Coltrane’s A Love Supreme Still Matters by WBUR’s Amelia Mason
It happens just after the six-minute mark on John Coltrane’s seminal jazz album “A Love Supreme.” Coltrane finishes a long solo, fading out with hushed puffs; then comes a sturdy piano chord like a sharp intake of breath, and the saxophone player aims his voice at the mic instead.
The words are “a love supreme,” repeated 19 times and set to a mesmerizing four-note blues riff that was earlier introduced in deep, round tones on the bass. It is less a song than an incantation. Coltrane’s voice is husky and imprecise, overdubbed subtly to lend it an uncanny multiplicity. It is with this gesture that he invites the listener to join him, to feel the music in her own lungs. And it is in this moment that he asserts that “A Love Supreme” is no mere flight of theory-driven fancy, but something more.
Almost since the moment of its release, “A Love Supreme” has been considered one of the greatest jazz albums in history. This year marks its 50th anniversary — it was recorded in December of 1964 — and Boston’s Friends of John Coltrane Memorial Concert, in collaboration with the Northeastern Center for the Arts, will present the entirety of the four-movement suite live at Northeastern University’s Blackman Theater in Boston on Oct. 18 for the 37th annual “John Coltrane Memorial Concert.” (Photo of the 2013 concert above by Bruce Hamilton.)
The performance will feature guest musician Donald Harrison, a popular New Orleans saxophonist and principal consultant on HBO’s “Treme.” He will join seven Boston-area jazz pros: drummers Yoron Israel and John Ramsay, pianist George W. Russell, Jr., bassist Ron Mahdi, and saxophonists Carl Atkins and Leonard Brown.
“I know people who conceived their kids on ‘A Love Supreme,’” says Brown, an associate professor of ethnomusicology, African American history, and jazz studies at Northeastern University in Boston. “I know people who wrote their Ph.D. theses on ‘A Love Supreme.’ I know people who mark very important life experiences all around ‘A Love Supreme.’”
So what, exactly, makes “A Love Supreme” so exceptional? To start, there are the harmonic concepts that Coltrane heaved into previously unreached altitudes. “A Love Supreme” melded the dizzying “hard-bop” of the ‘50s with the still-developing sounds of “modal” jazz, which is built around a fluid sense of scale-based harmony instead of conventional chord progressions. The result is a loose, restless feeling, in which lead and backing instruments play an ever-shifting and inexhaustible game of chase.
Coltrane, who was born in North Carolina in 1926 and cut his musical teeth supporting Miles Davis in the ‘50s, was helped immensely by the trio that he tapped to record “A Love Supreme.” Bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones, and pianist McCoy Tyner had been working with the saxophonist for several years, and it showed. “It’s almost like you can’t separate that group of musicians from the legacy of John Coltrane,” says Israel, who cites Jones as an important influence on his own drumming.
On “A Love Supreme,” the four musicians can seem to swing in solitary orbits: Jones plays ruffling, explosive rhythms while Garrison bops along with liquid alacrity in the lower register and Tyner makes deliberate, off-kilter remarks. Yet they are inextricably locked together, sometimes trailing, sometimes tugging, as Coltrane moves fitfully, nimbly, like a kite through the clouds.
“There’s no compromise, there’s no musical compromise,” explains Israel. “They’re all committed to what they’re doing as musicians. But at the same time it’s coming together as a foursome. They’re working separately but together at the same time. The cohesiveness is amazing in that group, and the power.”
Yet the core concept of “A Love Supreme,” more than its musical ambitions, is a spiritual one. “No one had done anything like that before,” says Russell, a professor of harmony at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “And I think the motivations for the “A Love Supreme” suite were so grand—I mean it was like a love letter to God.”
“A Love Supreme” has a lyrical, emotional quality. The suite swells ecstatically and hushes dramatically. It has the conversational cadences of a prayer, and the transcendent quality of a dream. The final movement, “Psalm,” was conceptualized as a musical recitation of a devotional poem included in the liner notes. Each emphatic, incandescent tone from Coltrane’s horn is a syllable uttered in supplication to a higher power.
To many, the spirituality of “A Love Supreme” is not so much a statement of any particular religion—Coltrane espoused a universalist philosophy—as an expression of the African American experience.
“To a degree, what [Coltrane] pulls into the music is African and African American spirituality,” Brown explains. “So he pulls out of that structure. And if you know how jazz evolved, it comes out of the spiritual expressions of Africans and African Americans. So there’s a continuum here. So if you go back to enslavement times, pre-enslavement, how powerful music and dance were in traditions of African cultures, and still are to this day, and how that music had to work and help people survive horrific times through centuries. And then it morphs out into American popular culture and is labeled as blues and R&B and all that, but the essence of that music still goes back to that deep spirituality.”
Coltrane was not known to be overtly political in his work, but Brown argues that the saxophonist’s personal experiences as a black man during and before the civil rights movement are deeply woven into his musicality.
“You got to remember, beyond that Coltrane was a musician, he had all these experiences as a black person in the United States of America,” says Brown. “He had all of them. So he knew what racism was about, he knew what lynching was about in the South, he knew about discrimination. He knew about all that stuff. He’s not outside of that, and I think that sometimes when we look at [a jazz musician like Coltrane], we just look at what his musicality was. Well, all these life experiences come out through that horn.”
It’s with both a historical perspective and musical openness that the eight-man ensemble will tackle “A Love Supreme.” The suite is highly improvisatory and up to interpretation, and Brown says they will rehearse arrangements but not solos. Those are best left to live performance, when musicians must reach deep within themselves to extricate the essence of the piece.
“[Coltrane] realized music had a higher purpose,” says Brown. “He wanted to use it to attain that, and he wanted to be able express music in that way that touched people. So he wanted to be a force for good.”