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Lost recordings uncover John Coltrane’s timeless talent
JUDY WOODRUFF: Lost recordings from one of the greats of jazz now found.
Jeffrey Brown visited John Coltrane's recording studio, where the mystery began. The recently discovered music gives Coltrane, more than 50 years after his death, his highest ever debut on worldwide charts and in sales.
JEFFREY BROWN: A famed recording studio, one of the greatest jazz ensembles ever, a beautiful blast back to music made on a single day in March 1963.
Here at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, a group of critics, family members, and music executives gathered recently to hear a lost recording by saxophonist John Coltrane and other members of his classic quartet, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones.
Among them, Ravi Coltrane, Coltrane, John's son, and himself a highly regarded sax player.
RAVI COLTRANE: It's like discovering a buried treasure. I hear him basically with one foot in the past and one foot sort of aiming toward his future.
JEFFREY BROWN: Thus the title of a new release of seven tunes, which Ravi helped produce, "Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album."
RAVI COLTRANE: The record contains a lot of material that you could easily hear it in recordings that he could have made five years earlier, you know, blues and bebop tunes, combined with more modal pieces and things -- more experimental pieces that he would eventually get to later, in '64 and '65.
It's a timeless group. We're still talking about these players, and we're still talking about this band decades later.
JEFFREY BROWN: John Coltrane was a titan, one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century in jazz or any other genre. He first made his name in the mid-1950s. Growing more and more assured, innovating constantly, trying new sounds, he reached jazz lovers with recordings such as his 1960 album "Giant Steps," and a wider audience with hits like his version of "My Favorite Things" released a year later.
KEN DRUKER: He had complete mastery of the repertoire of jazz up to that point, and he's taking that repertoire and the style into a whole other realm. We're still seeing the relevance of his music now.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ken Druker is an executive with Verve Records, which is releasing the music on the Impulse label so closely associated with Coltrane.
He says the saxophonist was at the peak of his powers during these Sessions.
Do you have a favorite song on this new/old recording?
KEN DRUKER: I love the track that opens, the romantically titled Original 11383.
KEN DRUKER: Just because the energy immediately from the first note.
There are tracks on this album that are more straight ahead. There's a lot of blues. But then there are original compositions that are a little more searching.
JEFFREY BROWN: Just how this music was lost in the first place is something of a mystery. Coltrane was recording a lot at the time.
He and the band were back here the very next day to make an album with singer Johnny Hartman that would become a classic. They were also at the end of a two-week run at the famed Birdland club in Manhattan. The March 6 session, capturing some of that live feel in the studio, was recorded on both a master and reference tape, the latter for Coltrane to take home.
The master was lost. Coltrane's personal tape turned up years later with the family of his first wife, Naima. Ken Druker and others heard the music for the first time last December.
You had heard the recording outside the studio, and then you came here and listened to it? What happened?
KEN DRUKER: I came in here, walked in this area right here, where the band would have been set up. And the music was played through the speakers in the studio. And I just stopped in my tracks. It was literally spine-tingling. It was as if the band was here playing.
JEFFREY BROWN: The here is also an important part of jazz history. The Van Gelder Studio is hallowed ground, where the likes of Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, and many others recorded albums.
Rudy Van Gelder, who died in 2016, actually began recording jazz in his parents' house in Hackensack. He made a living as an optometrist first, before turning to recording full-time, when he built this gorgeous studio designed by David Henken, a protege of Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1959.
Attracted by the Van Gelder sound, the jazz greats kept crossing the Hudson. The studio even served as a setting for famous album covers, the staircase, vent, the deck railing outside.
MAUREEN SICKLER: March 6, 1963.
JEFFREY BROWN: March 6.
So, the Coltrane session 2 to 4.
Maureen Sickler worked for 30 years as Van Gelder's assistant sound engineer. She showed me the appointment book he kept to track his busy recording schedule, including that day in 1963.
Did he say where his love of jazz came from?
MAUREEN SICKLER: What he liked most about it was the improvisatory part. They were creating on the fly. He heard records when he was a kid and teenager made by the big companies. And he said, I can do better than that. It should sound better.
JEFFREY BROWN: All these years later, only pianist McCoy Tyner of the original group is still alive, and still performing, that very night at Manhattan's Blue Note Club, where he recalled the magic of those days.
MCCOY TYNER, Musician: It was unbelievable. I can't even describe how it was. He used to practice a lot. You know, he did his work. It made him stronger. Yes, I learned a lot working with John.
JEFFREY BROWN: John Coltrane went on to make his groundbreaking album, "A Love Supreme," in 1965, and from there ventured further into an ever-freer realm of jazz that opened up new possibilities for music.
He died in 1967 of liver cancer at just 40 years old. But his influence continues to be felt, including on son Ravi, who wasn't quite 2 when his father died.
RAVI COLTRANE: It's kind of mind-blowing to think about how much work he was able to create in 10 years. It's hard to know why John Coltrane's music hits us and touches us deeply. And it's hard to always recognize why the music is as effective and as powerful as it is.
But, somehow, it translates. His message translates and the power of his conviction, really, it comes through.
JEFFREY BROWN: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.