John Coltrane ‘Blue World’ LP/CD (Impulse!) 5/5

In June 1964, just a few weeks after the second session for the classic ‘Crescent’ album (Many people cite that album as their favourite Coltrane album ever, for good reason). John Coltrane took his quartet once again into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio for another recording session. This time however it wasn’t for an Impulse! Records session, it was for music for the soundtrack of a film, Le Chat Dans Le Sac by Canadian film maker (And Coltrane devotee) Gilles Groulx. Presumably, with Trane being under exclusive contract to Impulse at the time, the session was conducted “under cover”. We’ll probably never know, but whatever the details this session has gone unknown for most of the intervening years. A few years ago an update to the indispensable “The John Coltrane Reference” book was added to contributor David Wild’s excellent website stating that Chris DeVito, another contributor to the Coltrane Reference, had realised that the music used in the film, ‘Naima’, ‘Village Blue’ and ‘Out Of This World’, were not, as previously assumed, the existing released recordings from albums, but new, otherwise unheard versions.

Now, after the tapes have finally come to light, we can hear these performances in their entirety, along with other songs and alternate takes from the session.

In all there are three versions of ‘Village Blues’, two of ‘Naima’, and one each of ‘Like Sonny’, ‘Traneing In’ and the title tune, ‘Blue World’.

‘Blue World’ is described in the liner notes as a “contrafact” of ‘Out Of This World’, the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer song that Trane famously recorded on the ‘Coltrane’ album for Impulse! The term “contrafact” is used to describe an original tune that is based on the chord changes of an existing standard tune. So, for instance, Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ is based on the changes of the Gershwins’ ‘I Got Rhythm’, so it’s a contrafact of ‘I Got Rhythm’. But in the case of ‘Blue World’, this isn’t entirely true. When Trane originally recorded ‘Out Of This World’ he dispensed with the chord changes and turned it into a modal tune with a bridge. In this newly discovered version we hear the quartet playing the modal arrangement from the ‘Coltrane’ album version, but at a slower, deeper pace. But Trane doesn’t play Arlen’s melody, instead, he plays his own lines, sometimes hinting at parts of the melody as if to tease us, and they don’t play the bridge. So we end up with an entirely original piece of music and one worthy of having its own title and composer.

Comparing this version to the quartet’s recording on the ‘Coltrane’ album, the difference between the group sound from 1962 to 1964 is brought into sharp relief. The same thing applies to the versions of ‘Naima’ and the other tunes. The group has developed a huge, broad sound with a depth and stately grace rarely matched then as now. It’s as if the musicians had grown in size along with their instruments until the music they produced became larger than life. If you can imagine the sound of the Quartet on the afore-mentioned ‘Crescent’ album, with all the poise, grace and depth of expression on that album, but applied to songs like ‘Naima’ and ‘Like Sonny’ then you’ll get the gist of the sound the group achieve here.

The session proceeds with a relaxed intensity as the quartet manoeuvre their juggernaut sound through the familiar songs. Maybe part of this relaxed ambience comes from the fact that the songs were very familiar, maybe partly because the music was for use in a film, who knows. Recording sessions can often be difficult with all kinds of pressures affecting the temperaments of the people involved. It’s part of the leader’s job to negate these pressures as much as they can and thus allow the music to flow unhindered as much as possible. I would imagine that John Coltrane was as relaxed as anyone in the studio, although he is on record as saying he was nervous on at least two occasions, when recording the album with Duke Ellington and when he recorded his ‘Ascension’ album. So perhaps the circumstances surrounding this session helped to get the best out of the quartet? Whatever the reason(s), the music here is truly a joy to listen to from start to finish and it made me wish they had recorded a few more songs at the session.

Majestic music from one of the greatest groups of all time, indispensable.

Nat Birchall