CLASSIC ALBUM: JOHN COLTRANE-A LOVE SUPREME.
Classic Album: John Coltrane-A Love Supreme.
On December 9th 1964, four musicians made their war to the Van Gelder Studio, on 445 Sylvan Avenue, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. They were scheduled to record an album with engineer Rudy Van Gelder who was already veteran of countless recordings, and had worked with some of the biggest names in jazz. This included John Coltrane, who was about scheduled to record a new album, which became A Love Supreme.
When John Coltrane arrived at Van Gelder Studio, he was accompanied by bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer and percussionist Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner. For most musicians, they would’ve looked at this as just another recording session. Not John Coltrane.
While John Coltrane was still only thirty-eight, he was a veteran of over thirty albums, including many groundbreaking albums and had been at the forefront of new musical movements including bebop, hard bop and post bop. However, his solo career was just part of the John Coltrane story.
He had also accompanied some of the legends of jazz including Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Nothing fazed John Coltrane. In racing parlance, John Coltrane was a thoroughbred who had gone course and distance countless times. It was the same with the band John Coltrane had assembled.
Jimmy Garrison was thirty-one, and had accompanied everyone from Ornette Coleman, Philly Joe Jones and Jackie McLean, to Lee Conitz, McCoy Tuner and John Coltrane. However, Jimmy Garrison had only released one album as bandleader, Illumination! which was released in 1964, and credited to Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. By then, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones had formed a successful partnership as the go-to rhythm section for top jazzers.
Just like Jimmy Garrison, thirty-seven year old Elvin Jones was already an experienced musician. He had released a trio of solo albums and played on around fifty albums. This included several jazz classic, including Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain, John Coltrane’s My Favourite Things and Freddie Hubbard’s Ready For Freddie. Any jazz musician looking for a drummer knew to call Elvin Jones. It was the same with McCoy Tyner.
Although McCoy Tyner was only twenty-six, and the youngest member of John Coltrane’s band, he was already released five albums for Impulse! McCoy Tyner had also played on albums by the great and good of jazz. This included Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan and Stanley Turrentine. Then in 1962, McCoy Tyner became an integral part of John Coltrane’s band.
Since then, John Coltrane’s quartet had spent time honing their sound. During this period, John Coltrane’s sound had evolved. John Coltrane was never one to stand still. That was for lesser musicians. He was determined to innovate, and push musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes beyond. That’s what would happen at Van Gelder Studio, on 9th December 1964.
When John Coltrane entered Van Gelder Studio, he was ready to fuse the music of the past, present and future. Hard bop, free jazz, avant grade and modal jazz were melt into one on what’s now regarded as the finest album of his career, A Love Supreme which was recorded in just one day.
With John Coltrane’s quartet assembled in Van Gelder Studio, they began setting up for the session. John Coltrane had written a four part suite, which began with Part 1: Acknowledgement. It was followed by Part 2: Resolution. These two tracks would eventually fill side one of A Love Supreme. On side two, was the eighteen minute epic, Part 3: Pursuance/Part 4: Psalm. The final part, Psalm, is a devotional, or wordless poem, which John Coltrane planned to narrate using his saxophone. Some musicologists have suggested that John Coltrane’s inspiration were the sermons of African-American preachers. This could be the case, as the track ends with John Coltrane giving thanks, saying: “Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.” This more than hinted that A Love Supreme was a spiritual album.
By then, John Coltrane had fallen under the spell of Ahmadiyya Islam. Some critics and music historians see this as an influence. However, essentially, A Love Supreme was about John Coltrane’s own personal struggle for purity. He expresses his thanks and gratitude for talent bestowed upon him, and perceives the tenor saxophone he plays as being owned by a higher, spiritual power. A Love Supreme part confessional, part hymnal.
Having explained the concept behind A Love Supreme, the quartet received their parts. They were a guide, and left plenty of room for the quartet to express themselves on what was going to be a genre-defying album, A Love Supreme. It saw hard bop, free jazz, avant grade and modal jazz combined by John Coltrane’s quartet.
The quartet featured double bassist Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones on drums, timpani and gong and pianist McCoy Turner. John Coltrane was bandleader, vocalist and wielded his trusty tenor saxophone. By the end of the 9th December 1964, A Love Supreme was complete. However, the quartet returned the following day.
On the 10th December 1964, two alternate takes of Acknowledgement were recorded. Archie Shepp played tenor saxophone and Art Davis double bass. Neither take made its way onto A Love Supreme. However, the versions recorded by the classic quartet that stand head and shoulders above the alternate takes. That’s why the tracks recorded on the 9th December 1964 that feature on A Love Supreme which was released in February 1965.
Back in 1965, record companies didn’t need months to plan a P.R. campaign to accompany an album’s release. Instead, albums were recorded, then released a couple of months later. This was the case with A Love Supreme. Before that, critics and cultural commentators had their say.
Critics on hearing A Love Supreme, were spellbound. Quickly, critics realised that they were hearing John Coltrane remake jazz history on A Love Supreme. That was the case from Elvin Jones hits the gong, and washes of cymbals resonate. Then comes that familiar four note motif on Jimmy Garrison’s bass. Even by then, some perceptive critics realised that something special was unfolding. Soon, John Coltrane was playing his tenor saxophone as if his very soul depended on A Love Supreme’s success.
By then, John Coltrane was unleashing his legendary “sheets of sound;” his playing combining power and passion. However, not once does John Coltrane resort to showboating. He plays with a humility, but still, there’s a joyousness as he gives thanks.
From there, John Coltrane gives thanks on A Love Supreme. The album is essentially, a thirty-four minute hymnal, where John Coltrane bows down, and gives thanks for the talent bestowed upon him. By then, the classic Coltrane quartet sweep the listener along, as they flit between, and sometime, fuse elements of hard bop, free jazz, avant grade and modal jazz. It’s truly mesmeric, and it’s as if John Coltrane has been touched by genius. Sometimes, there’s a ferocity to John Coltrane’s playing. However, it’s just his way of show his gratitude and appreciation, at being one of the chosen few, one of a higher power’s jazz messengers.
By Psalm, which closes A Love Supreme, John Coltrane offers up a devotional, or wordless poem. Rather than using words, John Coltrane narrates using his saxophone. As he does, he offers his most precious possession, his tenor saxophone as a token of esteem for the talent that’s been bestowed upon him. By the end of Psalm, John Coltrane is almost exhausted and spent, but gives thanks, saying: “Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.” This brings to an end one of the most powerful albums any music lover will experience, enjoy and embrace, A Love Supreme.
Incredibly, despite critically acclaimed reviews, which referred to A Love Supreme as a groundbreaking album, and classic-in-waiting, this landmark album wasn’t a huge commercial success. Instead, around Impulse! sold around 30,000 copies of A Love Supreme. This was par for the course for the albums John Coltrane released on Impulse!
By 1970, 500,000 copies of A Love Supreme had been sold. This resulted in A Love Supreme being certified gold. Sadly, John Coltrane didn’t see this momentous event.
On July 17th 1967, John Coltrane died, aged just forty. By then, he had recorded over fifty albums, including classics including 1958s Blue Train, which was the only album John Coltrane released on Blue Note Records. However, it was later certified gold. Then in 1959, John Coltrane released his first classic album for Atlantic Records, Giant Steps. Two years later, My Favourite Things followed in 1961. Then in 1965, came the album that came to define John Coltrane’s illustrious career, A Love Supreme.
It’s fifty-three years since John Coltrane died. By then, he was in the prime of his musical life and could’ve and should’ve gone on to be at the forefront of jazz as the genre continued to reinvent itself for two maybe three more genres. However, John Coltrane at spent his career as a pioneer of jazz, ensuring the genre neither stood still, nor became irrelevant. There was no chance that jazz was going to go the way of the blues. Not with musical pioneers like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman producing groundbreaking music. Sadly, John Coltrane never got the opportunity to embrace the change in jazz that took place during the late-sixties and early seventies. However, Joh Coltrane left behind a rich musical legacy.
Considering he died when he was just forty, it was remarkable that John Coltrane had managed to record over fifty albums. That’s not forgetting the albums he played on as sideman as part of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk’s bands where he learnt from two giants of jazz and masters of their career. However, when he stepped out their shadows, John Coltrane was also capable of creating groundbreaking, innovative music, that changed the course of jazz history, including his Magnus Opus, A Love Supreme.
Classic Album: John Coltrane-A Love Supreme.