Every week, Qwest TV revisits an album that has become a classic. Released in January 1965, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme is one of the most powerful albums jazz has ever seen.
Love stands before everything
Such is the focus on musicianship in jazz it is easy to overlook the ingenuity musicians apply to language, which is sometimes very subtle. John Coltrane opted for the poetry of A Love Supreme for the title of his 1965 masterpiece instead of the prose of A Supreme Love, and the effect is not inconsequential. By foregrounding love he underlines the key mission statement of the work, which has come to define him more than the other entries in his large discography. Love of god. Love of fellow man. Love of the world. Love of the earth. Love of one’s life rather than of oneself.
All of these notions are not merely implied by the music, they are also made explicit in a lengthy poem, a kind of earnest baring of the soul, that the saxophonist wrote as an unofficial manifesto to accompany the music. It is not so much a sleeve note as a deeply moving personal testimony of Coltrane’s earnest desire to do much more than compose for the sake of composing. He subscribes to the notion of transcendence that will end any barriers to the most complete communication. “Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts fears and emotions – time –all related, all made from one all made in one … thought waves, heat waves, all vibrations, all paths lead to god.”
Lest we forget, Coltrane had come back from the brink. One of the most gifted saxophonists to emerge in the mid ‘50s had been fired from one of the most prestigious of all imaginable gigs, as a member of Miles Davis’s group, to whose Kind Of Blue he made a significant contribution. His drug addiction had been spiraling out of control, but he kicked the habit and underwent a spiritual awakening, which appeared to lend new purpose to his life and credence to the conceptual premise of A Love Supreme. The saxophonist’s quartet, drummer Elvin Jones, double bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner had debuted on the auspicious 1962 album Coltrane, and distinguished itself as a key exponent of modern jazz on other sessions such as Ballads, With Johnny Hartman and Crescent, but here they reached a peak in terms of ensemble cohesion, technical excellence and artistic expressivity. Their chemistry of the noted live albums, At The Village Vanguard and Birdland became more incisive and focused. Each player, each personality and each instrument merges into something that is ‘all made in one,’ as Coltrane himself said in the poem.
A four act suite
The fact that A Love Supreme is a suite in four parts rather than a set of several disconnected compositions is by no means insignificant, as the overarching themes of oneness, universal sound and unified humanity decisively underscore the emotional drive and sense of endeavour, if not duty. The prelude to each track stands as something of a spoken prologue to each act of a play.
Jones’ cymbal crash that opens, “Part 1 Acknowledgement”, is almost like the shimmer of a gong at the entrance of a temple, its resonance beautifully captured by Rudy Van Gelder’s finely threaded mix, before Coltrane’s gilded tenor enters, playing a tightly coiled phrase that pierces the air like a shaft of light. The hosanna, the praise song, the anthem, the hymn the whole album embodies, is thereby defined.
Then again, Garrison’s bass overture to “Part 2 Resolution,” with its discreet proto-flamenco chording, also has a decisive emotional-sonic surge, though it lasts barely 20 seconds. There is an implication of both sensual dance and shadowy combat, or perhaps a corps a corps with one’s own inner demons. The torrid, fervent, almost desperate cry of Coltrane’s horn thereafter is a perfectly apposite rejoinder to the introduction insofar as it makes the point that any soul who wishes to reach a true state of grace has to endure the most testing of circumstances. Musically, there is hard swing in Resolution. Thematically, it speaks of our resolve.
Jones’s drum solo at the start of “Part 2 Pursuance” is a longer, denser prelude, running to just over 90 seconds, and the ante is then upped. Musically, there is even harder swing in Pursuance. Thematically, it is a bold call for higher goals we have to pursue.
Stylistically, these first three parts of the suite contain some of the finest playing by any small group in the history of jazz, not just for the virtuosity of the players and the richness of the material. Their ability to draw on post-bop, modal and avant-garde vocabularies, to balance harmonic flourish, emphatic, mantra-like repeated figures and looser, ‘open sky’ structures, is tremendous, as is the way that the performance conveys so much of the conviction and turbulence, if not violence, of the gospel tradition, and the sermons of African-American ministers, of which Coltrane, whose grandfather William Blair was a reverend, had knowledge.
Somewhat inevitably the suite concludes with “Part 4 Psalm,” on which Coltrane apparently plays a transcription of the aforementioned poem. In any case, this specific biblical language is entirely appropriate for the mood of devotion that is vividly conjured up by the quartet’s misty, floating carriage of sound, where serenity flows in and out of intensity. Jones’ stark tom-toms unleash successive waves on which bass, piano and horn sway back and forth. The timpani rolls in the coda turn everything to water, heat and dust.
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The work of a single mind
Coltrane solos brilliantly throughout A Love Supreme, with the range of his phrasing, from elongated and elaborate to concise and pithy, matched only by the richness of his timbres, which are hoarse and braying, and delicate and airy, but the measure of his uppermost musicality comes in a moment so ingrained in the psyche of those who have taken the music to their hearts that it is easy to overlook. In the climax of Acknowledgement he chants the words ‘a love supreme’ to Garrison’s taut, repeating bassline. Just four notes but they have become a phrase that several generations of listeners know intimately, whether or not they can play a scale on a horn or keyboard. The voice is the instrument, just as the instrument was the voice, and the possibility of Coltrane’s work as a song for singing is simply made unforgettably literal.
The most gifted saxophonist in the world chose not to blow in order to serve music. Tenor player Archie Shepp, one of Coltrane’s protégés, appears on the alternate take of the song, and his additional motifs enhance the polyrhythmic push. Yet there is something utterly, irreplaceably magical about Coltrane’s voice concluding the version of the piece that was selected for release. Hearing the master musician intone the words he wrote somehow humanizes him further. He comes down from the higher plane to which the music lifts him. To all intents and purposes he is now one with us.
How Coltrane honed and refined the concept of A Love Supreme remains unclear, but in any case it stands as an expression of his most untrammeled artistic and humane energies: the album he was called to make that would in turn call legions of others in the years that followed. According to his second wife, the pianist Alice Coltrane, John was holed up in the spare room of their home in Long island, New York for days at a time, before finally announcing the four-part suite was ready. Finishing the album required his complete and undimmed focus and dogged determination. Before the psalm was found there was acknowledgement, resolution and pursuance of the task.
Roughly 500, 000 copies of the record were sold by 1970, just three years after Coltrane’s death
And the stature of A Love Supreme simply grew thereafter. Its combination of authority and attention to detail understandably touched listeners beyond the confines of what was marketed as jazz. For musicians at the forefront of rock and pyschedelia, like The Grateful Dead, Santana, The Byrds, Al Kooper or Mike Bloomfield, known for his work with Bob Dylan among others, the sound of A Love Supreme resonated with their own ideas of evoking a degree of otherworldliness or human fulfilment in song. The symbolic grandeur of the work was hard to resist.
The album thus remains a touchstone for more than the world of jazz. A Love Supreme embodies musical excellence and the selflessness of an exceptional individual with far-sighted ideals for his fellow man. It stands as an article of faith that needs no renewal. The supreme love reaches right back to he who first stated it.