A Love Supreme is John Coltrane’s great masterpiece, and one of the most spiritually moving jazz records ever made. Recorded in December 1964, with McCoy Tyner (piano), Elvin Jones (drums) and Jimmy Garrison (bass), the album’s four part suite is brilliantly executed from beginning to end, in a way that is both gripping and engaging throughout.
By 1965, the year when this LP was released, Coltrane had already well and truly paid his dues, and proven himself to be a proficient and versatile musician, who had played with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and more importantly, Miles Davis.
Incredibly, when it was issued in February of that same year, A Love Supreme was his 18th album since 1957, and one that would transcend the very genre in which it was thought to belong. Because Supreme was increasingly finding its way into the collections of many of those in the Rock fraternity, thus helping to lay the early foundations of what would soon be known as jazz-rock. And while speaking about it in religious terms may seem somewhat awkward in retrospect, after numerous years of drug and alcohol dependency, it would appear that Coltrane had at last discovered the very thing he had been searching for, an integrated and cohesive work of art that not only embraced but represented his deeply felt spiritual convictions.
The first sound we hear is a gong, as if announcing that the ceremony is about to begin. And after a brief burst of Coltrane we’re off, carried along by Garrison’s deep and bluesy bass line, and Jones’s controlled, yet extremely expressive percussion. After a few minutes of inter-galactic tenor sax, Coltrane settles down into the main riff, where soon he begins to sing, or rather chant the album title. “Acknowledgement” is a marvellous piece of music, and one which finds the quartet in absolute simpatico with one another, which is not surprising as they had been playing together for several years and could read each other’s minds like a book.
“Resolution” takes the listener on another cerebral journey, where one is carried along on an intense voyage of intent and abstract wonder. Now from a beat, or rhythm perspective, this is pretty hard shit to hold down, although they are executing it with an authority that is both beautiful and boundless. On “Pursuance” Elvin Jones executes his skills with a dexterity that would put many a modern drummer to shame, while Coltrane blows a few profound notes. It is at this point where Tyner takes over, and controls the moments with a confidence that simply belies belief. But before you know it Coltrane comes crashing in like some alien from outer space with his cosmic sax, as if every note he performed was capable of creating whole new worlds. Worlds which not even Coltrane himself could have imagined.
Following a long and touching bass solo by Garrison, we get to the final number. “Psalm” is my favourite piece, and is like watching the sun slowly sink into the sea, where all the companions one has left are a couple of dogs and a desultory flock of seabirds. Uplifting and yet depressing all at once. Nothing wrong with that I must say.
Throughout the Fifties Jazz had begun to reach its pinnacle as a sophisticated art form, so much so that it would make most rock and roll artists appear to be the equivalent of children still finger painting their way around kindergarten, musically speaking. So analytical and intellectual had it become, little wonder it was never heard on the radio. But word of mouth is a wonderful thing.
A Love Supreme is ultimately an album one needs to feel in order to experience. Coltrane’s sense of religion was an all inclusive one, encompassing all faiths and beliefs, hence the title. He even wrote the liner notes, declaring his new found devotion and source to his one and only Creator. Now I’m not exactly of the religious sort but if that’s what inspired him to create such a work as this then who can argue. This LP is a brilliant example of how the religious and secular are able to coincide and complement one another, thus fulfilling each other’s space, with no violence or conflict. Maybe with all the segregation and racist attitudes that still existed at the time in America, Coltrane was reaching out to all and sundry, in the hope of bringing more people together.
Soon he would branch off into even more extreme territory; a landscape that was as muscular is it was mind-bending. Whether he would have embraced the rock movement as enthusiastically as Miles Davis did had he lived is anyone’s guess. One thing’s for sure, whatever he may have done, it would have been on his terms, and terms alone.