Revisiting John Coltrane's
A Love Supreme
Robin Kidson shares his reflections on one of John Coltrane's best selling albums.
Originally released in 1965, John Coltrane’s album, A Love Supreme is one of the best-selling modern jazz albums of all time. As well as composing all the tracks, Coltrane plays tenor sax on the album and is joined by the other members of his regular quartet at the time: McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). It’s an album which has escaped from the jazz straitjacket and become part of the record collection of people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves jazz fans. It seems to have a particular appeal to a particular sort of pop/rock musician. Moby, for example, has called A Love Supreme “probably one of the most beautiful and sublime recordings of the twentieth century”.
Moby’s praise fits right into a tradition of hyperbole in talking about A Love Supreme – saxophonist Joshua Redman, for example, sees it as “one of the purest jazz records ever”. Others go further: for many, it’s not just another jazz record, it is something much more significant. Courtney Pine has called the album “…one of this planet’s greatest musical statements”. And Joshua Redman again: “…it doesn’t feel like just an overwhelming musical vision, it feels like the vision”. Its manuscript is one of the Treasures of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC; and the album itself is lodged in the US Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry as an item of “cultural, historic or artistic significance”. It has been the subject of academic treatises, and whole books have been written about it – most notably, the excellent A Love Supreme: The Creation of John Coltrane’s Classic Album by Ashley Kahn.
The hype around A Love Supreme is echoed in the way in which Coltrane himself is often treated in an almost hagiographical manner. For his many admirers, he is a genius who can do no wrong, and it only comes as a slight surprise to learn that there is a Church of St. John Coltrane in San Francisco. “Coltrane’s sound”, said Carlos Santana, “rearranges molecular structure”.
I’ve got an old CD version of A Love Supreme. It’s a more or less straightforward copy of the original vinyl release, so no extra tracks or extended commentary. I play it from time to time. I quite like it. But (sacrilege alert) I don’t like it as much as many other records in my collection – including other Coltrane records such as My Favourite Things, for example, or Giant Steps. So I sometimes find it difficult to understand how A Love Supreme has come to its hallowed status. It’s as if there’s something out there I haven’t been told: some Platonic ideal, an objective standard of what a jazz album (or, indeed any piece of music) should be and which only A Love Supreme meets in full.
One reason for its popularity might be its accessibility. Even in 1965, A Love Supreme wasn’t really the avant-garde. It has a coherent structure with a division into four parts: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm, each developing in an understandable and satisfying way. It has recognisable, foot tapping rhythms. And it has good hummable tunes – one of the tunes in Acknowledgment always reminds me of the theme tune of the British TV cop drama, The Sweeney. Listen to Acknowledgement here.
Acknowledgement includes the famous four note motif which is initially picked out by Garrison on bass. Later in the movement, Coltrane plays a number of variations on the theme which eventually turn into a sung chant: a-love-su-preme, a-love-su-preme, a-love-su-preme… This has become the defining feature of the album and it’s one which has been easily translated into other popular music formats. Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, for example, turned it into a piece of Latin inflected jazz-rock on their 1973 album, Love Devotion Surrender. You can see the two guitarists play a live version at Montreux in 2011 here. (Personally, I would have preferred less of the chanting and rock star blah and more of the sublime guitar but, there you go…).
A classy, high end soul version of the theme can be heard on the single A Love Supreme released in 1988 by American singer, Will Downing. Here is the video.
Besides its accessibility and affinity with more popular music styles, another reason for A Love Supreme’s status, particularly amongst other musicians, is Coltrane’s incredible technical mastery of the saxophone. At the time, he could do things that other saxophonists could not. That virtuosity is on full display on A Love Supreme but not in a showy way. Coltrane’s playing is full of fervour and belief but can still express a wide range of emotions. There are free jazz elements there - complex rhythms, overblowing, honks and screeches, for example - but nothing to frighten the horses (or hip rock musicians) – well, not much anyway. It’s interesting that only a few months after A Love Supreme, Coltrane went in to the studio to record Ascension. Ascension is a full gas leap into the avant-garde and is close to the ultimate in free jazz. Even today, it is a startling listen to say the least. You won’t find Carlos Santana or Will Downing coming out with versions of Ascension.
Coltrane’s technical brilliance is matched by the other three musicians, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Their skills come particularly to the fore on the two middle movements of the piece, Resolution and Pursuance where each play their own dazzling solos.
Hummable tunes and virtuosity are on display in any number of jazz albums of the time (and, indeed, now) but still aren’t sufficient to explain the success of A Love Supreme. Some factors which have little to do with the actual music come into play here. A Love Supreme is a record with a message. Coltrane, an intensely spiritual person, presents it as “a humble offering” to God – but not the conventional Christian God; rather a more personal God which takes elements from other, mainly eastern, religions. In the year of its release, 1965, the Sixties counter-culture, or at least the one which emphasised love, spirituality and peace, had yet to reach its full flowering. But when it did, A Love Supreme, with its praise of something outside material existence, became one of its emblems. “A Love Supreme… reached out and influenced those people who were into peace, hippies and people like that”, said Miles Davis.
Once A Love Supreme had hitched itself on to the zeitgeist, it soared away. Once it became hip to like A Love Supreme, it sold in its hundreds of thousands – and still sells today. Its fame and reputation fed on itself until its intrinsic qualities as a piece of music became almost irrelevant.
Now, here’s a final thing about A Love Supreme. The original liner notes (reproduced on my CD copy) are written by Coltrane himself and sound like the eloquent sermon of some charismatic preacher. In talking specifically about the music, Coltrane says that:
" ...the fourth and last part is a musical narration of the theme, “A LOVE SUPREME” which is written in the context; it is entitled “PSALM”.
For a long time, I never understood what that meant. Another element of the liner notes is a prayer entitled A Love Supreme (the text for the prayer is here) but I never took much notice of that. Psalm seemed to me the weakest part of the album – a sort of aimless musical doodle. That was until I read somewhere (possibly in Ashley Kahn’s book) that Psalm is an almost exact musical rendition of the prayer. Coltrane plays each syllable of the prayer as a note, and phrases the whole piece in line with the prayer’s verbal cadences. In other words, he plays the prayer. There’s an intriguing You Tube video on which you can hear Psalm played whilst simultaneously following the words of the prayer. A bonus is that the words are in Trane’s own handwriting. Watch it here.
It’s a bit of a mystery why Coltrane – often so articulate in describing his music – should have been so oblique in explaining what Psalm is all about. But knowing the secret transformed the way I listened to the track and thus to the whole A Love Supreme suite. I had been given the key to understanding it and it became a much more enjoyable listening experience as a result. The album moved up the hierarchy of my record collection favourites. But – and apologies here to the Love Supremacists - I still don’t like it as much as A Kind of Blue, Out to Lunch, Blues and the Abstract Truth, My Favourite Things…..