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What this New York Times jazz critic hears on Coltrane's 'new' album

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With a bit of time travel, a writer can understand where a record came from and where it eventually led.  A new album entitled "Blue World," comprises music he recorded for a movie soundtrack in 1964, was released last week. John Coltrane's new album entitled "Blue World," comprises music he recorded for a movie soundtrack in 1964, was released last week.
By Giovanni Russonello - Sept. 30, 2019


When I'm reviewing music for The New York Times, my first goal is always to understand an artist's intentions: What are they trying to convey, or to call into question, with this work? Only after I've grasped that can I start to gauge how successfully they've pulled it off.

Music criticism is ultimately a process guided by empathy - and by what the critic David Thomson called "that common but extraordinary thing, noticing." You've got to figure out how an artist sees the world; this, in turn, becomes a way to expand your own way of seeing it.

When I review music that's just been created, you might say I am critiquing from eye-level: The world the performer is speaking to is the one I'm living in, too. But when the assignment is to review music that was recorded decades ago - which I did twice this month, with the release of never-before-heard albums by Miles Davis and John Coltrane - I get to do some time traveling.

I can look at these older albums from both sides, understanding both where the music came from and where it eventually led - or in some cases, where it didn't lead, and why.

Whatever album I'm reviewing, I usually play it on loop as I write, sometimes swapping in others from the same artist or from musicians who have influenced them. I also read my way into the artist's world through interviews, articles and any other writings - by or about them - I can find. When my subject is an album from the archive, full books on the performer's life are usually available, as is a complete discography. For Davis, who died in 1991, the authoritative tome is his autobiography. For Coltrane, who died in 1967, a few great biographies have been written by now, as well as two essential essays collected in Amiri Baraka's book "Black Music."

Davis made the tracks that would eventually be released as "Rubberband" in 1985 and '86, at recording sessions guided by three young musician-producers. This was the midway point of his career's final act, when Davis was combining jazz sensibilities with pop aesthetics, often to thrilling effect.

Critics back then tended to misunderstand and malign this new music. But recent developments, especially in jazz and other forms of black music, have gone a long way toward vindicating his late period. By now, thanks to the work of musicians like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding, it's harder to argue that fusing jazz with pop and funk is inherently some kind of artistic compromise, or that synthesizers connote inauthenticity. In my review of "Rubberband," I hoped to suggest that readers also re-examine the rest of Davis's work from that era, and perhaps place it in higher esteem.

The situation was almost inverted when I reviewed the Coltrane album "Blue World," which had been recorded in 1964 for a Canadian film's soundtrack and was just released last week. This was such an outlier from the rest of what Coltrane had been making at the time, I had to escape the urge to place it neatly into some larger narrative. And I didn't want to suggest that just because this recording had been dug up 50 years later, it necessarily represented a significant moment in his career.

In the end I determined this was a fine album, generously and lovingly crafted, but it felt more like a favor to a young filmmaker than an expression of where Coltrane was creatively in that moment. Later that year he would record "A Love Supreme," his masterpiece, whose furious spiritual abandon puts it oceans away from the more casual-seeming "Blue World."

Still, even a lesser discovery can work as a healthy reminder of just how porous the archive is. After all, history leaves out far more than it captures. Just like listening is always a process of discovery, digging into an older record - whether it's an outlier or a sign of the times - can help us piece together a slightly fuller picture of the past.

PHOTO: Adam Ritchie/Redferns, via Getty Images