A Love Supreme – John Coltrane

Written by:
Phil Freeman
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Jazz is all about making personal statements. The introspection which earns surprised plaudits in pop is routine in jazz. A jazz performer is expected to turn each album, each tune, into a journey through his own heart and mind, guiding the listener along as the music creates itself, on the spot and in the moment. Even knowing this going in, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is still a monument to individual, and collective, creative achievement.

The album was the most personal Coltrane ever recorded. Even in the three years between its release and his early death, during which time his music became increasingly free and abstract–the sonic description of his increasingly intense spiritual quests–he never again opened the door into himself as widely as he did on this 33-minute suite. Even a listener unfamiliar with jazz can hear A Love Supreme and understand why Coltrane retains his colossal status, nearly four decades after his death.

Divided more or less into four movements, the suite is musically economical but spiritually expansive. It begins with a gong being struck, then Coltrane plays an incantatory, upward-spiraling saxophone introduction that’s almost a call to prayer. The rest of the quartet—pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones—fills in the space around him as he dictates the mood of what’s to come. The four-note bassline which anchors the piece in listeners’ heads pretty much forever, once they’ve heard it, emerges here, and the first movement closes with first Coltrane, then other group members chanting the title together. The second section, faster than the first and more conventionally swinging, has the strongest melody, a quick, jaunty hook that’s guaranteed to brighten anybody’s mood, and likely to become an earworm, and re-emerge at odd moments.

The third and fourth movements, which make up the second half of the album, are separate tracks on the CD, but they blend together, and they were recorded in one long take. The third section is very fast, and somewhat agitated; then, when it crashes to a halt, a meditative bass solo from Jimmy Garrison begins the fourth and final movement. This is a remarkable piece of music-making. Listening to Coltrane’s closing saxophone solo, it’s possible to read along with the prayer which is written inside the CD cover. Coltrane’s playing the words of praise he wrote. Jazz is a music full of beauty and emotional/spiritual power, but this is the kind of thing that can win over even the hardest-hearted nonbeliever (like your reviewer).

This 2-CD reissue of A Love Supreme is genuinely worth owning, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the original album, which makes up Disc One, has been cleaned up and sounds better than ever before. This is mostly a bonus to folks who listen on ultra-expensive systems, though; to the average listener, the difference is probably close to inaudible. The second disc is where the real treasures have been placed. Coltrane only performed A Love Supreme live once, at a festival in Antibes, France. That performance, which expands the suite from 33 minutes to nearly 50, is included in this reissue, along with alternate studio takes. These alternate takes, which expand the group to a sextet including saxophonist Archie Shepp and bassist Art Davis, are not polished; they seem to be Coltrane’s own reference tapes, and there are some ripples and drop-outs, in addition to the fact that the music isn’t quite on the level of the version that was released. Still, they’ve been legendary in jazz lore since Shepp and Davis were thanked in the original album’s liner notes, and it’s nice to finally hear them.

Jazz record labels, much more than rock labels, often seem engaged in a contest with themselves, to see how many times they can get consumers to shell out for new editions of the same records. This is one of the few “deluxe” reissues that’s actually essential. Not only does A Love Supreme sound better than it ever has before, but the bonus tracks give an insight into the finished piece that even a non-obsessive can appreciate.

Phil Freeman

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