Recorded in one session on the evening of December 9th 1964 ‘A Love Supreme’ is undoubtedly one of the most influential and moving albums ever to grace the canon of popular music. The deep mysticism and soaring spirituality have enraptured listeners and musicians the world over. Its influence has spread far beyond the usual remits of a Jazz album, after its release in February of 1965 the album sold 500,000 copies by 1970, compared to Coltrane’s usual Impulse album sales of 30,000.
The suite recorded at the Van Gelder Studio by pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones is presented in four parts, indicative of Coltrane’s spiritual awakening. Although Coltrane had always had something of a spiritual influence in his life it seems that with ‘A Love Supreme’ he was resolutely pronouncing the culmination of his experience. He saw his music as a product of his spiritual beliefs, a way of expressing them. In an interview from Newsweek in 1966 Coltrane states “My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music.” “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am, my faith, my knowledge, my being.” It took him many years to establish the voice with which he elected to proclaim his message. His wife Alice, in an interview with Ashley Kahn for his book ‘A Love Supreme the creation of John Coltrane’s classic album’, recalls “It was like Moses coming down from the mountain, it was so beautiful”, she says that after returning from a tour he spent 5 days locked away in a room realising the sounds he had developed in his head. In the same interview she recalls Coltrane saying “this is the first time that I have received all of the music for what I want to record in a suite. This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.”
John Coltrane harboured a very distinct ideology regarding the expression of his music; he wanted the recording to be as honest as possible and to allow “the playing to lead the music”. He is reputed to have given very little direction to his quartet expecting them to create without limitation. To aid this he wrote a very sparse manuscript, only outlining the ideas that he had. The original manuscript was put on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It almost seems that he wished the spiritual revelation to be reflected in the performance process; by giving the quartet so much freedom their collective musical discovery could lead to the true sound.
As its record sales suggest ‘A Love Supreme’ has captivated the minds and souls of a vast array of people, its influence on the development of music has been extremely significant. In a downbeat interview Michael Brecker remembered playing along to the record as a boy. He found that the “album was powerful from every aspect”. Branford Marsalis paid tribute to Coltrane by recording the suite on his album ‘Footsteps of our Fathers’. Not only has this album influenced jazz musicians but also many musicians in other genres have found it to be an immense source of inspiration. Will Downing released a cover of the suite that reached the charts in the U.K; also Bono quoted the title in U2’s track ‘Angel of Harlem’.
The spiritual profundity of the album has garnered interest not only in musicians but also in religious teaching, a church in San Francisco now builds its services around his music and reveres Coltrane as a saint.
There is something delightful in the intense attention that ‘A Love Supreme’ requires of you as a listener. It is not an album that you can just throw on and understand however from the very first listen it enthrals. It’s beguiling first movement opens with Elvin Jones’ gong and Coltrane’s piercing tone which gives way to McCoy Tyner’s rumbling piano and Garrison’s fabled bass riff. The emotion in Coltrane’s performance is tangible from the off. His intensity, his exploration and development of small motifs, lead one to consider the intent behind his sound. In ‘Acknowledgement’, is his motivic expansion indicative of the formulation of his spiritual ideas? The expansion of simpler melodic motifs is certainly representative of his playing as a whole but here it just feels that much more significant. One can scarcely discuss the first track without commenting on the enormous gravity of Coltrane’s chant, “A Love Supreme” is equally divine and terrifying. ‘Resolution’ takes on something of a more determined feel. His opening note after the bass intro and his driving melody again reflect the consciousness of the title. Continuing the thematic awakening ‘Pursuance’ expands further the intensity of Elvin’s opening solo, so distinct and forceful. The final movement ‘Psalm’ is a voiceless recitation of a poem that Coltrane wrote to God. His intimacy with the rolling soundscape created by the quartet cannot fail to move you. His spiritual beauty and state of reflection realised in such a heavenly melody.
It is little wonder that ‘A Love Supreme’ has become a timeless classic reaching so far over the past 50 years. A culmination of John Coltrane’s life, its effect is almost indescribable; the only true way to reflect on it is just to listen!