A sprawling, four-part odyssey that sees hard bop collide with modal and free jazz; a “musical recitation of prayer by horn”; a legendary quartet at the height of their powers recording an everlasting classic in one session; a visionary masterpiece that has been canonised as one of the great records of its time. A Love Supreme was released fifty years ago, and yet John Coltrane’s classic spiritual work has lost none of its potency; sizzling energy, sublime reflection, and introspective thematics collide on every bar, and the results are unforgettable.
Galvanised by a near-fatal 1957 heroin overdose, the saxophonist Coltrane sought refuge in religion. Drawn in equal parts to Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Coltrane immersed himself in Universalist spiritual thought and feeling, and sought to find ways in which music could transcend mere noise and approach transcendental higher-consciousness. Influenced by ancient Indian musical teachings, Coltrane was quoted at one point as saying:
“I would like to bring to people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed.”
A Love Supreme was the ultimate expression of Coltrane’s deep spiritual searching. Including a mantra and a wordless recitation of an original devotional poem, A Love Supreme deals thematically with repentance, purity, and exaltation. Musically, Coltrane strayed beyond his hard bop roots, and embraced the emergent fields of modal jazz as popularised by his collaborator and friend Miles Davis, and free jazz as first explored by Ornette Coleman on his seminal 1959 record The Shape of Jazz to Come. The results are stunning; dark, beautiful, and at times chaotic, A Love Supreme was a record years ahead of its time.
Recruiting Elvin Jones on percussion, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and McCoy Tyner on piano, Coltrane fashioned what would later be dubbed his “Classic Quartet”. Every storied musician was in top-form here: Jones’ visionary use of polyrhythm and legato phrasing creates a constantly-evolving percussive chaos that underpins much of the music, while Garrison’s bouncy, walking bass takes simple motifs and meditates on them during the extended passages, constantly rephrasing and adapting to the other instrumentalists, while Tyner employs his distinctive, intense quartal and quintal chord voicings that rapidly ascend and descend the keys, perfectly complementing Coltrane’s similarly-confrontational style.
Tyner - one of the most influential jazz pianists of the 20th century - employs decidedly ambiguous chord voicings, sometimes omitting the chord tone itself, and thereby creating an unresolved sense of slight unease that Coltrane as soloist flies in to fill. The saxophonist’s flurries of notes are wild, passionate screams; all but discarding formal ideas of pedal point and ostinato harmony, there is a distinctive Coleman-esque confidence as Coltrane dives headfirst into each run. There are soulful wailings, experimental flourishes, staccato improvisations, and extended variations on the repetitive, simple four note motif that loosely ties each of the four parts together.
Coltrane was a master instrumentalist, who famously dedicated up to sixteen hours of each day to careful study and practice of his craft. By exploring the concept of reharmonisation - changing the nature of a melody by altering its underlying harmonics - amongst many other groundbreaking techniques, and by constantly altering chord structure and harmonic content in subtle, ingenious ways, A Love Supreme was inspired work.
The opening part, titled Acknowledgement, begins in E major, with a gong, a rush of cymbals, and the tinkle of Tyner’s piano, before Garrison introduces the core motif through a propulsive bassline. The band returns; over a Bb vamp during the first solo of the piece, Coltrane explores the Dorian mode, meditating on simple modal phrases that before too long have disappeared, as the subdued percussion gradually builds in intensity and Garrison and Tyner explore clever, increasingly bold variations on the core melodic phrase. Coltrane runs wild, diving deep into the lowest registers of his instrument before soaring high on the backs of his most adventurous changes; soon, he is playing purposefully over-blown notes that coax the soulful heart out of his saxophone. He revisits and explores the record’s simple pentatonic four note motif, boldly ranging across all twelve keys before landing back on the song’s centre; then, the bandleader is chanting, with each syllable syncing alongside a note in the motif: “A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme…”
The following piece, Resolution opens with a propulsive bassline comprised of decisive triplets and a short, sharp solo from Coltrane that is heavy with chromatic notes. He disappears in favour of Tyner’s rapid, dizzying improvisations; the pianist employs syncopated rhythmic techniques and unique melodic phrasing, with a more forceful bass hand than is commonly seen, and a deft, quick-fingered touch on the higher notes. Tyner closes his solo with a series of wild, adventurous chords, spiralling out of control before Coltrane returns with more flurries of harsh chromatic notes, before harking back to the simple phrase with which he opened the track. Resolution is powerfully emotive; it calls to mind the struggles of Coltrane’s day - racial discrimination and empowerment, drug abuse, political upheaval, war, and crime - and yet, as with all four pieces of A Love Supreme, it seems to beg us to let it belong to us. Listen to this music through headphones as you walk through any city in the world, and it will open your eyes; this chaos is the chaos of human endeavour, this question is the question on humankind’s lips, this beauty is the beauty of the human spirit.
Third act Pursuance opens with a frenetic, busy solo by Jones, exploring rapidly oscillating fills up and down the drum kit with sparse splashes on the cymbals, before the band join him abruptly. Coltrane introduces a short motif, before it is again snatched by Tyner and spun into a frantic solo, his right hand exploring arpeggios that dance in and out of time with the beat as his purposeful left hits sharp, staccato chords. Coltrane returns with his most experimental solo of the entire suite; jarring bass notes and freewheeling chromatic exploration throughout the upper register, atop a relentless rhythmic foundation that rolls on and on, devolving into a manic fill by Jones before the storm passes and we are once again left with only Garrison’s bouncing, meandering bass, as he solos for the piece’s final two and a half minutes.
Pursuance blends seamlessly into the mournful ode Psalm, Coltrane’s instrumental interpretation of the religious poem he enclosed in A Love Supreme’s liner notes. It is fascinating to read Coltrane’s poem along with the music; videos have been made by aligning the two. See the way his phrasing echoes almost perfectly the structure of the sentences and the syllables of each word, see the mood shift from sentiment to sentiment; it is an aural work that interprets not only Coltrane’s unspoken words but the unknowable sentiments that all religions attempt to answer. Psalm is a stunning work of art; defying categorisation and without precedent, it is a deep exploration of message and communication. Considering Coltrane’s efforts to make music which could truly transcend, it is a powerful work indeed, and perhaps the closest he ever came to achieving that goal. His poem closes in loving praise, masterfully conveyed through the lilting timbre of his saxophone:
“I have seen God – I have seen ungodly – none can be greater – none can compare to God. Thank you God. He will remake us… He always has and He always will. It is true – blessed be His name – thank you God. God breathes through us so completely… so gently we hardly feel it… yet, it is our everything. Thank you God. ELATION – ELEGANCE – EXALTATION – All from God. Thank you God. Amen.”
On this record we have one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time working in concert with the finest accompanists he ever had, and yet A Love Supreme is more than a showpiece for remarkable ability. It is a spiritual awakening; Coltrane’s purest, most honest outpouring of his foundational yearning for understanding in a rapidly changing, complex world. A troubled soul who yet was driven beyond belief towards greatness and towards personal discovery, John Coltrane is an enigma who communicated best through sound alone, and who truly believed in the raw power of music. He understood the ability of music to reach into our souls and connect with us on a spiritual level, to touch us and leave imprints that may never be erased. A Love Supreme looms large in the musical landscape, and it will never be forgotten; there is magic here. It goes out there - beyond.
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