A New World for Coltrane’s ‘Blue World’

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John Coltrane’s Blue World, which includes 27 minutes of previously unheard music, was recorded in 1964, a defining year for the saxophonist.

(Photo: Jim Marshall)

In December 1964, John Coltrane and his classic quartet headed in to Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio to record A Love Supreme, an album that documented the band reaching the zenith of its power, while cementing the saxophonist’s stature as one of the most visionary musicians of the genre.

But earlier that year at Van Gelder’s studio, Coltrane did something he’d never done before: record his own music for a feature film. That summer, the bandleader was approached by French-Canadian filmmaker Gilles Groulx, who’d just shot Le Chat Dans Le Sac, a film set against the backdrop of French-Canadians’ disenfranchisement in Quebec. Blue World (Impulse), an eight-track album released Sept. 27, is the result of that session with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones.

“It’s the dissolution, or the breaking apart, of a romance along the lines of different lifestyles,” said author and Coltrane historian Ashley Kahn, while recently discussing the film’s plot. “[It] represents the breaking apart of the French community in Quebec,” marking the start of a separatist movement.

Groulx noticed concurrent rumblings in the American civil rights movement and saw Coltrane’s music as a kind of social soundtrack to the conflict. “So, he goes to Coltrane,” Kahn continued, “not necessarily because Coltrane is a political firebrand himself, but because in their minds, the struggle of American blacks was a parallel situation with what [the separatists] were going through in ’64.”

That year was a tumultuous one, marked by the release of Live At Birdland, which featured the first recording of Coltrane’s “Alabama,” a requiem for the four young girls who were murdered in a 1963 white-supremacist bombing of an African American church in Birmingham. But in 1964, Coltrane also moved to the Dix Hills suburb of Long Island with his soon-to-be wife, Alice McLeod, and her daughter, Michelle. Coltrane envisioned and composed the music to A Love Supreme in their home, close to his new family.

“It’s very powerful to think of what he did in really a very short span of time,” said Michelle Coltrane, during a recent phone conversation. She was just a few years old when the saxophonist was working on the recordings. Listening to the newly released music—only 10 minutes of which made it to the film—served as a reminder of her father’s enduring legacy. “It doesn’t ever go away, is what I realized,” she explained. “I do feel that freshness, that it could have been recorded last year, instead of [being] an old, historic, dated antique.”

“If you think about the tunes that Coltrane chose,” said Kahn, “these tunes are about the tunes themselves ... . [But] these [new] performances are about the quartet, and that, to me, is the biggest difference.”

Indeed, the original recordings showcase Coltrane both as an unparalleled improviser and an innovative composer. As he and his signature band moved into a more open, modal form of playing, his writing became more reductive, shifting away from his rapidly modulating “Coltrane changes” to vehicles often with only one or two chords, leaving it to the quartet to supply the larger narrative. To hear them work through this approach on older tunes like “Naima,” “Village Blues” and “Traneing In” reveals new insight into just how far they had come in just a few years.

On the one standard here, an arrangement of Harold Arlen’s “Out Of This World,” the quartet takes it slower and more deliberately than on previous recordings, with a new melody by Coltrane, enabling the song to be retitled as “Blue World.”

In an earlier treatment of the tune, Arlen’s chordal architecture was demolished, replaced by a drone in E-flat minor, only sliding back into harmonic movement on the bridge. In the film’s version, even the bridge is eschewed, leaving only the initial drone. Coltrane’s highly chromatic improvisatory figurations over this static harmony foreshadow the approach he would perfect just a few months later.

An ecstatic Groulx returned to Montreal, master tape in hand. His film became a cult classic within the Canadian film community, but it remained largely unknown to the rest of the world.

“The music has always been on the soundtrack,” said Ken Druker, vice president for jazz development at Verve Label Group, which like Impulse is a part of Universal Music Group. “It’s stated right at the beginning of the film, and it was always in the discographies, but it was always unclear if they were the Atlantic versions, or what it was. ... If you just [saw the titles] “Naima” and “Traneing In,” and you don’t have a chance to see the film, you might just assume they had just licensed those.”

After Le Chat Dans Le Sac was put online for streaming around 2008, Coltrane researchers were, according to Druker, finally able to hear how the performances “were different than the previous recordings.”

The search ensued for Van Gelder’s tapes, hidden somewhere in the archives of the National Film Board of Canada. But it turned out that the master had been filed under the film’s “working title.” Once the tape had been secured, a years-long process to present the new material to the public began.

It’s been more than a year since the release of the archival Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album (Impulse), which topped the Historical Album category in DownBeat’s 2019 Critics and Readers polls. Even with two releases coming in such a short amount of time, it’s still an understatement to say that Coltrane’s “new” music holds up rather well when compared to work by current players. “That’s kind of the beautiful mystery of it,” Michelle Coltrane said. “It also speaks to the artists, and the timeless nature of [their music]. The kind of people who were ahead of their time.”

Given the quartet’s ability to extend any piece past the 20-minute mark, Blue World can feel like a test-drive. Of course, when the car is a Lamborghini, even a few breathless minutes down the lane can be exhilarating. The sound of the classic quartet is one of full confidence in its sonic identity, as Coltrane was entering an important phase of his improvisatory approach.

Kahn observed that the bandleader was moving toward “the spiritual vocabulary that he’s developed coming out of tunes like ‘Naima’ and ‘Alabama,’ and now he’s applying it to a much more general spiritual vision, to tunes like ‘Wise One,’ and of course ‘A Love Supreme.’ In the midst of all that, he takes a moment to look back, affording us a rare chance to do this comparison.”

It’s also another example of Trane moving in both directions at once. DB




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December 2019
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