As a new live recording of ‘A Love Supreme’ is released, one of only two known to exist, we look back at what makes this oft referenced Jazz album Coltrane’s magnum opus.
‘A Love Supreme’ was recorded in one session in December 1964 by John Coltrane and a trio of players who encompassed his well established quartet. Coltrane played tenor and soprano saxophone and acted as bandleader, while McCoy Tyner played piano, Jimmy Garrison double bass, and Elvin Jones drums and timpani. Considered the “classic” lineup of Trane’s quartet, the group had been together since 1962 with long hours touring, recording and improvising together. Dimming the lights in the studio to better resemble the familiar club environment where they so often improvised new pieces, the group laid down four suites; Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. Little is known about how Coltrane felt about the album with few interviews elucidating any backstory. What is clear, both at the time and as the work has been reviewed over the years, is that the album held some significance to him, as he lent both his voice to the opening ‘Acknowledgement’ and took time to create the liner notes for the original release. Through those liner notes, interviews with others involved in the album’s creation, and Trane’s few words on the matter, it has become clear the album acted as a kind of devotional of sorts, cementing Coltrane’s faith in both his music and in the omnipotent power of God.
Opening with a gong and a brief riff of Coltrane’s sax, ‘Acknowledgment’ soon brings in the four note theme on Garrison’s double bass that acts as lynchpin for the opening suite. As that four note bassline devolves into a walking bass run, staccato piano stabs evolve and percussion rises and falls. Through this Coltrane’s rich saxophone flows until he resolves back to repeats of the four note theme, covering it in every key. As saxophone drops out and piano takes over, Coltrane begins a vocal chant of “a love supreme”, mirroring the four note theme, before the bass returns to bring resolution to the piece by taking the theme to its conclusion. Those four notes have gone on to be some of the most recognisable in Jazz, while the interplay between the players, each following his own flow yet inextricably connected to the others, is lauded by fans and critics as a near perfect distillation of Coltrane’s vision and skill as a bandleader.
‘Part II, Resolution’ enters on double bass before the remaining quartet members jump in and Coltrane’s saxophone takes off, briefly vying for ascendancy with the insistent percussion before giving way to Tyner’s piano who proceeds to take on himself for top billing. It’s a dramatic, high-event piece filled with a charged energy that smoothes out as Coltrane again takes charge, elevating further before finally slowing the pace for the finale. ‘Part III, Pursuance’ opens with an extended percussion intro from Jones before Coltrane enters with a sax line that, like so many he committed to tape, is now instantly recognisable. Acting as a brief bridge, bass and piano take over as once more Coltrane steps back and allows the remaining trio freedom to flow as one. Of all the recordings of the classic quartet, this may be the height of their power as each interlinks, bouncing off each other and propelling the movement forward.
The final part, ‘Psalm’, takes the form of an extended Coltrane solo. Never explicitly stated by Coltrane, it has become clear that he was, through his playing, vocalising his poem ‘A Love Supreme’ published in the album’s liner notes. Each note corresponding to the syllables of the poem, the repeated three note refrain throughout ‘Psalm’ represents the poem's repeated phrase “thank you God”. In doing so, Coltrane ties words, music, prayer, song and devotion together, marking ‘A Love Supreme’ as a most particularly spiritual album. Without knowing the link between the playing and the poem it is still clear that ‘Psalm’ is a deeply emotive, weighty and personal piece for Coltrane. Unlike other elements of his playing, where it can feel like his horn may fall apart with the energy being transferred through it, his playing on the final movement of ‘A Love Supreme’ is controlled but heavy with soul. Here Trane plays not just for himself, or even from himself, but to everyone and everywhere, reaching outwards with his horn. The only incongruity is the way the poem is thankful and open, while musically Coltrane feels closer to playing a valediction. Perhaps for a previous time, a previous life. These layers, nuances, unknowns are at the heart of many great art works that have us return again and again.
‘A Love Supreme’ marks the high point of John Coltrane’s career. After the low of losing his place in Miles Davis’ band due to drug and alcohol addictions, and only a few short years before his own untimely death from cancer, ‘A Love Supreme’ finds Trane elevated to new heights by his fellow musicians, his vision and his faith. While he spoke little of the album and it’s meaning, and performed it publicly barely a handful of times, it was clear how much he had invested in it. While Jazz is often predominantly a genre at its best live, where improvisation can take hold, the single session behind ‘A Love Supreme’ allowed it to become a definitive version, both carefully crafted but also free and improvised all at once. At just 33 minutes in length, it’s a worthy excursion for all, and a duly considered classic for all it puts out.