Graded on a Curve:
John Coltrane,
Blue World

If it seems like it was just last year that some unheard material by John Coltrane was unveiled to the listening public, that’s because it was. On September 27, the Impulse! label releases Blue World, its contents accurately described as underheard and until very recently essentially unspoken of in terms of Coltrane’s discography. Offering songs recorded for Canadian filmmaker Gilles Groulx’s 1964 fiction feature Le Chat dans le sac (The Cat in the Bag), it is Coltrane’s only soundtrack and also presents him revisiting previously recorded works in the studio, which is something he almost never did. Featuring the Classic Quartet in their accessibly robust mode, it’s a consistent pleasure and a must for fans.

First, some further clarification into Blue World’s reality; if a new Coltrane LP for 2019, it wasn’t recorded with an album concept, not even a soundtrack album concept, in mind. The first fictional movie by a filmmaker who’d worked extensively in documentaries, Le Chat dans le sac was an independent work from the days long before (roughly a quarter century before) Indie cinema’s blossoming as a brand.

The film, which was influenced by Direct Cinema documentary tactics and utilized numerous techniques associated with the French Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, etc.), wasn’t any kind of big deal at the time. In his typically strong notes for this reissue, Ashley Khan calls Le Chat dans le sac an “underground hit,” which is another way of saying that only hepcats knew of the film’s existence.

Although Coltrane and Groulx did become friendly later, the saxophonist’s agreement to record songs for the film’s soundtrack was basically a favor, one initiated through Groulx’s relationship with the quartet’s bassist Jimmy Garrison; he’d met the filmmaker through a mutual acquaintance who’d appeared in one of Groulx’s prior documentaries.

The music comprising Blue World was recorded casually at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with Impulse! honcho Bob Thiele apparently knowing nothing about it. Groulx attended the session, lending insight into what he wanted (unlike Miles Davis’ quintet’s work for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud aka Elevator to the Gallows in 1958, Coltrane was privy to no raw film footage), and when the recording was finished, he went back to Canada with the tapes, where he used a portion of the music for his film.

Blue World can be accurately tagged as a lost album, but to quote Khan’s liners, the music was “hiding in plain sight,” with Le Chat dans le sac easily viewable online and in fact hosted on the website of Canada’s National Film Board. To elaborate a bit on this invisible availability (a much more common occurrence in the digital era than some might assume), in the overlap of hardcore cinephiles and heavy-duty jazz heads, it simply took some time for the right chain reaction of events to get the ball rolling toward Blue World’s release.

The record contains the title track (a retitling of “Out of This World” from his ’62 LP Coltrane, notably the only composition here not composed by the saxophonist), “Like Sonny” (aka “Simple Like” from the recordings Coltrane made for the Roulette label, released in ’61 on a split LP with Lee Morgan), “Traneing In” (from ’58’s John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio), two versions of Coltrane’s celebrated standard “Naima” (originally from the canonical Giant Steps), and three of “Village Blues” (from Coltrane Jazz, issued in ’61, though the recordings were made in ’59-’60).

To the uninitiated, this might read like an alternate takes-dominated item for Coltrane obsessives. Offsetting this scenario is the reexamination of work previously released on the Prestige, Atlantic, and Impulse! labels (largely covering his career up to that point, though “Blue World” is the only selection previously recorded in studio by the Classic Quartet) with a dip into the oft-overlooked Roulette sides (reissued on a 10-inch for Record Store Day back in 2016).

Blue World also falls chronologically between the sessions for Crescent and A Love Supreme, with this placement adding to the record’s casual, accessible allure, though it’s important to note that the latter adjective wouldn’t have likely been applied to this session in 1964. Also notable is how this reissue’s promotion doesn’t overstate the importance of Coltrane reengaging with these songs in studio; it was unusual, but the songs were regularly returned to on the bandstand, with “Naima” a staple of Coltrane’s live discography (it’s featured on four albums, all essential).

The decision to rerecord older tunes ultimately underscores the casualness of Blue World, or more specifically that John Coltrane was doing a young filmmaker (and fan) a favor. The focus on the film (and Groulx’s eventual friendship with Coltrane) in Khan’s notes strengthens this circumstance, but don’t miscomprehend this as the saxophonist and his band tossing off a day’s work without much investment.

Musically, John Coltrane didn’t do anything half-assed, and this extended to his band. One of the joys of Blue World is getting to really hear Garrison (this is something one can’t always do while listening to the more boisterous, challenging late-period Trane stuff), who in the case of “Village Blues” is the only player not on the original recording (he replaces Steve Davis here).

It’s also nice to hear Tyner put his stamp in studio on “Naima” (Wynton Kelly played on Giant Steps), and to soak up early composition “Traneing In” adapted to the Classic Quartet sound; that “Blue World” features this approach is no surprise. And once the needle drops, Blue World lacks surprises as a whole, though it’s all still very much of interest. It might not offer any novel insights into the work of one jazz’s true greats, but it is still a beautiful experience, indeed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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