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A CD Supreme

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Last year, Ashley Kahn released his book on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, explaining how the album was conceived and recorded, and how it became the benchmark of mid-1960s jazz.

As we mentioned in our review back in March, it’s a great book, but as Mick Jagger once said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. And while Mick’s aphorism does a disservice to us folks who put finger to keyboard for a living, he’s got a point: writing about music only goes so far. You’ve got to hear it for yourself.

Stylish And Elegant

Fortunately, Universal, through their Impulse label (where Coltrane originally recorded in the 1960s, back when they were an independent), has reissued an elegant new double CD-set consisting of A Love Supreme on one disc, and live versions and outtakes on the other.

It’s packaged inside a stylish clear plastic wrapper, with a white band outlining Coltrane’s face, somewhat reminiscent of the translucent wrapper that covered David Bowie’s Sound+Vision 1989 box set. Sliding off the plastic slipcover reveals’ Bob Thiele’s understated photo of Coltrane, the original cover of A Love Supreme. Inside is Victor Kalin’s conte crayon drawing of Coltrane, and ‘Trane’s own “Dear Listener” letter and prayer. These writings–two of his very few–are reprinted in larger type inside the CD’s 32-page booklet, which also has liner notes by Kahn, and Coltrane’s son Ravi, himself a musician.

But What Of The Music?

As Kahn writes in the liner notes:

All previous digital incarnations of A Love Supreme have been derived from a 1971 second-generation master tape. While this tape did not suffer from the processing and alterations that noise reduction systems cause, it did add equalization and compression to the original recording and had an inexplicable flaw in the left channel during the first three minutes of “Pursuance.” The tape was not physically flawed, so it must be assumed that the problem was caused in the 1971 transfer process.

This situation was a cause of great concern until it occurred to us that A Love Supreme was originally issued in 1965 in territories other than the United States. The hope was that we could find a contemporaneous copy of the original master that would not have had this affliction. A March 1965 master was found at EMI’s London vaults and dispatched to New York. Not only was the problem absent on that tape, but it had no added equalization or compression. A relieved Rudy Van Gelder declared it to be as close to the real thing as one could get in the analog domain without having the original tape: “This tape preserves the sonic details with vivid accuracy: Elvin’s cymbals, the deep intensity of the vocal chant, and the openness of the group sound.”

Disc Two comes from a variety of sources. The live version of A Love Supreme has been released on several occasions, with varying sonic results. In mastering the first legitimate issue of the quartet’s only live performance of the suite, Van Gelder worked with an excellent analog transfer from the original mono tape made by French national radio.

The result is one disc containing the very best version of the original Love Supreme possible, and another containing not just one of its rare live performances (at the 1965 Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes, in Juan-les-pins, France), but alternate takes of “Resolution” and “Acknowledgement”, featuring not just Coltrane, but Archie Shepp on saxophone, and in a unique double-bass experiment, Coltrane’s usual upright bass player Jimmy Garrison shares the studio with bassist Art Davis.

Frankly, I’m not sure how much I like Shepp’s playing on these tunes. It may just be that I’ve got 20 years invested in hearing A Love Supreme a particular way, and that no other way will do. Or that Coltrane is such a monster sax player on his own, that no other saxophonist can accompany him. But that’s a minor point–Coltrane was a tireless experimenter, who in the last years of life, was willing to share the bandstand with increasing numbers of musicians. And his experiments with Shepp and Davis presage those jam sessions.

The bottom line: This is the best presentation yet of one of jazz’s best albums, and the perfect accompaniment to Kahn’s making-of book. If you’re new to the Coltrane legend (or even if you’re not), then (to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke), read the book, play the CD, repeat the dosage.

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About Ed Driscoll