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John Coltrane

A Love Supreme

[Impulse!; 1965]

By ; August 26, 2011 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

A Love Supreme is a one of a kind album. It’s complex, deeply spiritual, ethereal, and at the same time very concise, wrapping itself up in under 33 minutes. A Love Supreme also marks a fascinating point in Coltrane’s career. At the time he was at the crossroads of two very distinct styles. On A Love Supreme he meshes the two of them: the very clean and precise, hard bop style he had become famous for in his early career and a looser, free jazz style he had embraced later.

When people think jazz, people generally think about music that is highly influenced by swing and bebop, held together tightly with fast tempos, and concise structure. Whereas Coltrane’s past works of say, Blue Train and Giant Steps, may fit the bill, A Love Supreme is a vast deviation. It’s full of emotion, hooks, and at times, sheer chaos so a new-found jazz listener may just dismiss it as an unfathomable mess.

Coltrane’s quartet for this album consists of tight-knit group of players consisting of Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and of course, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. The album is a suite, broken into four different movements, “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” The album maintains a spiritual theme; Coltrane expresses his gratitude and ‘acknowledgement’ of his skills and talent and admits that that skill is owned by a higher power or God.

The spiritual journey of A Love Supreme begins with the banging of a gong “Acknowledgement.” It’s quickly followed by cymbal washes from Elvin Jones, Coltrane plays his brief intro of notes, the piano builds tension with a tremolo and slowly the cymbal washes fade out as bassist Jimmy Garrison enters with a four-note motif upon which the whole movement is based. The drums and piano soon enter and Coltrane begins his lively solo. After soloing over different variations of the motif, the motif eventually becomes a vocal chant of “A Love Supreme,” chanted by Coltrane himself. The purpose of this movement is to show that he “acknowledges” the existence of God and asks for strength and guidance to overcome the addictions (including a devastating heroin addiction of his which tore apart former playing groups) which had plagued him through most of his musical career. The chanting of “A Love Supreme” is a proclamation of his love for God that cannot be matched. As the tracks slows to a finish, Garrison’s bass fades out into the next track.

“Resolution” opens with a continuation of Garrison’s bass solo, which consists of some very low, but lively muted bass riffs, full of double-stops and a swing feel. Suddenly, the piece explodes as Coltrane enters about 20 seconds in. This opening solo is full of pure emotion. It’s dynamic, audacious, and simply breathtaking. In the background Tyner lays down his minor-key piano chords, supporting Coltrane, until Tyner takes the helm and enters with his solo. Tyner’s solo style is so drastically different. It’s seemingly the only fitting way to follow up Coltrane powerful opener. Tyner uses less of a range of notes; he’s clear and concise but very much on point. It all makes for a very strong solo. Coltrane then reenters for a second time, repeating the theme from the beginning of the movement. This second solo has more angst. Coltrane distorts his tones this time around by blowing more vigorously on his mouthpiece. This is perhaps representative of the pain in his life before rediscovering God. In many ways, “Resolution” can be seen as Coltrane’s mighty return after reaching out to God for help. Here Coltrane is at his finest: explosive, powerful, and transcendent.

Part three of the suite, “Pursuance,” opens with a roaring drum solo from Elvin Jones. The word ‘pursuance’ is defined as “The action of trying to achieve something.” This is conveyed through Jones’ determination as he plays through his solo and pounds on the snare drum. Jones follows the tempo set by drummer Garrison, and fills his solo with double-stops accordingly. After a minute and a half, Coltrane enters for a solo, but is quickly followed by a piano solo from full of cadenzas that finds him all over the keyboard. He then begins playing chords that lead into Coltrane’s second solo. This time around, Coltrane has a full three minutes on his hands. In it he reintroduces the six-note theme from the beginning of the movement. Concluding the piece is a bass solo from Garrison. The free-flowing solo is similar to that on “Acknowledgement” in that he repeats the three-note “A Love Supreme” theme.

Alas, we reach the conclusion of A Love Supreme, with “Psalm.” This incredibly moving track is based around a poem by Coltrane, dedicated to God, which is included in the album’s liner notes, also titled “A Love Supreme.” The track, in ways, is a “reading” of the poem in musical form. It’s a wordless recital of sorts. The saxophone solo is set to the meter of the poem. Elvin Jones creates a beautiful atmosphere by playing tympani as Coltrane emblematically reads the poem. This heartfelt and highly emotion performances from Coltrane ends on the line “Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.” And thus A Love Supreme comes to a close.

Remarkably the album was recorded in a single late-night session by Coltrane’s quartet, consisting of Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison, on December 9th, 1964 at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. This marked the first time that Coltrane had plotted out an album. For the most part, the tracks on the album were recorded in only one or two tracks. This was surprising for the time because previous to this Coltrane was known for being a perfectionist. He would record tracks over and over again until he was satisfied them. This marks another change in Coltrane’s life with this album. This is particularly amazing in that “Pursuance” and “Psalm” were recorded together in a single take. It begs the question, how could such a groundbreaking piece of art be constructed in so little time and in such few takes?

Not only does A Love Supreme showcase John Coltrane in his prime, encompassing flawless playing, emotional power, and rawness but it also marks several transitions in his life. First, is his change is from hard bop to free jazz style of playing. Second, is embracing of God which thematically dictates the whole album. Last is his transition from being more improvisation and winging the structure of his songs, while constantly re-recording for perfection to premeditating his pieces and recording in few takes. A Love Supreme also showcases one of the finest jazz quartets ever assembled. The four of them understood each other completely and played with such audacity, while laying down some of the greatest jazz solos ever played.

A Love Supreme is one of the most soulful recordings of all time. It’s spiritual, timeless, and transcendent All the while it remains the best selling Coltrane album to date. A Love Supreme may just be the greatest jazz record of all time. There’s no question, it’s certainly John Coltrane’s finest achievement.

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