The debate about which jazz album is the greatest ever will never end as long as aficionados of the genre are allowed to voice their individual opinions on the matter. And voice them we do. But when it comes to addressing the issue of which recordings have had the most influence on the world of music at large there’s no argument that John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” may have peers but no superiors. I’ve come across references to it all my life in interview quotes gleaned from artists in popular groups as diverse as U2, The Grateful Dead, The Byrds and The Allman Brothers just to mention a handful. In the jazz realm it would be extraordinary to find a musician who hasn’t been affected by this album to some extent. And with good reason. It is sublime and transcendent in ways that few others are and listening to it draws us upward onto a plane wholly different from the one we all trudge through day by day. It is a spiritual album like none other yet it never preaches and is completely devoid of condescension. If you have the desire to go to church but don’t want to sit through a sermon then this disc will transport you to the higher level you seek via the miracle of inspired music alone. Coltrane’s aim in making this record was to create pieces of music that would lift souls closer to God, a goal he successfully achieved in spectacular fashion.
As John himself explained, “During the year 1957 I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” His biography shows that he made some ill-advised detours off the path to enlightenment following that epiphany but that the Almighty repeatedly led him out of his personal darkness and restored his faith. Some seven years later, on December 9, 1964, Coltrane would finally record (with his gifted trio of associates) and preserve forevermore this revered four-part offering of heartfelt thanks and worship to the Creator who saved him from himself. And, in the process, he changed the course of music history.
Part 1 – Acknowledgement: John’s saxophone blast and drummer Elvin Jones’ smash on a gong herald a glorious sunrise of majestic yellows and gold inside your psyche. Soon Jimmy Garrison’s upright bass initiates the throbbing, rhythmic groove that will guide the quartet to an isolated plateau where they can work their inimitable magic together. Elvin’s drums are adventurous but he never veers away from the foundational beat and John’s playing is in another dimension that must be heard to be fathomed. The great McCoy Tyner on piano displays immaculate taste and consummate gracefulness while Jimmy’s bass solo is subdued but profound. ‘Trane lovingly chants the album’s title without pretense in the midst of this elegant number.
Part 2 – Resolution: John suddenly bursts in, dissolving the hypnotic state they established previously and the combo embarks on a tune that possesses a powerful swing feel. Coltrane’s sax rejoices and Tyner’s piano ride is magnetically attractive on a cosmic level while Jones seems to be reading his mind, transferring neural impulses directly to the surfaces of his drum kit. John’s performance in the second segment is so stream-of-consciousness in nature and so intensely personal that I can only witness it in a state of abject amazement. Discounting the central melody, he never comes close to entertaining the same riff twice.
Part 3 – Pursuance: This number opens with a solo from Elvin that showcases the classy, well-practiced techniques that can turn snares, toms and cymbals into legitimate musical instruments. A more up-tempo pace ensues and Coltrane gets the ball rolling before stepping aside to let McCoy absolutely dazzle on his piano while the exquisite rhythm section stupefies with their incredible tightness. The expressive ride that John delivers next defies literary description so I won’t even try. Better yet, I’ll just say “WOW!” and leave it at that. The controlled ferocity the quartet exudes here is off the charts. Jones turns in a fierce display of his God-given ability before Garrison calms the atmosphere with his firmly-grounded solo that provides a gentle segue into the final movement.
Part 4 – Psalm: They end with an ethereal, arrhythmic and beautifully abstract tune in which it’s obvious that the group is locked in complete mental harmony with each other, moving in unison like a cumulous cloud drifting over endless plains ripe for harvesting. Here John plays with the exuberant passion of a south Dallas Baptist church service on Easter morning and I’m helpless to do anything but sit back, relax and allow his pure, unadulterated emotion to pour out from my stereo speakers directly into my hungry, receptive soul. Hallelujah.
Coltrane usually preferred to tape no more than two titles per session but for “A Love Supreme” he recorded the full suite in one night. Another interesting fact is that ‘Trane’s phrasing on “Psalm” follows, in exact cadence, the words of the poem of praise unto God he’d penned to coincide with the music and that he had printed on the LP’s cover. The album’s timing couldn’t have been more serendipitous because, when it was released in early ’65, the first rays of promising light were dawning on the age of change for the baby boomer generation that was just starting to embrace without restraint a more spiritual attitude. The 2003 reissued CD’s notes read “Within months, from college dorms and ghetto apartments; on jazz radio and underground FM stations alike, the album began to emerge as Coltrane’s career-defining, genre-defying classic.” I venture to add that it also helped tilt the earth’s axis toward the heavenly sunshine. John himself describes the record best in an excerpt from his poem, “A Love Supreme”: “ELATION – ELEGANCE – EXALTATION, all from God, thank you God. Amen.”