New Album Spotlight: John Coltrane’s “Blue World”

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John Coltrane Photo by Jim Marshall

Imagine discovering a long-lost Rembrandt or Van Gogh in an attic or dusty closet. Think of the sensation that would cause in the art world. Well, something similar happened not long ago in the musical universe, when the master tape for a film soundtrack recorded by John Coltrane’s famous quartet was found in the National Film Board of Canada vaults, where it had been stored since 1964. Commissioned for the film Le Chat dans le Sac (The Cat in the Bag), the music remained forgotten for so long because Coltrane took on the project as a freelancer, unbeknownst to his label, Impulse! Records. The original tapes were taken to Canada shortly after the session in 1964, and Impulse! never owned a recording of it. The rediscovered Coltrane soundtrack has finally been released as the album Blue World. Credit goes first to Carol Faucher of the National Film Board (NFB), who found the original recordings while putting together a box set of director Gilles Groulx’s films in the early 2000’s. After that, it was Frédéric Savard, also from the NFB, whose persistence finally helped get the music released.

Blue World was recorded by engineer Rudy Van Gelder in his Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio with Québec director Gilles Groulx present to watch it unfold. According to Barbara Ulrich, Groulx’ partner and co-star in the film, “Jazz was holiness to Gilles and he had every Coltrane album that ever came out. Coltrane to him was an absolute master.”  Groulx, who met Coltrane via an introduction by bassist Jimmy Garrison, suggested his preferred tracks to Coltrane, who agreed to record new versions of classic tracks, mostly from his Atlantic years. Coltrane didn’t want to mix his then-current artistic conception into the film, which is evident in two other albums from the same year, Crescent and Coltrane’s masterpiece, A Love Supreme, both from 1964. Unlike when Miles Davis recorded the soundtrack for Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, the Coltrane quartet didn’t actually watch any of the film footage before recording. Ultimately, just 10 minutes from the session were used in Le Chat dans le Sac, which won popularity in the art-house film culture of mid-60’s Montreal. Most moviegoers did not realize that an original soundtrack had been commissioned.

When I heard the new record, I initially wondered why Coltrane revisited all these old songs, and this is where it gets interesting. The artist covered his earlier classics with a new stylistic and contemporary stamp on them, and ended up creating very different versions of the earlier Atlantic material. It’s as though two different time frames are coming together. The exception is the title track, which evokes “Out of this World” from Coltrane’s second Impulse! album, called simply Coltrane. I have grown to love Blue World with each listen, especially the vinyl version, which was carefully mastered and pressed, befitting this long-lost work of art. The album reveals its beauties slowly, and I’m discovering new magic each time I listen.

Blue World comes on the heels of last year’s major discovery of a previously unreleased Coltrane recording, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album from 1963, which I wrote about here. That album soared to the top of the jazz charts, selling over 250,000 copies in a brief amount of time, something that rarely happens with instrumental jazz releases. Given the tragic fire in 2008 that destroyed Coltrane’s Impulse! master tapes, the discovery of Blue World feels even more significant. Audio for the 180g LP and CD was sourced from the original master tape, not from digital files—always a plus for audiophiles or anybody who prefers analogue sound. Finally, the superb liner notes by historian Ashley Kahn give a fascinating account of this unusual sonic discovery and treasure.

Listen to the title track from Blue World:

Stream the entire album on Spotify: