Music shouldn’t be easy to understand. You have to come to the music yourself, gradually. Not everything must be received with open arms. – John Coltrane, 1963
This is a sentiment that I can wholeheartedly agree with. There have been many instances over the years that I’ve come at an album and couldn’t find a way in straight away. I would run at it full-on, only to be stopped dead in my tracks for some reason or another. In rock, pop, and jazz, you always come across something you think you’re supposed to like but seemingly find it hard to even crack the surface with it. I think there’s quite a few people that come at jazz music and never seem to find an in, and remain on the outside of something great. They enjoy standards and holiday favorites, but beyond that it sounds too complicated; too smart for its own good.
I read somewhere that when people first start getting into jazz the first album they buy, or are recommended, is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. The next is John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I’m not sure if there’s an actual set of instructions somewhere out there that says this, but I think I understand the reasoning behind it. Davis’ Kind of Blue is that universal jazz album that both the novices and experts alike could find something to swing to, and together with. I can only assume that Coltrane’s A Love Supreme must have been the “make or break” record for new jazz fans. “Okay, so you dug that cool jazz. Let’s see what happens when you hear this!” I’m sure there were quite a few people that didn’t understand the recommendation of Coltrane’s seminal musical statement. It hit their ears and they pulled up the needle and said no thanks. They either keep Kind of Blue in the collection for moments of solitude or go running back to what they know and end their jazz explorations. True musical exploration isn’t for everyone. Some folks just want something to bop their head to. Something to fill the void of silence. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s just not me.
Actually, the first jazz album I ever bought was Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream over 20 years ago. It clicked for me right away. The strangeness of Monk’s phrasing, along with his skewed interpretation of both traditional and ragtime rhythmic cadences twisted and turned something in me. To this day that album affects me. At the same time I had bought that album I’d also bought a Scott Joplin compilation. Songs like “Maple Leaf Rag”, “Sunflower Slow Drag”, “Palm Leaf Rag”, and “The Entertainer” had been swirling in my head by the time Monk’s “Body and Soul”, “Five Spot Blues” and “Just A Gigolo” had hit my ears. I was primed for Monk’s language.
It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I bought John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. It was the first Coltrane album I’d ever bought, and after hearing the album in its entirety on a public radio station one Saturday night I knew I had to have it. It never felt or sounded foreign to me. I immediately grasped the sense of immediacy Coltrane put forth in his squealing sax phrasings, along with the pure genius backing of drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and pianist McCoy Tyner. The four parts that made up the album -“Acknowledgement”, “Resolution”, “Pursuance”, and “Psalm”, indeed felt like a declaration of gratitude to a higher power. The album was Coltrane’s “giving thanks” to God for giving him focus and a direction in his art. For pulling him from the depths of heroin addiction into the light of clean living and endless creativity. Though he struggled with other demons -mainly womanizing and a back and forth with his weight- his musical creation never waned from A Love Supreme on up to his tragic death from liver cancer in 1967. He would go on to create even more radical musical statements, such as Ascension(the last record with his classic quartet), Meditations, and Interstellar Space, but A Love Supreme remains his quintessential musical statement. Fully formed, emotionally engaging, and a tour de force musically and conceptually.
I’m not a religious person, but the spiritual aspect of A Love Supreme pulls me in. Coltrane isn’t just thanking an Anglo-Saxon deity. He’s pulling from Eastern and Western aspects of belief. His love of God feels non-denominational. It feels like joy for life. A life that a mere seven years prior in 1957 he felt he wasn’t long to have. A Love Supreme is thankfulness for the air he breathes and pushes back through his horn. I can relate to that thankfulness. A Love Supreme/John Coltrane: The Complete Masters is an intimate look into the making of a musical masterpiece. It’s three discs that bring together a tapestry of musical ideas which turned into a declaration of love for God and life. It’s also a love letter to the process of creation.
Disc one consists of the stereo version of the album in its entirety, and then is followed up by mono reference masters of “Part III – Pursuance” and “Part IV – Psalm”. Disc two opens with alternate takes from the sessions on December 9, 1964. It’s great hearing the starts and stops of these moments in the studio. The takes Coltrane wasn’t happy with and went back to redo. He never had this sort of freedom and looseness allotted to him before in the studio. Impulse! gave him the freedom to explore and create the vision for this album he intended. I love these glimpses into the process. The second half of disc two is the quartet expanding into a sextet with the addition of Philadelphia avante garde saxophonist Archie Shepp and bassist Art Davis. At one point Coltrane imagined A Love Supreme with this line up. A conversation between Coltrane and Shepp’s tenors; Coltrane the more restrained and fluid, while Shepp’s is harsher and bluesier. I love hearing these concepts come to fruition, but I think in the long run Coltrane made the right decision to go with his original vision of the album as a quartet. I think the pieces lose some of their longing and weight with the addition of Shepp’s boisterous tenor voice. Disc three is Coltrane’s quartet live at Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes on July 26th, 1965. They run through the whole of A Love Supreme in a rough and ready fashion. It’s not as fluid and cohesive as the studio version, but there’s a fire behind their performance. There’s also a tension in the performances, as the relationships between these musicians were starting to crumble. Coltrane had already begun to go down a new path, rebuilding his style from the ground up. Regardless of the personal strife, the performance was and still is an exhilarating one.
If you’ve ever loved this album, or even had a passing fancy with it, you need to get your hands on this collection. I rarely buy CDs anymore, but I made an exception for this box set and it was so worth it. Would I love to hear disc three on vinyl? Umm, yes. Yes I would. But the remastering of the recording to CD is nothing short of masterful. And the session recordings and starts and stops of different takes are exquisitely caught, both originally by Bob Thiele and genius engineer Rudy Van Gelder and newly produced by Harry Weinger and Ashley Kahn, with mastering by Kevin Reeves.
There are many jazz albums I hold near and dear to me, but A Love Supreme is one that I just can’t do without. The sound of change and enlightenment is inside these songs. There’s hope and love within the notes. I think we need this album now more than ever.