ALBUM REVIEW: Blue World by John Coltrane

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WRITTEN BY: Tim Shermer

On June 24, 1964, jazz legend John Coltrane and his classic quartet entered Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio to record the soundtrack for Le chat dans le sac, a film by French-Canadian director Gilles Groulx. Receiving many awards and distinctions at the time of its release, Le chat dans le sac (English: The Cat in the Bag) is now regarded as one of the most influential works in the history of Québécois cinema – but the master tapes of Coltrane’s three-hour recording session have spent the last 55 years locked in a vault at the National Film Board.

Blue World, as the collection has come to be known, was finally released this past Friday. The intrigue surrounding the album not only had to do with the fact that it was recorded with the “classic quartet” of drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and pianist McCoy Tyner, but also that it was recorded at somewhat of a creative peak for Coltrane – just four months before his consensus masterpiece A Love Supreme. 

Clocking in at just 36 minutes (roughly four times the total amount of music than is heard in the film), the previously unheard collection consists of eight takes of five different tunes, including “Naima” and “Village Blues.” Bookending the album are the two Chat dans le sac cuts of Trane’s famous ballad “Naima,” giving us the saxophonist at his most romantic; pianist McCoy Tyner at his most nimble. What these two takes of “Naima” may lack in length or stretchedoutness compared to a version that appeared on 2014’s Live at Temple University, they make up for in Coltrane’s strikingly lush tone and his interplay with the rhythm section. 

The three nearly identical cuts of “Village Blues,” a song originally penned for 1961’s Coltrane Jazz, are exercises in brevity and restraint in the context of the 12-bar blues style, unmistakably anchored by Jimmy Garrison’s bass playing. Ordered 2-3-1 in the track list, these takes dominate the front half of the album and likely saw the most use from the filmmaker.

Title track “Blue World” is without question the album’s centerpiece: a stripped-down 6-minute tune that manages to evoke classic Coltrane changes circa Giant Steps, but covers a lot of sonic ground with a jaw-dropping tenor solo that is the record’s clearest exemplification of the drifting and profoundly spiritual sound that went on to be immortalized on A Love Supreme and subsequent records. Landlocked by takes of “Village Blues,” it is the second-longest track behind “Traneing In.”

“Like Sonny” and “Traneing In,” each only given one take, are the last two tracks before things circle back to “Naima (Take 2).” The former also made its first appearance on the Coltrane Jazz record as a nod to saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and is most recognizable by the double-time, almost Latin feel given by drummer Elvin Jones. The latter features Garrison’s only substantial bass solo on the album, which lasts for about three minutes before being followed by piano and tenor solos. If nothing else, a chance to show off the quartet’s more wandering, avant-garde proclivities. Not sure if any of this one made it into the movie.  

John Coltrane was born in September of 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina. After a move to Philadelphia in his teenage years, Coltrane picked up the alto saxophone (he would later become known for his tenor playing) and began his career playing bebop, citing Charlie Parker as a direct influence. He went on to record with Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and a number of other musicians who were formative in the 1950s jazz scene. Working with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk over the latter part of that decade, Coltrane continued to refine his sound and was composing and performing groundbreaking music that was in the public eye by the time Giant Steps arrived in late 1959.

In 1962, after a period of open-ended collaboration with musicians such as John Gilmore and Eric Dolphy, Coltrane assembled the “classic quartet” who play on Blue World as well as a handful of his most seminal recordings. As his playing grew more abstract and spiritual in nature, he stopped playing with the quartet in 1965 and spent the following years playing with Pharoah Sanders and other pioneers of free jazz, releasing studio albums such as Ascension and Transition and a number of esoteric live recordings before his death (age 40) in 1967.

Although it was released under unconventional (and posthumous) circumstances, fans and critics alike would be mistaken not to count Blue World among the most essential albums in the entire Coltrane catalog. It wasn’t always the case over the course of Coltrane’s storied career, but less truly proves to be more on what might be one of the most important jazz releases of the year.  

 Blue World:

1. Naima (Take 1)

2. Village Blues (Take 2)

3. Blue World

4. Village Blues (Take 1)

5. Village Blues (Take 3)

6. Like Sonny

7. Traneing In

8. Naima (Take 2)

Follow Tim Shermer on Twitter @tdshermer

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