In 1964, the Quebec-based film director Gilles Groulx flew into New York to attend the recording sessions for the music he had commissioned for his forthcoming film, Le chat dans le sac (The Cat in the Bag, 1964). At the time, Groulx was attempting to forge a new identity for Canadian cinema. He was interested in the work of Jean-Luc Godard, in the improvisational approach to filmmaking with which John Cassavetes had experimented in Shadows (1959), and in querying the boundaries between artifice and reality by employing non-professional actors who brought something of their own lives to the film. He was also passionate about jazz, and about John Coltrane in particular. Groulx happened to know Coltrane’s bass player, Jimmy Garrison, and used him as an intermediary to request music for his film. Coltrane agreed and, on 24 June 1964, took his quartet – with Garrison, Elvin Jones (drums) and McCoy Tyner (piano) – into the Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey to record what would be his only original film soundtrack.
When Groulx returned home and listened to the master tapes, he realized, much to his shock and frustration, that Coltrane’s music was largely unusable. The magnetism of his sound was in danger of overwhelming dialogue and dominating the narrative. Out of the near 40 minutes of music recorded in New Jersey, only ten made the final cut. The master tapes remained unheard until last year, when Universal Jazz began casting around for a follow-up to their release of Both Directions at Once (2018), which was marketed as a ‘lost’ Coltrane album and did healthy trade for the company.
Let’s get the disappointing news over with first: Blue World (2019) is no undiscovered jazz masterwork likely to change any hearts and minds about Coltrane. Recorded during a period in the musician’s development when he was thinking that albums could aspire to be something grander than a string of loosely woven together tunes, he never meant this music to be released in album form.
The Le chat dans le sac sessions slot into the Coltrane studio discography between Crescent, recorded between April and June 1964, and A Love Supreme, cut on 9 December. Following the momentous music Coltrane had been recording live – at the Village Vanguard in 1961 and at Birdland in 1963 – Crescent always felt like a time-biding record, its five tracks, especially the brief ‘Bessie’s Blues’, like sketches waiting to blossom within a live context. A Love Supreme, in contrast, was a moment of grand summation: an extended, through-conceived, four-movement sermon – glued together by a morphic melodic cell – that charted the shift in Coltrane’s thinking towards music of cosmic transcendence.
Blue World, so the information provided to journalists insists, was ‘virtually unprecedented’ – a session that provided Coltrane the opportunity to ‘revisit and record earlier works’. ‘Traneing In’ was originally recorded in 1958 on the album John Coltrane With The Red Garland Trio; both ‘Naima’ and ‘Village Blues’ derived from Coltrane’s earlier period on the Atlantic label, from Giant Steps (1959) and Coltrane Jazz (1961) respectively. The one new piece, ‘Blue World’, is grounded in an underlying vamp, laid out by Tyner, which tantalizingly anticipates the motif that would become the DNA of A Love Supreme a few months later.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that the title track feels like the most satisfying performance. Although you suspect Coltrane would have pushed further had he been left to his own devices, his solo is characterized by his robust feel for musical architecture: a naked statement of the theme priming numerous harmonic and melodic pathways for exploration. The problem, of course, was that the demands of recording music for a film put down constraints, rather than opened up the terrain. ‘Traneing In’ opens with a melodically complex, but funky, Garrison solo and some glittering piano choruses from Tyner. Otherwise, Tyner is sidelined, without any solo responsibilities on ‘Blue World’, ‘Naima’ or the perfunctory ‘Like Sonny’. There was little point in recording piano solos, when Groulx wanted to bask in Coltrane’s sound.
All that said, 40 minutes of previously unheard Coltrane is to be celebrated; every note he recorded is of interest. But this material would have been suited more to bonus tracks inside some grander reissue project. It’s beautifully recorded and we get to hear the great John Coltrane Quartet in action. Forced into being an album, though, it’s too flimsy to hang together.
Main image: John Coltrane. Courtesy: Impulse! Records; photograph: Jim Marshall
Philip Clark has written for The Guardian, Gramophone, The Wire, Jazzwise and the London Review of Books. His biography of Dave Brubeck, A life In Time, will be published on 18 February 2020 by Da Capo Press in the US and Headline Books in the UK.