John Coltrane’s Cat In The Bag: Blue World

on Impulse!
Reviewed by Henry Cherry

John Coltrane died from liver cancer 52 years ago. Nevertheless, in the last two years, he has released two new recordings. Both were lost, one forgotten in the attack of a relative, the other hidden in a Canadian film archive, protected from the devastating Universal Studios Fire of 2008 that destroyed more than 100,000 master tapes, some Coltrane recordings among them.

This year’s release, Blue World, is the only soundtrack the musician recorded across his entire career. It dates from his most fertile period, recorded in the lead up to the creation of A Love Supreme, his landmark work. Because Blue World contains no new songs, it is a departure for Coltrane, who generally sought to explore and write new compositions for his albums. By examining songs he had previously recorded, this release also delivers track by track comparison and a window into the legendary saxophonist’s Classic Quartet as they cruised along at high altitude. That’s a staggering discovery to get any year. That it comes directly on the heels of last year’s Both Direction at Once, a lost session from 1963, is extraordinary. In 2018, dead 51 years, John Coltrane reached the highest chart position of his career. Compounding the uniqueness of these two newly rediscovered recordings is the aforementioned Universal fire of 2008, which reduced the work of nearly 1000 recording artists to cinder. Perhaps that devastation is at the heart of these finds, the loss having prodded people to scour the earth in search of mystical musical trophies. Whatever the motivation, 2019 presents us all with a rare new album of John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet, and the music is exceptionally good.

A few years ago, comedian Jon Benjamin released a comedy album that was reductive and missing musical engagement. Disguised as jazz record and promoted nationally on NPR and Billboard, Benjamin’s recording was a joke pointed largely at jazz, once America’s reigning cultural export. He couldn’t play piano and freely admitted that fact. No one was going to confuse him with Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner. No one was going to confuse Benjamin’s playing with music of any sort. That was the joke. The rest of the musicians on the album hit all the right notes. Benjamin manages to make his musical cues in at the right place most of the time, but the notes he hits are plainly wrong. Cue audience tittering. That’s the comedic premise. Jazz is awful. It’s too hard to understand. But the joke wears thin even for Benjamin and by album’s end he’s offering an lackluster send up of Nu Metal rap. The fact remains, that for a large majority of people, what they hear in the elegant structures contained inside jazz is tuneless noise.

All of the members of Coltrane’s Classic Quartet save for Tyner are gone, and Tyner no longer gives interviews. Sonny Rollins, part of the promotion for last year’s Coltrane release and Coltrane’s main musical rival on saxophone, tours infrequently. Ornette Coleman died four years ago. After rock and roll took over jazz’s mantle in the late 1960s, large swaths of the U.S. have had music programs expunged from school curriculums. The compelling intricacies that gave jazz its bounce and swing have been replaced by a legion of pleonastic guitar players and samplers unable to either read or write music. In the midst of social media’s polarization of America, that house leveling lack of musical knowledge becomes more and more pronounced. Benjamin’s use of jazz as a punchline isn’t even that cutting-edge. An episode of NBC’s last comedic juggernaut, The Office, ridiculed the genre in 2012 with Dwight and Angela consoling each other with the fact that jazz is stupid. It’s a telling coda. Millions of Americans don’t give a shit about jazz. That is, not until you play them some Coltrane. Then, music five decades old makes an effortless slide up the pop charts.

John Coltrane, Johnny Hartman and McCoy Tyner

Blue World is more of an anomaly than last year’s release. While it was no secret that Coltrane recorded music for the Canadian film Le chat dans le sac (1964), considered one of the country’s greatly influential films, only ten minutes of the recording made it to director Gilles Groulx’s final cut. Because Blue World is the one and only soundtrack recording Coltrane made, it differs from Both Directions at Once which, though widely lauded, was also heard to be a glorified rehearsal tape to some critics and musicians. In point of fact, one day after the BDoA session, the saxophnist would record the lone album he made with a vocalist Johnny Hartman. It was a colossal time for the musician. He was testing old boundaries, forming new arrangements for old ideas on an almost daily basis. But the end was nigh. By ’67, John Coltrane was gone for good.

By the middle of his last decade, Coltrane was engaging with music on a spiritual level that matched his technical and intellectual and emotional capabilities. In 1964, Gilles Groulx was a 33-year-old in French Canadian director in mid-career stride. The director was making his first truly narrative film, though it would contain bits of Direct Cinema, a North American offshoot of the French documentary style Cinema Verité. Long a fan of Coltrane, the director used a connection to get in touch with bassist Jimmy Garrison and pled his case. Garrison offered up Coltrane’s phone number, and Groulx called the jazz legend on the phone. The two men reached an agreement and a deal was struck for the recording of the film’s soundtrack. Coltrane rehearsed his band, but they recorded no new compositions for the session. Instead, he focused on music he had recorded in the past. Coltrane usually wrote new music and worked it out with the band in rehearsals that were often taped, which is likely why Both Directions at Once remains so enthralling five decades later. Even in practice, he was crafting new ideas in complex, nearly perfect takes. For Blue World, though the music is not new, the band effortlessly redistributes itself through each song, allowing the session to become essentially Coltrane.

The Classic Quartet: Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison

The Classic Quartet formed in 1962 after Eric Dolphy withdrew from the band. In the years between its formation and 1964, the quartet toured and recorded and rehearsed and toured and recorded and rehearsed. Each member was musically adept at pursuing an individual career of their own by that time, including McCoy Tyner, who was just 19 when he started playing with Coltrane. More importantly, each member could pull singularity from their instrument without sacrificing the unity required to form a body of sound. As the foursome ripened, they filtered out the fury of bop and let more space into the music they made. When that happened, the band raised up into the upper echelons of jazz, only matched by Miles Davis’s first great quintet, an astounding band that happened to feature John Coltrane on saxophone, along with any band that featured Thelonious Monk. In the 60s, the Classic Quartet flew above everyone else in jazz, Davis and Monk included, redefining sound at its most elemental level.

On Blue World, that elemental reconfiguration isn’t cored out of the music, and neither has Coltrane pushed totally into the guttural ecstasies of his last music. Possibly inspired by Monk’s tendency to record compositions across decades, Coltrane chose songs for the soundtrack he had already put to tape. The songs were all pieces he was well familiar with. “Traneing In” dates to Coltrane’s second release as a leader in 1957. “Naima” was recorded for Giant Steps in 1960. Both “Village Blues” and “Like Sonny” appear on 1961’s Coltrane Jazz, though the latter tune dates to a session in ’58. It is the title track that is the operational key. The song is a reconditioned take on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Out of This World,” a song Coltrane recorded for his ubiquitously titled 1962 release, Coltrane. “Village Blues” shows up in three versions. “Naima” comes in at two takes. The rest of the songs are offered as single takes. Re-recording pieces he already knew allowed Coltrane to filter the needs of the filmmaker through his own. In the liner notes that accompany Blue World, jazz historian Ashley Khan championed this decision, for “the chance to compare these versions with previous perspectives, revealing both Coltrane’s personal progress and the interactive consistency and sonic details the Classic Quartet had firmly established as their collective signature by 1964.”

The recording session took place on June 24th, 1964, at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliff’s New Jersey, like much of Coltrane’s music. “While I was building the new studio (in Englewood Cliffs), the neighborhood had no idea what kind of structure it was,” Van Gelder told interviewer Tom Wilk just before he died at 91 in 2016. “As it came together, everyone assumed it was going to be a church with a peak in the center of the room. The look and feel was very church-like,” he adds. “As I look back and realize where his music was going, I can see his music had a spiritual quality, which matched perfectly with the atmosphere of the new studio.”

The music for Groulx’s film survived because the tapes traveled to Canada with the filmmaker and were stored in that country’s National Film Board archives because they had bankrolled Groulx’s film. Coltrane’s son, Ravi, oversaw the production. In a promotional interview for the recording, he referenced this rediscovered music of his father: “they weren’t supposed to be on an album, but cues for a film.” And yet, as music on an album, these songs deliver a collective sound across the 37 minutes. 55 years after their birth, they migrate effortlessly through an era of music that might have been our country’s most compelling. Jazz is the lone musical genre solely attributable to the United States. It is a sound no other country can claim. Coltrane’s classic quartet stood out among the idiom’s innovators, able to lay hold of an old Arlen and Mercer tunes and metamorphize it into a swinging, intellectual departure that belonged wholly to Coltrane and company.

The highlight of marriage between filmmaker and musician comes nearly 47 minutes into Groulx’s classic. The camera captures the characters in silhouette behind the urban lights of a city at night as the classic quartet wails through the energetic tail end of “Like Sonny,” the main characters drift more fully into frame blocking some of the bright neon with their stark silhouettes. It is a victorious moment.

John Coltrane and Miles Davis

By the time Blue World was recorded, Coltrane had weathered personal and professional disorder. Miles Davis had sent the saxophonist out of his band in the late 50s due to an acute dependence upon heroin. After they reunited, Coltrane set out again to lead his own bands. Davis thought the move selfish. While some embraced Coltrane’s musical evolution — Sonny Rollins called him a preacher last year — others did not, with one critic likening Coltrane’s sax to “a pair of bag pipes.” Because of his compositional determination, Coltrane navigated the dark regions of his public and private life, fitting into his own quartet as a shaper and composer, rather than a boss.

The soundtrack recording provided another challenge for him. Davis recorded a soundtrack for French director Louis Malle. Thelonious Monk, whose band Coltrane joined in between bouts with Davis, had also done one. Monk’s work for the 1960 French film Les Liaisons Dangereuses was exhumed to much acclaim two years ago, and might be part of the reason why Coltrane agreed to do Groulx’s film. Monk recorded the soundtrack for Roger Vadim’s film of the infamous French epistolary novel while he was in one of his most adventurous and successful arcs. Coltrane was in that same situation five years later. He’d done a record with a singer, he’d expanded the role of what a quartet could do and was profoundly affected by the musical complications of his former bandmate, Eric Dolphy.

There was no new music composed for the Monk soundtrack and, again, that might have inspired the music on Blue World, though it should be understood that the album’s title track quickly diverges from the Arlen/Mercer original and veers firmly into Coltrane’s lexicon as the band matched synapses, deconstructing the music from its origins and developing something altogether new in its place. As the song closes in on the last two minutes, Coltrane takes a solo that pins his mindset to the song. It dashes over minor key imbalance only to catch itself along Tyner’s mathematically charged piano. Elvin Jones rumbles athletically on the drums and Garrison’s bass filters in between them all with a hallucinatory adroit presence. That interplay is the mission of this creation. When Coltrane found that this group could fill the space of Dolphy’s departure, his talent and curiosity took over. That’s precisely what is on display on the title track, the confident inquiry of genius taking shape.

1961: John Coltrane with McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman on bass, and Elvin Jones on the kit. Eric Dolphy stands in the wing.

Blue World is organized less experimentally than the music that came directly before and after on Coltrane’s timeline. But listen closely, its songs are not without their own experiments. That it exists at all is perhaps its largest experiment. Coltrane worked at such an intense level of creativeness, he habitually grafted experimental concepts onto marketable releases. Near the end of his life, he stepped altogether into free jazz, and that decision led to the departure of everyone in the band but Garrison. These songs might not have found favor in the era that they were created but the solid musical conversations between members of the quartet are both enlightening and comforting. By 1965, Coltrane was adding extra musicians to the quartet and blowing freedom into sonic waves of echolalia and fury. This recording demonstrates how a quartet worked, unified but individually charged, ready to ascend into the jazz hierarchy, led by jazz’s last true emperor.

RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store