#10: A Love Supreme by John Coltrane
Modal jazz’s “other” masterpiece (besides Kind Of Blue), A Love Supreme was fashioned to purpose as Coltrane’s gift to god. Only earlier in the year he had recorded Crescent with the exact same line-up of musicians and for what would come of this that album proved to be no more than a warm-up, similar to how Miles recorded sessions in 1958 with his Kind Of Blue line-up (before pianist Wynton Kelly joined) as a warm-up to that incredible feat. Coltrane may have had the solos cooked up as improvised but the music here is so good that it sounds like it was conceived perhaps an entire year before the record was cut. Indeed, the band sounds ready, and everything here is a first take except the second track, which proved more difficult with several takes. Other than the the only studio trickery was an overdub on the first track of Coltrane’s hypnotic chant, the title as a mantra.
Everything here is flawless, though. From the “invocation” beginning to the way the drums start to kick in with the ride cymbal proving icing on the bedazzling cake before the tune kicks into highest gear. The piano chords build into a seemingly endless crescendo as Coltrane blows more passionately than he had ever blown before, and the bass is built out of a simple four-note theme. It’s the first track and as such only part of what was ultimately four parts of one complete composition. Charles Mingus had released an album along the same lines (one segmented composition) by a greatly expanded line-up on the same label a year earlier.
John Coltrane had far from run out of ideas by the time the first track was over, however. “Resolution” opens with the bass into one of Coltrane’s more exotic (“eastern”) sounding saxophone lines. Coltrane perhaps first showed a fascination with more ethnic flavors on his landmark earlier album, Giant Steps, but that fascination actually flourished full-bore when on both the criminally underrated and almost obscure Olé Coltrane and on his unjustly maligned 1961 Village Vanguard dates, both with perhaps jazz’s greatest musician, Eric Dolphy. “Persuance” opens with a drum solo and closes with a bass solo. And “Prayer”, the final track, plays out exactly as its title or perhaps better as a hymn. Complete calm all the way through with what is purportedly a saxophone melody meant to inflect the lines of a poem the player had written in the liner notes as part of a package all meant to go to the glory of God.
Perhaps John Coltrane somewhere inside wanted to piss people off because as if the 1961 Vanguard reaction wasn’t enough he re-entered the challenging phase fully again a year later with 1965’s Ascension. It needs to be noted that he most likely did listen to critics, however, since the intervening years to this stunning landmark, 1962-1963, were some of the most conservative of the saxophonist’s career, with everything hitting past nothing the the furthest on 1957’s Blue Train and not even really approaching Giant Steps. The challenging work must’ve been exhausting to a man who would eventually become a spiritual leader in his own right. There could be no rest of jazz’s most thoughtful and searching musician.
Nevertheless, Coltrane named this album as his gift to God. I think it’s clear he thought this was his greatest work. Undoubtedly it is his greatest work as a tenor saxophone player. And I will admit here that as far as being a listener is concerned, I never liked John Coltrane’s soprano saxophone playing, regardless of how he obtained it as a temporary fascination. Not every musician can elicit equal pleasure in numerous instruments, but I must here name a few exceptions: the aforementioned Eric Dolphy who molded three distinct voices on each of his instruments, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin (for bass and keyboards, of course), and poly-instrumentalists Stevie Wonder, Brian Jones, and Paul McCartney. I know I’m ending with a criticism here but John Coltrane should’ve stuck to the tenor saxophone and that is exactly what he does here, which helps in why this is his greatest work.