As It Happens

National Film Board unearths 'out of this world' film soundtrack by John Coltrane

Frederic Savard helped release a long-forgotten National Film Board soundtrack that legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane recorded for a 1964 film by Quebec director Gilles Groulx.

A forgotten 1964 Quebec film soundtrack by jazz giant John Coltrane was just released for the first time

Legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane recorded a soundtrack for Quebec filmmaker Gilles Groulx but the full recordings have never been released until now. (Jim Marshall Photography LLC)

This story was originally published on Sept. 27, 2019.

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It's hard to believe that for decades the recordings have just been sitting in the National Film Board archive collecting dust.

But until now, a forgotten film soundtrack by legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane has only been heard by a lucky few.

"It's been kind of hidden in plain sight," the National Film Board's Frederic Savard told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It's a bit surreal, to be quite honest."

Savard helped resurrect the long-forgotten recordings for a new album, Blue World. The new album was just released for the first time by Impulse! and Universal Music. 

The music was recorded in 1964 as a soundtrack for Quebec filmmaker Gilles Groulx's first feature, Le chat dans le sac.

Somehow, Groulx convinced Coltrane to score the film and he even managed to get legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder on board to record the session at his famed New Jersey studio.

The record captures Coltrane at the height of his genius, and the personnel for the session features the saxophonist's classic group — McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.

The new album includes the quartet stretching out on eight tracks, complete with alternate takes of five different compositions — which is part of what makes the album so special. As Savard explains, only 10 minutes of the music was included in the final cut of the film.

"[Groulx] left with the only master tape known in existence," Savard said.

"He came back to Montreal, edited the music into his film, and then the master tape, including the entire session, went back into the NFB archive and was there essentially collecting dust."

Fast forward to the early 2000s, and the forgotten recordings finally resurfaced during a research project that profiled Groulx's film.

From there, Savard learned about the soundtrack, and his own passion project started.

The original tape box containing the master tape for the Blue World sessions, featuring handwritten notes by Gilles Groulx. (Universal)

Savard says the film's original working title was Chronicle of a Break-up, which was the title that also appeared on the cataloguing for the soundtrack, complicating the search.

"So that's why it was a bit in limbo for all these years," he said.

Savard, an avid record collector, couldn't believe it when he finally found the master recordings and learned that only a small fraction of the music was used for the film.

"It's always a fantasy to come across something that's rare," Savard said. "But in this case, finding the unique copy of an unreleased Coltrane studio session master tape — it's something that's almost out of this world."

True to its working title, the black and white film is about a romance that falls apart.

The film opens with the tender ballad Naima — a piece Coltrane named for his first wife and that was first heard on his colossal Giant Steps album.

As Naima plays, the viewer is introduced to two young Montrealers — an anglophone and a francophone. 

"Essentially, the film chronicles the last days of their relationship," Savard said.

"But I think, for Gilles, it was also essentially a way to address some of the Quebec politics of the '60s and some of the concerns of the French Canadians at that time."

Savard points out that the film falls ahead of the Quiet Revolution, and the fact that it addressed identity politics may have appealed to Coltrane, mirroring some of the similar issues unfolding in America.

"It's a bit of a romance film, but also a very political film at the same time," Savard said.

The new album includes unheard versions of Coltrane compositions like Naima and Traneing In. (The Associated Press)

Still, Savard said it's still "a bit of a mystery" how Groulx convinced Coltrane to score the film.

He knows that Groulx shared a mutual friend with bassist Jimmy Garrison. But other than that connection between the musician and director, Savard says it's hard to know how the session ever came about.

At the time, jazz was the go-to sound for many directors. Other jazz heavyweights like Miles Davis and Charles Mingus had contributed their own soundtracks to films and Savard says that might have influenced Coltrane's decision too.

"We also know that Coltrane, at that time, his music was becoming a bit more politicized as well. He'd recorded a song called Liberia. He'd recorded a song Africa," Savard said. 

"So it's possible that the politics in the film were appealing to Coltrane."

Although none of the tracks on the album were original compositions penned specifically for the film, Savard says the recordings are one-of-a-kind and show Coltrane's growth as an artist as he works through his repertoire.

"These songs were in constant evolution," Savard said. "But the fact that he went back to the studio to re-record this material is something quite unusual and something that he would rarely do."

This project was years in the making and Savard hopes the new album will finally give this music the audience it deserves, beyond the small circle of people who knew about it in Quebec. 

"To me, it seemed a bit odd and a bit strange that this was only known in Quebec, Coltrane being such a pillar of jazz music," Savard said.

"It's something that I wanted to see corrected, essentially. I wanted these recordings to be recognized in film history and I wanted the recordings to be recognized in music history, as well."

Written by John McGill. Produced by Katie Geleff.


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