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Arts Desk
Every week on the air there's a special focus on one particular jazz album. Check them all out here!

Jazz Album of the Week: Blue World a Missing Link Between Early and Later Coltrane

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February 17, 2020. At just 37 minutes, and comprising eight takes of only five distinct tunes, it’s hard to categorize John Coltrane’s Blue World as an album, per se.

That doesn’t make it any less spectacular.

Blue World is the latest batch of unearthed, previously unreleased recordings from John Coltrane and his classic quartet at the very peak of the their powers and cohesiveness as a unit.

‘Trane, with Elvin Jones (drums), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and McCoy Tyner (piano), had wrapped recording on Crescent just weeks earlier, and, yet, at the end of June 1964, they found themselves right back at Van Gelder studios under uncommon circumstances—recording tunes for a movie soundtrack.

That in itself would’ve been sufficiently out of character to make Blue World compelling to most Coltrane archivists. But the film for which the music was commissioned is interesting, too; it’s the first feature film from a French-Canadian filmmaker influenced by existentialism and French New Wave cinema and Quebecois separatism and John Coltrane. If that sounds interesting to you, imagine how interesting it must’ve sounded to Coltrane for him to hop back into the studio after brief respite and do something he normally didn’t — record new takes of previously recorded tunes.

It would all just be edifying coffee talk, though, if the music weren’t so good. The takes are relaxed yet passionate, unrestrained, and subtly ambitious—Jimmy Garrison’s nearly three-minute bass solo at the outset of “Traneing In” is suggestion enough the quartet is working with few commercial constraints here, but there are moments throughout that presage Coltrane peering toward the new vision-quest of a musical direction that would characterize the latter stage of his career.

The film for which the music here was recorded, Le chat dans le sac (the cat in the bag), is, at least at one level, about the disintegration of a young couple’s relationship. So it’s appropriate that director Gilles Groulx would open Le Chat with the first of two takes of “Naima,” from 1960’s Giant Steps. “Naima,” after all, was written for Coltrane’s first wife; their relationship had disintegrated about a year before these two takes were recorded.

Groulx may have known about Coltrane’s personal circumstances, or it may just have been coincidence. Either way, he couldn’t have selected a better cut from this session or a better version of “Naima” with which to open his film.

It’s the most emotionally charged version I’ve heard of the composition said to be Coltrane’s most treasured. In it’s pacing and it’s emotionality, there’s something just a hair more deliberate. It’s contradictory and beautiful. There is a warmth and a heartbreak; Coltrane’s playing on this most tender of his ballads is, indeed, tender but, at moments, also filled with fury. A second take bookends the album, and it’s good—but the first take is Library-of-Congress, let’s-put-this-on-the-mixtape-we-shoot-into-space-so-extraterrestrials-have-an-idea-what-man-has-accomplished-type stuff.

Blue World also features three takes of “Village Blues,” another of Coltrane’s earlier tunes, from 1961’s Coltrane Jazz. Groulx cherry-picked sections of the second take, the set’s tightest, for use in the film, but he wouldn’t have gone wrong with any of them. By this point ‘Trane and the quartet are using straight-ahead blues frameworks like Village Blues as vehicles to dip a toe or two into the “new thing;” little riffs and runs here during Coltrane’s solos give brief aural glimpses into the sensibility that we come to see in later-stage evolution on A Love Supreme.

The title track, a thinly veiled re-jiggering of “Out of This World,” the Arlen and Mercer composition that opened 1962’s Coltrane, is even more suggestive of Coltrane’s quest for a new sound.

Fans will recognize Coltrane beginning to flesh out embryonic ideas in his solos here—and throughout this brief set—that come to manifest more fully and maturely on A Love Supreme.

Blue World, at not even two-thirds of an hour, is remarkable, then, not just because it represents Coltrane and the quartet relatively loose and unencumbered by commercial considerations, but also because of its apparent anthropological significance as a previously undiscovered missing link between Crescent and A Love Supreme.