John Coltrane : A Love Supreme
ALL PRAISE TO GOD WHOM ALL PRAISE IS DUE.
Let us pursue him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; `seek and ye shall find.’ Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal.”
—John Coltrane, from the original liner notes of A Love Supreme
Many of music’s greatest songs are religious in nature: “Amazing Grace,” The Velvet Underground’s “Jesus,” any of Johnny Cash’s hymnal songs and countless selections from Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans. But religious devotion channeled through purely instrumental music is a less common, and certainly less renowned, occurrence. Though many composers wrote entire masses centuries before, jazz music was a genre less conducive to religious expression. John Coltrane, however, made an incredibly bold statement in 1964, with A Love Supreme, a four-part “offering” to God.
By jazz standards, A Love Supreme was a short album. But its intensity and passion is such that listening beyond the length contained here would be exhausting. This isn’t Coltrane’s most experimental album, nor is it his most accessible. But it represented a newfound chaos in jazz that hadn’t previously existed. Part one, “Acknowledgement” is fairly straightforward, a reasonably subdued track in context of the two subsequent parts. It begins quiet, shuffling along Elvin Jones’ steady beat. This track ends with a mellow chanting of “A love supreme…a love supreme…a love supreme….a love supreme.”
Part two, “Resolution,” is a much more fiery, manic affair, following Coltrane’s melody which ascends and descends in extreme fashion. McCoy Tyner’s piano, Elvin Jones’ drums and Jimmy Garrison’s bass follow suit, creating a dramatic mood that seems always on the verge of chaos, though never actually being there. It’s a carefully constructed tension that breaks occasionally during Coltrane’s solo. Between more melodic parts, he injects pained squawks, representing his pained determination in seeking the righteous path.
The third track is split into two parts — part three, “Pursuance,” and part four, “Psalm.” “Pursuance” is possibly the most disjointed and unstructured section of the album. It begins simply enough, though becomes further immersed in improvisation, symbolic of the tiresome path of soul-searching. This was Coltrane’s persistence in finding God, which comes off as both passionate and desperate. This wasn’t gospel music, after all. This was a man baring his soul through his saxophone and he left absolutely nothing out.
The final part, “Psalm,” is a quieter meditation. It’s representative of the enlightenment one finds in peace with God. Jimmy Garrison’s bass, alone, makes the transition between parts three and four, though Trane returns after a couple minutes. Though more peaceful in tone, “Psalm” is equally beautiful and passionate as the rest of the album.
A Love Supreme, today, is considered one of the best jazz albums ever made. It paved the way for deeper expression in jazz and stands as one of the best selling jazz albums of all time. Though it took six years to go gold, it’s found a new audience with younger listeners and continues to live on as a genius piece of work. Sadly, Coltrane died only two and a half years after A Love Supreme was released, but its legacy lives on. It’s one of the greatest jazz recordings around and the devotion behind it makes it all the more compelling.
“I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.”
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus
Pharaoh Sanders – Karma!
Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.