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The ‘Supreme’ of Jazz Records

written by: on April 25, 2012

“A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme.” The mantra that is repeated in part one of John Coltrane’s four-part jazz suite is the footing of what is regarded to be his masterpiece. Self-described by Coltrane as a spiritual venture, A Love Supreme is representative of his expression of gratitude toward a higher deity and of a struggle against his own inner demons. Not only is this record a right of passage in the collection of jazz musicians, the Smithsonian Institution considers its manuscript an American national treasure.

Coltrane’s quartet recorded the album in December of 1964. Armed with his famed rhythm section consisting of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums, Coltrane released one of the most enduring jazz albums ever recorded in the following year. With A Love Supreme, the record stirred together Coltrane’s early hard bop-influenced style whilst effortlessly adopting the free jazz style he later developed. The album was hammered out in one four-hour session at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

A gong sounds and almost immediately the tenor sax compliments in steady legato. Then, beneath the cymbal washes, ushered in is a four-note bass line. Brace yourself. The track’s minimalism that follows is oblique. As the bass fades into the background Coltrane’s spontaneity takes shape in the form of persistent minor pentatonic themes, both dense and aggressive. Progressively, A Love Supreme’s first movement, “Acknowledgement”, settles to musical trance territory.

As for the rest of the four parts, Coltrane dapples in the fury of dedication and the path to understanding (“Pt. II, Resolution”) and searches for that understanding (“Pt. III, Pursuance”), which is signaled by drummer Elvin Jones’ minute-and-a-half long synergetic drum solo. Although Jones’ craft on A Love Supreme is strikingly commanding, he never manages to overshadow the leader. The search is then executed through use of rapid tempo, snipped phrases and rising lines depicting humble victory over struggle. Then, in conclusion, is the enlightenment. In “Pt. IV, Psalm”, Coltrane voices a personal prayer he wrote through a culmination of tenor sax concluding his offering in thanks.

Traveling through all 12 keys of Western harmony, Coltrane jumps through the spectrum of keys ignoring standard symmetric intervals. His bonafide passion results in a composition too shambolic to be planned and yet too cohesive for improvisation. This sort of tension is of course the central focus of the jazz ideology, but no other comes close to the way A Love Supreme finds equilibrium.

His bonafide passion results in a composition too shambolic to be planned and yet too cohesive for improvisation.

The album has only been performed live once in it’s entirety, during a July 26, 1965 performance at the Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes in Juan-les-Pins, France, further clouding the record with mysticism. Coincidentally, there are no documented recorded interviews in which Coltrane talks about the personal significance of the album.

Coltrane vaguely blotted out intentions with his bandmates, giving them general chord progressions and structures. In the end, the musicians followed Coltrane but also each other, reading one another while developing personal tendencies and nuances after playing together for three years. The end result was expressed in a new form of musical freedom incorporating polyrhythms to modalities. Coltrane enthralled the audacious listener and left jazz purists dumbfounded.

A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s self-titled “gift to God”. Despite even considered being the most over-estimated record in jazz by some, A Love Supreme is forever canonized in jazz and remains one of the most personal experiences in all music. Stripped bare of his soul, Coltrane has offered to his God an offering of hymnic expression articulated by his profound devotion of craft. Aside from being a 33-minute-long undertaking of spiritual devotion, A Love Supreme is a man’s tale of anguish, triumph and individual collective power still just as captivating almost 50 years later.

John Coltrane – A Love Supreme tracklist:

  1. “Pt. I, Acknowledgement”

  2. “Pt. II, Resolution”

  3. “Pt. III, Pursuance”

  4. “Pt. IV, Psalm”