John Coltrane – A Love Supreme

...if He (GOD)helped him to get drug free, he would try his best to make people happy through his music...



Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1964. Lyndon B. Johnson has recently been confirmed president of United States of America, after concluding the mandate of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. The Vietnam war has been going on for some years now. Malcolm X has just left the Nation of Islam, converting to orthodox Islam and making a pilgrimage to Mecca; while the civil rights movement, after reaching the peak with the great March on Washington, is in a stalemate.

John Coltrane walks into the recording studio the 9th of December, with his band, formed by Jimmy Garrison on the double bass, McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums. Few instructions, just few indications on the scores, to leave space for the spontaneity of the musicians.

The result is A Love Supreme, probably the best-known album by Coltrane, surely the best-selling and influential.

A Love Supreme is the result of a spiritual journey, represented by Coltrane in the four tracks of the album: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. To recount this journey, we have to take a step back.

 

Acknowledgement

 

1957. Coltrane has been playing in Miles Davis’ quintet for a couple of years. The trumpeter called him to be a part of his group (against the opinion of other jazz-players, who would have preferred Sonny Rollins) because he saw potential in him. And he saw it well. Coltrane grew musically thanks to this experience, and his style, made of streams of notes, so different although so compatible with Davis’ long notes, evolved.

But, in the meantime, his relationship with heroin, his long-time lover, grew. Coltrane goes on stage sloppy, absent, so wasted, playing like he had never seen a saxophone.

Davis, exasperated by his unreliability, kicks him out the group.

Coltrane decides, likely due also to this disagreement with Davis, to detoxify.

 

Resolution

 

Coltrane is determined to detoxify and he put himself through the “cold turkey” cure. The effects induced by a sudden abstinence from heroin are similar to those of being exposed to cold temperatures, with cold sweat and goose bumps (similar to a cold turkey carcass). He makes his wife lock him in a room and give him only bread and water until he gets clean.

It is in this context that Coltrane has his religious experience. He says he experienced God.

He says he told God that, if He helped him to get drug free, he would try his best to make people happy through his music.

From now on, Coltrane becomes a firm believer, extremely focused on his own music.

 

Pursuance

 

During the following years Coltrane starts his solo career as a bandleader, while, in the meantime, he plays again with Davis for Kind of Blue.

His solos become longer, and Coltrane starts to explore new ideas while on stage. He gets into his modal period and puts his quartet together.

In December 1964, in just two days, he records A Love Supreme.

 

Psalm

 

A Love Supreme is a hymn to God, to the faith that Coltrane developed.

Coltrane personally takes care of all the parts of the record, including the cover image and the liner notes. Here Coltrane explains the path he walked: «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…». A poem follows, praising God, almost a prayer, in which he thanks Him.

The suite begins with Acknowledgement, a tranquil piece, which starts with a gong stroke, followed by Coltrane’s saxophone, which intones a fanfare, catching the attention of the listener. The piece is dominated by the four-note theme, that Coltrane repeats obsessively 37 times, in all the possible keys, almost stressing out that all paths lead to God (as he affirms in a marginal note of the score, wrote by Coltrane himself). The same theme is then sung on the words that give the title to the play: “A Love Supreme”. A real acknowledgement of this supreme love that now moves the sax player.

The rhythm becomes more insistent and intense in Resolution. The piece has a more classical style, with Coltrane on sax and Tyner on piano, perfectly harmonized, even if the solo of the latter is the core of the composition.

Pursuance starts with a blasting drum solo, that leads off to a piece even more insistent than the previous one. Tyner lets himself go during a fast brief notes solo. The tension is much higher, underlining the effort required by the pursuance. The final double bass solo, meditative and almost mournful, resolves the tension, introducing the final movement.

The suite ends with Psalm, a gloomy piece, whose rhythm is only sketched out, softened.

Emotion is definitely perceptible. The saxophone intones the words of the poem on the cover (you can listen to the piece, following the words). The atmosphere is dramatic, to stress the complete self-abnegation to the Lord. The piece ends with a fade out, in which we can hear the notes of the beginning fanfare.

 

A Love Supreme is a record that deserves to be listened to, both for the influence that it had (it is cited by many jazz musicians as a source of inspiration, and it is recognized as an essential record for any jazz fan) and for the success it gained.

But, above all, because the path described in the four tracks of this record is not only Coltrane’s, but also connects experienced listeners with people who have not heard it yet.




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