digital recording).

The staircase featured on the cover of Archie Shepp's album, Four for Trane.

Four isolation booths that didn't exist at the time of the Both Directions . . . recording. Rudy Van Gelder's control room which remains off-limits to visitors.

Rudy Van Gelder's nature photography and the unbranded monitors that played Both Directions at Once at the June 11 event.

A pair of bass drum microphones.

RVG's battered turntable.

Plaques showing Van Gelder's many awards and gold albums.

A small stuffed bird stands sentry on an isolation booth ledge. If a drummer played too loudly during a session, the bird would fall off is perch, signaling Van Gelder to either decrease the volume of the drummer's channel, or if prior to multitrack recording, ask the musician to do so himself.

Before Van Gelder passed, he willed the studio to his longtime assistant and engineer, Maureen Sickler, who, aided by husband Don Sickler, operates the studio today. With rising real estate values, a Korean conglomerate has attempted to purchase the studio, raze it, and build the usual office towers/luxury housing. Maureen Sickler is working with the Bergen County Historical Society to obtain landmark status for this very important part of American music history. Who knows what further gems lurk in its storied walls, if only they could talk?

"John's music was different from what then was the norm for jazz musicians at the time," Ravi Coltrane noted, regarding his father's Impulse!-era music. "This music . . . particularly 'Impressions,' it was such a shift. It's amazing to hear it today. It sounds as modern as it did in 1963."

The beautiful vaulted ceiling comprised of cedar panels and Douglas fir arches.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Glory days" :-) ...........

volvic's picture

Great read Mr. Micallef, thoroughly enjoyed this. Never seen the inside of the studio before. One of the best posts to appear on these pages in recent memory. Anxiously waiting for my CD and vinyl record. The postman can't come soon enough.

Herb Reichert's picture

nice piece. Loved the words AND the photos!

now get back to work !

ken mac's picture

you couldn't join Sphere and I! We had a blast.

Joe Harley's picture

Huge thanks to Ken for such a beautiful piece on Rudy's Englewood Cliffs cathedral of sound!! One small point: Rudy actually started recording in Englewood Cliff in July 1959. Prior to that Rudy recorded in the living room of his parent's house in Hackensack NJ, starting sometime in 1952.

ken mac's picture

I didn't say that? Guess not. Thanks for the correction/inclusion. Now if only we could see those Hackensack photos...

Joe Harley's picture

There are many shots of the inside of the Hackensack studio but very few of the outside of the house. Here's one ..... the main center section was the studio/living room. Whoops, can't attach photos to comments. Send me an e-mail or FB and I'll send it to you to post.

ken mac's picture

You mean thumbnails of musicians on the back of Blue Note album jackets? I've never seen a full interior shot of RVG's Hackensack digs.

ken mac's picture

I've seen the classic exterior shot, if you have links to interiors that I would love to see

ken mac's picture

"Van Gelder Studio and its neighboring mid-century modern home were designed in 1959 by Frank Lloyd Wright associate David Henken"

ken mac's picture

Joe Harley's picture

Hi Ken, I sent you some shots via e-mail of the house, Rudy and his control room set up.
Thanks again, Joe

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

How fabulous the you could be there. Thank you so much for this.

ken mac's picture

Greatly appreciated.

Anton's picture

Dang, I didn't know about Rudy's tight lips. That's like grandma taking her famous recipe to the grave, a true generational loss!

Thanks for a great post.

Dcbingaman's picture

This is really a monumental stroke of good luck - both finding in the tape and for the tape being in such great shape. Thank you Ravi Coltrane for sharing a little bit more of your father's work with us. I am really looking forward to getting my LP this Friday, (ordered on Amazon).

What a wonderful article and great pictures of RVG's studio. Wright / Henken's architecture looks throughly modern in 2018 - can you imagine what it looked like to those musicians living in 100+ year old Brownstones in 1963 ? (Of course FLW's work at Falling Waters in and Talesin West still look thoroughly modern also.) Really cool - thank you so much for writing and posting this.

b1gh1g's picture

Yeah, let's raze the place and build more condos ...

ok's picture

..the church of st john coltrane actually exists:

foxhall's picture

Including the image of the stairs and reference to Four for Trane is like eating chocolate for us history buffs. Great piece.

Brown Sound's picture

Great article! Thank you, Ken! Ordering it now!

Allen Fant's picture

Well Done! KM
beautiful piece and stunning photos of the space, event.
A trip down memory lane for sure.

foxhall's picture

I'm streaming it now and it seems rather brick-walled. Was planning to purchase the high resolution download but having second thoughts.

I imagine the LPs will be sweeter sounding.

dalethorn's picture

The sound is definitely not spacious in any sense, especially compared to Blue Train from 5 years earlier. But the clarity and liveliness is there, and for a tape "suddenly discovered" after being missing for more than 50 years, it's a fantastic find. I hope someone can explain how it sounds so good, yet so ..... compressed?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Minimal use of compression can actually enhance the sound quality - I am told by people familiar with the recording industry ........... Also, in the multi-track recordings using multiple microphones, not all instruments or voices are compressed by the recording engineers ......... Same thing, when it comes applying EQ .......... That why we can see all those sliders and knobs on the recording consoles .......... So, not all recordings are created equal .......... and not all recordings are "purist" recordings ............ Some recordings are compressed and EQed to "Hell and high water" ..........

dalethorn's picture

This album is different. While the tracks seem like they've come from the same session(s) around the same time, the perspectives are a bit different on each track. And I don't see any reason why dynamic compression would be applied here yet not to other Coltrane albums. It just sounds to me more like a result of the recording technique, almost as if these were done ad-hoc without the full preparation for a commercial recording session.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

You may be right .......... I have not listened to the entire album yet .......... May be the recording(s) done ad-hoc need re-mastering at a more modern facility using digital technique(s) in a more modern digital recording work station (DAW) .......

dalethorn's picture

This sound being closer to mono than stereo in my opinion, trying to expand the dynamics and "soundstage" (or whatever) to make it more spacious sounding - might do more harm than good.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Modern DAWs can also handle monos ....... Like the recent re-mastering of old Beatles mono recordings ......... Of course, first rule is "do no harm" ......... They need an experienced (DAW) recording engineer(s) to handle the recording(s) ............

dalethorn's picture

I'd like to remind people that the 1964 Parlophone recordings I have in true stereo sound really marvelous, and the so-called "original mono" Beatles recordings many people tout are mostly a fiction.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

It all depends on how well the original recording, mixing and mastering was done, and how well the original (master) analog tape was preserved .......... The Rubinstein Nocturnes is a good example of how well the re-mastering can work .......... Most likely, Sony engineers used a modern DAW for re-mastering ......... They did an excellent job (in my opinion) ............

ken mac's picture

in my piece, RVG's studio was in go mode almost 24 7. This session was cut one day before the Coltrane and Hartman disc. And as it's one guy's studio, all RVG had to do or apparently did, was change mics. Don Sickler said different musicians chose different spots in the studio to record. And as Trane's quartet had cut many records there (Ravi said his dad practically had keys to the studio) I imagine they set up the same way every time. I do wonder what happened in the transfer/master process.

foxhall's picture

A member of the Steve Hoffman forums posted the dynamic ranges of the CD and the high resolution download versions.

Based on his/her tests, the high resolution is more compressed than the CD.

24/192: max DR is 11

CD: max DR is 15

Compression is a good thing but I hate wasting money on mastered albums that cause fatigue.

dalethorn's picture

Here's another review, on 'Pitchfork'. I don't have any opinion on it, but he mentions things I haven't read elsewhere. The more I listen to this album the more I like it.

ken mac's picture

who, as always, offer solid insight, but comments like "The extent to which you believe the record’s subtitle—The Lost Album—might be the extent to which you are excited by the news of Both Directions. I can’t quite do it, but there are other reasons to be excited" leave me cold. This is a great record showing Trane with one foot in the past and the other in the future--a giant of an artist surging toward his peak (well, one of many).

zvukovoj's picture

JBL C34 perhaps?

ken mac's picture

I think that's a really good guess. A friend did some Google sleuthing and came up with a similar conclusion.