Spotlight on Coltrane: 5 Diverse Albums

John Coltrane started his musical journey in 1949 under the spell of Charlie Parker and later Dizzy Gillespie. In 1954, he joined The Miles Davis Quintet where he was encouraged to think more harmonically. During the second half of the nineteen-fifties, he rehearsed extensively with Thelonious Monk. By 1959 Coltrane mastered the skills to compose and record the album that innovated jazz harmonically and rhythmically, and so he released Giant Steps.

The saxophonist continued to explore and develop. He took on numerous projects, collaborated with various jazz legends, and even composed a movie soundtrack. Each album he recorded is unique and spotlights Coltrane’s musical evolution. In this article, you’ll find five diverse albums by one of the most significant jazz musicians of all time.

John Coltrane’s Soultrane

Recorded in 1958 on Prestige Records

The second half of the nineteen-fifties defined John Coltrane’s career and helped him come into prominence as a musician and arranger. Underlined is the time as a member in Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet and later sextet, and the period working aside Thelonious Monk. Many recordings featuring Trane‘s support on the tenor saxophone got listed as the most acclaimed and influential jazz albums in history.

Coltrane’s legacy before moving to Atlantic Records in 1959 got well documented by Prestige. Soultrane is the best example of this. The album got described as a demonstration of Coltrane’s late nineteen-fifties “sheet of sound” (Ira Gitler, DownBeat Magazine.) The term is dedicated to John Coltrane and represents the unique improvisational style he developed while working with Thelonious Monk. He loosened up the demanding chords and harmonies of hard bop while maintaining loyalty to its traditional values. Coltrane was given the freedom to improvise when playing along with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

John Coltrane’s Giant Steps

Recorded in 1959 on Atlantic Records

In 1954, Coltrane joined The Miles Davis Quintet where he was encouraged to think more harmonically. This was an important milestone in the yet-to-be-written composition of Giant Steps as he was introduced to new possibilities in chord progressions. After a drug addiction that caused him to leave Davis’ band, he started rehearsing with the celebrated Thelonious Monk. This not only helped him recover from his addiction, but it also helped him develop artistically.

Fully recovered and evolved, Coltrane rejoined Miles Davis’ quintet in 1958. The following year, they recorded Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, an album that is claimed to be the most important album in jazz history. Giant Steps was recorded less than a month after the sessions for Kind of Blue. Giant Steps – consisting entirely out of Coltrane’s original compositions – was released in 1960, and despite being a perfect contrast to Kind of Blue, it became a mighty equal. Coltrane masters the skills to compose and record an album that innovated jazz harmonically and rhythmically.

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Recorded in 1962 on Impulse Records

In the early sixties, John Coltrane’s career and technical abilities peaked. For several years, he would release various historical jazz albums. The saxophonist was a perfectionist, carefully exploring harmonic progressions and multiple rhythms. He was confident in both playing and arranging. Still, while playing with Duke Ellington, he felt honored, imperfect, and challenged. The album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane is a display of two jazz musicians from a different generation who, despite having a divergent background and relationship with music, communicate politely.

The album features acclaimed Ellington standards such as In A Sentimental Mood and some of his new compositions like Take the Coltrane. John Coltrane also added a new composition to the album’s track-list. His work titled Big Nick is a tribute to saxophonist George Walker “Big Nick” Nicholas who influenced Coltrane during his time with Dizzy Gillespie. “In thinking back,” Coltrane said, “it seemed to have something that would suit the style he likes to play in. But maybe not?”

John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album

Recorded in 1963 on Impulse Records

The recording was made one month after his collaboration with Duke Ellington was released and features Coltrane’s so-called Classic Quartet: McCoy Tyner on the piano, Jimmy Garrison on the bass, and Elvin Jones behind the drums. The recording got lost but surfaced in 2018.

Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album got released in 2018 and features seven tunes from which two previously unissued tracks: Untitled Original 11383 and Untitled Original 11386. The numbering refers to the identification system used in the studio by Bob Thiele. Aside from the standard one-disc version, also a two-disc deluxe edition containing several alternate takes got released. Spotlighted are the alternate takes of Impressions.

John Coltrane’s Blue World

Recorded in 1964 on Impulse Records

By 1964 saxophonist John Coltrane was one of the leading figures in jazz music. Mainly thanks to his release of Giant Steps in 1960. Officially, he recorded and released two albums that year: the often-overlooked album Crescent, and the well-known masterpiece A Love Supreme. With the recent release of his recording Blue World, we can add a third album to the list.

Blue World, recorded in the Rudy Van Gelder Studio on June 24 (1964,) is a composition for the movie: Le Chat Dans Le Sac (Gilles Groulx, 1964.) The soundtrack was fully composed by John Coltrane. For the recording, he invited his classic 1960s quartet. The album features two alternate takes on the song “Naima“, a ballad he composed for his wife Juanita Naima Grubbs (married 1955-66.) Also notable are the three takes on his composition “Village Blues,“ a song that was originally released on the studio album Coltrane Jazz with Steve Davis on the bass. The Blue World recordings would feature Jimmy Garrison who replaced Steve Davis in 1961.

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Jazz Album Covers That Inspire – Part 3

What attracts me to an album apart from the music, is the sleeve design. Here are again five designs that inspired me. The artwork is stunning and at the same time, it contributes to the story of the recording.

Bring Backs – Alfa Mist

2021 / Anti- 7789-1 / Kaya Thomas-Dyke (artwork)

With his third studio album, the British producer, songwriter, and self-thought pianist Alfa Mist reflects upon his sampling and hip-hop days on the streets of London. After self-releasing his two previous albums – Antiphon and Structuralism – Alfa Mist partners with the American independent record label Anti- for his next body of work, Brings Back.

The artwork is by Kaya Thomas-Dyke, a close friend of Alfa Mist and the bass guitar player on the album. Alfa Mist drew inspiration from a card game he played as a child. In the game, after winning a round, you can be brought back to play again, meaning that winning is never a sure thing. With it, Alfa Mist refers to his childhood. He lived in a constant state of uncertainty and instability. “You can be doing okay for a while but, that can change. You know that’s always a possibility,” he explains. The unpredictable and inevitable future is a recurring theme on the album. Kaya Thomas-Dyke embodies this theme in the artwork.

Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album – John Coltrane

2018 / Impulse! 00602567493013 / Osk Studio (design) / Joe Alper (photography)

Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album got recorded in 1963. However, the tapes got lost. John Coltrane’s personal copy was discovered in 2018, and the recording was released that same year. The album was made while under contract with Impulse Records and features Coltrane’s so-called Classic Quartet: McCoy Tyner on the piano, Jimmy Garrison on the bass, and Elvin Jones behind the drums.

The design is stunning, and it’s one of the most distinctive records I have in my collection. On the outside, two cut-out triangles are pointing in both directions. Inside, we have two vinyl records, and the inner sleeves feature portraits of John Coltrane by the photographer Joe Alper. The album comes with a four-panel folded poster capturing one of the most influential groups in music history. Music historian Ashley Kahn added the liner notes, which you can find on the poster’s backside.

We Are Sent Here By History – Shabaka And The Ancestors

2020 / Impulse! 00602508645631 / Daniela Yohannes (artwork)

The album is a partnership between the British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and a large ensemble of South African musicians. The New York Times wrote: “If jazz is looking to reinvent itself, the music of Shabaka And The Ancestors might be a good place to start. Shabaka And The Ancestors are making their own jazz history.”

The cover artwork is by the illustrator Daniela Yohannes who is of Ethiopian-Eritrean heritage. Daniela Yohannes got introduced to the jazz scene in London and facilitated several music events around jazz. She witnessed a whole new generation of musicians, both of European and African descent. She created promotional materials and cover art for jazz groups. As described in her biography: “Her work reflects upon the racialized movement and conditional belonging of African diaspora.

Palo Alto – Thelonious Monk

2020 / Impulse! 00602507112844 / Ryan Rogers (Creative Direction & Design) / Larry Fink, Jim Marshall, Lee Tanner, Veryl Oakland (photography)

In 1968, the sixteen-year-old Danny Scher invited Thelonious Monk and his quartet to play a benefit concert at his high school in Palo Alto, California. The concert was recorded and, more than 50 years later, the music got finally released. T.S. Monk – Thelonious Monk’s son – claims that the recording at the Palo Alto high school is the best one made during his father’s career. “The way he plays, not knowing he was being recorded, was very rare,” he explains.

The cover features a black-and-white image of Thelonious Monk behind his piano. The photo is by the hand of Larry Fink, a noted photographer who is best known for his pictures of people in social situations. The gatefold album on vinyl includes a 12-page booklet with photos, essays, and credits. You also get a replica concert program and poster by the Palo Alto High School International Club.

Blue Note Re:imagined – Various Artists

2022 / Blue Note 0890927 / Jay Vaz (Art Direction & Design) / Dan Medhurst, Daniela Monteiro, Fabrice Bourgelle, Karolina Wielocha, and Michaela Quan (photography)

Ever since its birth, jazz music has continuously evolved into various subgenres. The American record label Blue Note Records played a significant role in this evolution. The company is a landmark in jazz music and has an extensive song catalog that includes many acclaimed jazz standards. Their release Re:imagined is a compilation of Blue Note originals brought by a unique selection of musicians who’ve taken on jazz, soul, hip-hop, and R&B as their musical narrative.

The sleeve design is by the graphic designer and visual artist Jay Vaz. Vaz has a deep passion for music. For his designs, he draws inspiration from old record sleeves and, he embeds heritage to bring meaning. For the design of Re:imagined he tries to visualize sounds through animated vinyl stickers.

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John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album

Another lost John Coltrane recording which recently got discovered is the album titled Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album. The album got recorded on March 6, 1963, in the Rudy Van Gelder Studio. The recording got lost but surfaced in 2018. It was the family of his first wife, Juanita Naima Coltrane, who discovered the saxophonist’s personal copy.

The recording was made while under contract with Impulse Records and features Coltrane’s so-called Classic Quartet: McCoy Tyner on the piano, Jimmy Garrison on the bass, and Elvin Jones behind the drums. It was also with these musicians that he recorded the celebrated work A Love Supreme in 1964.

Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison

Why did we never hear the recording of Both Directions at Once before? The recording was never edited, mixed, or mastered into an album. It never got cataloged and, there was no cover art created. The tape simply was archived and never looked at again. So what happened?

Coltrane already released a session with Duke Ellington the month before, and the next day they had a session scheduled with Johnny Hartman. It is possible that both John Coltrane and Bob Thiele, the Head of Impulse Records, thought his other released albums of that period would supersede this one. There were not only the albums he released with Impulse Records to compete with. As Coltrane’s popularity peaked, his previous labels, Prestige and Atlantic, would release his old recordings. The album Dakar, recorded in 1957 and released by Prestige in 1963, is a good example of this.

Another speculation is that the track Impressions was still a work in progress and that Coltrane was not satisfied with the studio recordings of the song. Coltrane was patient and worked in phases. He carefully explored harmonic progressions and multiple rhythms. The deluxe edition of Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album features four alternate takes on the tune Impressions and, each take is different from the other. Later that year, he released the album titled Impressions. For that album, he is not using one of the studio takes. Instead, he uses a fourteen-minute-long version recorded live at the Village Vanguard jazz club in November 1961 (2 years earlier). This could indicate Coltrane was displeased with his attempt to record the song in the studio.

Why Impulse Records only released the album now and not, for example, after Coltrane’s passing in 1967, could have something to do with them having lost the original master tapes (hence the subtitle: The Lost album). The word goes around that they lost the tapes after merging with ABC-Dunhill and relocating their headquarters from New York to Los Angeles in 1968.

Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album got released in 2018 and features seven tunes from which two previously unissued tracks: Untitled Original 11383 and Untitled Original 11386. The numbering refers to the identification system used in the studio by Bob Thiele.

Aside from the standard one-disc version (left), also a two-disc deluxe edition containing several alternate takes got released (right). Spotlighted are the alternate takes of Impressions.

In 1963, all these musicians are reaching some of the heights of their musical powers,” said the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane’s son, who helped prepare Both Directions at Once for release. “On this record, you do get a sense of John with one foot in the past and one foot headed toward his future.” – The New York Times

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Record companies often decided not to release studio recordings. In my article below, you can find other examples of old recordings that were released recently: