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John Coltrane’s Love Supreme

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Two years ago, Ashley Kahn wrote the definitive story of the making of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, arguably the most important jazz album of the 1960s, as I wrote in my review for Blogcritics:

Along with John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Giant Steps, Kind of Blue is one of those albums that even non-jazz fans own–they are definitive recordings from the 1960s. And yet, no album emerges in a vacuum. There’s rarely a moment of divine inspiration behind an artwork–it’s almost always a combination of talent and hard work, combined with an enormous amount of thought.

Kind of Blue is no exception. It was a logical progression in Davis’ career, and in his ability to choose excellent sidemen. Davis had the core of a crack band that he at the time of Kind of Blue’s two 1959 recording sessions, with Jimmy Cobb on drums, Paul Chambers on bass, and the dueling saxes of the avant-garde John Coltrane (soon to leave on a solo career that would rival Davis’ in its stature and influence) and the more conventional, but playful technique of Cannonball Adderly.

For his sequel to the making of Kind of Blue, Kahn chose the perfect follow up: the making of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

In many ways, the two albums are linked, due to Coltrane’s apprenticeship in the Miles Davis Quintet. And just as he did with his previous book, Kahn does a thorough job of placing Coltrane’s album in the context of jazz history. As Kahn explains Davis had hired ‘Trane in the mid-1950s, when Davis was a rising star, whose previous saxophone player, Sonny Rollins, had recently departed to kick his heroin addiction, and ‘Trane was a struggling, though clearly extremely talented sax player in Philadelphia. Coltrane himself, in 1957, cleaned up his own problems with addiction, and devoted himself to his instrument, endlessly practicing, endlessly theorizing about his craft. He credited God for the transformation in his life.

The Perfect Combination

Coltrane and Davis were the perfect musical combination. As Kahn writes:

Their contrasting approach was even more pronounced during performances, and less balanced. Often, Coltrane would take three, four, even five times as much time for his improvisations as did Davis. Their own words revealed their respective philosophies: Miles listened to “what I can leave out”‘; for Coltrane, “it took that long to get it all in”.

Or as John McLaughlin, the jazz guitarist who would serve his own apprenticeship with Miles in late 1960s would say, “Miles was the epitome of economy, and Coltrane’s playing was beyond large”.

The two would collaborate most famously on Davis’s 1960 album, Kind of Blue, the birth of modal jazz. Recorded just a few weeks after that seminal album, and while Davis didn’t have anything directly to do with it, Kahn considers Coltrane’s first great solo album, Giant Steps almost a sequel. More importantly, Kahn writes

It’s no coincidence that Coltrane recorded Giant Steps only two weeks after he finished Kind of Blue. The same emotional depth and self-assurance powers his work on both…But while the latter’s modal framework points to a future path of jazz expression, the former serves as a masterful farewell to the world bebop created, a world of labyrinthine harmonies and chord changes, a world Coltrane had aspired to and in the past three years had finally mastered.

After Miles, Coltrane’s next mentor was Ornette Coleman, who emerged on the scene just as Kind of Blue was making its mark. Whereas Davis’s jazz was the epitome of streamlined cool, Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come was cacophony. But Coleman’s “free jazz” or “harmolodic” (harmony and melody simultaneously) playing intrigued Coltrane enough that he made sat in from time to time with Coleman’s live band, made frequent visits to Coleman’s apartment, and even paid Coleman for lessons.

He also eventually incorporated former Coleman bassist Jimmy Garrison (1933-1976) into his band, which would also eventually include Elvin Jones on drums, and McCoy Tyner on piano. These musicians, both still playing (Jones contributed the introduction to Kahn’s book) became legends in the jazz world playing with Coltrane.

The Recording Process

Not surprisingly, Kahn does a masterful job explaining the recording process behind A Love Supreme and giving examples of what Coltrane, the other musicians on the recording, and his producer, Rudy Van Gelder were trying to achieve.

Coltrane very much wanted to record a musical prayer to God, thanking Him for allowing Coltrane to dedicate his life towards music. Kahn also thoroughly explains how the album’s now famous liner notes, which consist largely of a written prayer by Coltrane, came to be. They would be some of the only written words produced by Coltrane, who otherwise very much put his emphasis on his music.

The first track on A Love Supreme, “Acknowledgement” is what many people think of when mentioned the album title, just as “So What” is Kind of Blue for many Miles fans. “Acknowledgement” sets the tone, and introduces the main themes of the album. It sounds like a cross between a fervent preacher leading a church service and exorcist, as Coltrane just burns on sax, following Elvin Jones’ then unusual gong introduction. Coltrane’s soloing is followed by the album’s equally unusual–almost Gregorian sounding–repeated chanting of “A Love Supreme”.

As was typical of many jazz recordings of the day, the tracks that came to make up the original album was recorded almost entirely live, on a single day, December 9, 1964. Most intriguingly, Kahn also writes about the next day’s sessions, long considered lost by most jazz fans, when Coltrane brought in a second sax player, Archie Shepp, to collaborate on the album. It’s only been very recently that this recording was released, as part of a two CD set containing both versions of A Love Supreme.

It’s not surprising that a whole host of mostly white rock musicians would adopt the original album as their own, as Coltrane’s instrumental introduction alone foreshadows the overdriven guitar pyrotechnics that would come in a couple of years from such rockers as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, who Kahn quotes as describing Coltrane’s music as “assertive, it was strong, and it did have an anger to it, and so did rock and roll”:

My initial reaction [to A Love Supreme] was one of physical pain. It sounded like he was going, “I’m not going to take this anymore. I’m just going to do what I want to do, and that’s it”…Obviously, he had gone through a spiritual change and was praising God…and I was going through a similar kind of thing at the time, so I could relate to it.

For Coltrane, God Was Very Much Alive

A year and a half after the release of A Love Supreme, Time magazine would feature a blurting cover story titled “Is God Dead”. For Coltrane, and many of his listeners, the answer was a definitive “NO”. But how God was perceived would be changing, as many youths sought to find Him through eastern religions, and other non-traditional methods (Tom Wolfe’s brilliant mid-1970s essay, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” would brilliantly place all of that searching in context). As Kahn notes, A Love Supreme was right at home:

Saxophonist David Murray–later to record with the Grateful Dead–agrees [with McGuinn] that Coltrane “had pierced into the whole ‘flower-child’ hippie bass. They might not have even known about any other jazz album, but they knew about A Love Supreme.” Like McGuinn, Murray credits the palatability of Coltrane’s message. “They connected to spirituality in music, and I don’t necessarily mean religion–he was taking the whole religious thing into pure spirituality, and that’s where he plugged in, big time.”

Coltrane would die in 1967, only a couple of years after releasing A Love Supreme, and as Murray’s quote foreshadows, he would quickly be canonized as some kind of secular jazz saint by some of his more fervent listeners. (The artsy Bravo cable network occasionally runs a British-produced special devoted to some of the more–one strains for the right word–extreme examples of this process, including a “Church of John Coltrane“.)

I’d like to think that Coltrane would view such attempts at worship as a bit silly, and more than a little misdirected. But they do show the power of music specifically, and art in general, when directed towards expressing a higher belief. Even the most hardened skeptics typically concede that Coltrane’s album is a singular, personal statement, but one that resonates with millions of listeners worldwide.

To understand more about it, be sure to read A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album.

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About Ed Driscoll

  • Eric Olsen

    Very informative and thought-provoking. People look for transcendence wherever they can find it.

  • Stephen Harris

    Great Article!!!

  • HW Saxton

    The writer here is well meaning I’m sure
    but also really WRONG on several points.

    Miles Davis’ “Kind Of Blue” was recorded
    and released in the spring of 1959 as
    was Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” erroneously
    tagged here as being a 1960 release.

    As an aside,Charles Mingus’ LP “Ah Um”
    was from 1959 also.Definitely a stellar
    year for Jazz.

  • Lil Joe

    It’s a darn good article! It catches the spirit of the 60s, the revolution in the social air that gave the music a home.

    There has been a lot of, and in fact most of the articles dealing with Trane’s social and spiritual connectedness with the Hippies, and it is good that people know that. But, his music was very profoundly influenced by and influencing of the spiritual lives of those of us in the Black community who were in a state of open rebellion, and many of us who became Marxist dogmatic materialists had become atheists.

    The loss of the ghostly God – the unbodily body – was a loss of spirituality. As I said we were dogmatic materialists.

    But, Trane’s piece “Spirituals” performed Live at the Village Vanguard enabled us to merge with the spirituality if pantheism, as Art as Hegel said was the empirical side of the Region of the Absolute Spirit. Trane’s “Psalm” poem connection with the final movement of the Suite, as did the music itself in A Love Supreme took us into a pantheistic spirituality.

    This is to say, a spirituality that comprise nature, as the Absolute is not just Subject, but Substance as well (to do an inversion of Hegel and Feuerbach re Spinoza)and Trane, Alice and Pharaoh provided a Pantheism that we felt, as well as rationally understood.

    Lil Joe
    Los Angeles