John Coltrane: ‘Blue World’ & The Sweet Spot of 1964

John Coltrane: ‘Blue World’ & The Sweet Spot of 1964

The most incredible thing about Blue World, a batch of previously unreleased studio recordings by the jazz titan John Coltrane, isn’t the music, though it certainly feels like a revelation. Rather, this new Impulse! release is astounding for its emergence in 2019, five and a half decades after the session was recorded and many generations into the jazz record industry’s never-ending reissue campaign. Think of all those holiday box-set seasons that came and went without these eight tracks, all those scholars and critics who made do without this testimony. And the project isn’t alone: Last year’s mind-blower, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, comprising studio recordings from 1963, and the brazen Offering: Live at Temple University, recorded in 1966 and released in 2014, served as reminders that a researcher’s work is never done.

Blue World was captured at the legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio on June 24, 1964, with the purpose of scoring an arthouse film by Canadian director Gilles Groulx. Coltrane and his nonpareil “Classic Quartet”— pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones — were headed toward the summit of their powers then, and the June date was bookended by two jazz totems. On April 27 and June 1, the band committed to tape a searching, introspective vision of post-bebop jazz called Crescent; on December 9, the quartet tracked the more challenging A Love Supreme, among the best recorded examples of music as spiritual expression.

Coltrane began recording as a bandleader in 1957, after earning a vaunted reputation as part of Miles Davis’ quintet, and died a decade later of liver cancer. He was only 40, and had transformed the modern-jazz language more profoundly than any musician to emerge since his passing. The music Coltrane recorded in 1964 stands in many ways as a kind of intermediary between the poles of his output. To the left of ’64: consummate bebop-rooted mainstream jazz, the labyrinthine technical breakthroughs of Giants Steps, the blues tour de force “Chasin’ the Trane” and a certified modal-jazz hit, “My Favorite Things,” among other achievements. To the right is Coltrane the seeker, the aspiring saint, the North Star of the avant-garde. The sessions below find Trane burrowed into a sweet spot of melody and rhythmic elasticity—intrepid yet welcoming, striving toward the ether but still earthbound.

Crescent

Recorded April 27, June 1 

A sleeper masterpiece of Coltrane’s oeuvre, Crescent sees the quartet dialing back the combustion in favor of twilit lyricism, forgiving harmonies and grooves fit for coastal roadtripping. “Crescent” and “Wise One” constitute some of Coltrane’s most affecting ballad writing and improvising, while “Lonnie’s Lament,” another gorgeous slow drift, and “The Drum Thing” offer ageless showcases for Garrison and Jones, respectively. At the program’s midpoint is “Bessie’s Blues,” a jaunty, compact swinger and an excellent way to start your day.

Blue World

Recorded June 24

To give credit where credit’s due, the John Coltrane Quartet proves a marvelous film-scoring unit with Le chat dans le sac (The Cat in the Bag), Gilles Groulx’s 1964 drama-as-documentary. A crucial title in Quebec cinema with an interesting social history — it reflected and galvanized the fledgling Quebec sovereignty movement — the film will strike generally art-savvy viewers as sub-Godard French New Wave: an entrancing young woman in a strained relationship with an unlikable young man; endless café-ready philosophizing; rage suppressed into ennui; lots of cigarette smoke. For a certain type of art geek (like this writer), to hear Coltrane’s heartrending ballad “Naima,” coolly tough “Village Blues” and “Blue World,” based on the standard “Out of This World,” bolster such film-buff pretensions really scratches an itch.

In all, Blue World features two takes of “Naima” and three of “Village Blues,” plus the title track, the mostly languid and briefly stomping “Like Sonny” and a version of “Traneing In” with a marathon Garrison intro. In the context of Coltrane’s rapid evolution, this one-off session tackled a handful of older compositions, most of them first recorded in the late ’50s and 1960, by lineups predating the Classic Quartet and Trane’s monumental relationship with the Impulse! label. But they fit the director’s aesthetic impeccably, and the saxophonist, Tyner, Garrison and Jones often sound especially considerate of the music’s collaborative intentions — even if, as Ashley Kahn reveals in his liner notes, they hadn’t viewed the film prior to recording.

There’s a certain warmth and patience to Blue World in total — the rhythm section swings nimbly, drawing you in; Coltrane is potent, with some but not an overabundance of the grooving tenor sermonizing to come. “Blue World” is especially fascinating—spiritual Trane at three-quarters throttle—and on “Traneing In,” the quartet calls upon the past and present at once; Tyner digs more into a midcentury, mainstream jazz-piano vocabulary, like that of the pianist who first recorded the tune in 1957, Red Garland, but the interactive rumble toward the end is pure Classic Quartet. The album is a must-hear for Coltrane devotees, and a suggestion that there’s always more, and that sometimes it’s barely obscured.

A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters

Recorded December 9-10

Is there still more to learn from and about Coltrane’s four-part signature devotional suite, arguably the Greatest Record of All Time, in or out of jazz? Absolutely — and especially if you’re digging into this 2015 edition, whose delights include multiple sextet takes of the opening movement, “Acknowledgement.” With the quartet augmented by free-jazz champion Archie Shepp on tenor sax and bassist Art Davis, the spiritual dimensions of Coltrane’s creation are recast. A Love Supreme comes off less like the powerhouse, Eastern-tinged inward search recorded a day prior and even more like the Pentecostal group catharsis of Coltrane’s youth.

Photo: Jim Marshall, Courtesy of Universal Music Group.

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