2015 marked the fiftieth anniversary from the release of John Coltrane‘s seminal recording A Love Supreme. This recording is unique in Coltrane’s discography in that it was the first time he conceived the music as a four-part suite, broken up into tracks: “Acknowledgement” (which contains Coltrane chanting the phrase that gave the suite its name), “Resolution”, “Pursuance”, and “Psalm”.
This music of A Love Supreme was only performed live once on July 26, 1965 at the Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, France. This concert, nearly eight months after the music was originally recorded captures the quartet almost by surprise. The musicians had only played the music in its entirety once when they recorded it on December 9, 1964. They also played the first movement “Acknowledgement” the next day, but a session in which Coltrane chose to expand his quartet to a sextet with the addition of Archie Shepp as a second tenor and Art Davis on bass with Jimmy Garrison.
John Coltrane often referred to having a spiritual awakening in 1957, the year he kicked his heroin addiction, as the myth has it, alone in his room at home. While it is true that Coltrane did kick heroin “cold turkey” it was not a case of him staying locked in his room for four days and them emerging with a new found peace through faith in the Divine. He did make some kind of personal commitment to dedicate his life to God and to use his music to “make people happy”.
However, one can hear this goal in much of his music from then on: a constant striving, the seemingly obsessive searching displayed in his solos which almost seem to the be an attempt to exhaust all permutations of his ideas.
This aspect of his playing was most boldly (and some thought at the time embarrassingly) transparent with A Love Supreme. For the first (and only) time in his career, Coltrane wrote notes to the album in the form of poetry. God is mentioned something like 45 times in the 57 lines of this poem, with the phrase “THANK YOU GOD”appearing in allcaps.
“Coltrane, favoring music far over language as his chosen means of expression, never again put as much effort into public writing. The letter and poetic libretto he penned constitute the highest yield of his investment in the power of the written word; to this day they remain as inherent a part of A Love Supreme as the phrasing of his saxophone.” (Kahn, Ashley. A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album. New York: Viking, 2002.)
According to Coltrane, when he went into the studio to record A Love Supreme, for the first time he “had everything”. There is a surviving sketch of the entire suite in Coltrane’s hand which shows how he envisioned the music, the four sections and the how certain phrases would be represented in the music.
Most obviously is the phrase “a love supreme” which can clearly be heard in the bass ostinato which supports almost the entire first movement, and a phrase Coltrane plays and transposes to all 12 key levels, culminating with Coltrane joining the bass by chanting the phrase over and over: “and we realize that this was the goal toward which Coltrane had directed his solo. He brilliantly executed a reverse development, saving the exposition – or perhaps “revelation” would be a better word in this case – for the end. He’s telling us that God is everywhere – in every register, in every key – and he is showing us you have to discover religious belief.” (Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.)
The two middle movements sound more related to the music he had been doing, especially the music from his, at the time most recent recording, Crescent. But it is with the last movement, “Psalm” where A Love Supreme encapsulates all the elements which have been used up to now.
It became known only later that Coltrane’s solo in “Psalm” was an actual intoning of his poem, every note can be related to each word in the written text.
The 3-CD boxset A Love Supreme: the Complete Masters (Deluxe Edition) includes the original recording, the next day’s sextet session and the live concert from France. Only by listening to all of this music can you come to fully appreciate Coltrane’s magnificent achievement with A Love Supreme.