By David Schwittek
A Love Supreme – John Coltrane Quartet (1964)
I can tell you a whole story about this album. When I was a freshman in college, my creative writing instructor played A Love Supreme for the class as inspiration for…um… creative writing. Shortly thereafter I bought this album for myself at Area Records in Geneva NY and went straight back to my dorm room to listen to it.
Alone, with my stereo, A Love Supreme changed me. With disciplined phrasing that travelled back and forth, up and down, split and rest, Coltrane had nestled his notes deep into the patient bass and insistent rhythm of The Quartet, with miraculous results. It was like nothing I had ever been allowed to hear.
There is another part to this story: around the time that I first switched on this album, my roommate and I were boldly exploring the utter futility of language by engaging in what we called “No Talk Thursdays.” It’s that thing where, on Thursdays, you resolve to use only non-verbal communication with another person. We spent hours conceiving of, and implementing, this bold experiment, and likened ourselves to lingual buddhists, or the Beats, or perhaps some new variety of cultural movement that was setting down its self-important roots in the Finger Lakes region of the late nineties.
One such Thursday night – this was deep into November – I decided to spend the night alone in Washington Street Cemetery. I wordlessly communicated these plans to my roommate, left with my sleeping bag, some water, my discman, and A Love Supreme. Late at night I had drifted into sleep to this record’s more soothing passages, and just as the saxophone burst out twenty seconds into Resolution, I shot awake, my eyes wide, and found the stars floating in black above me. I stayed there until the morning.
Though not the first jazz album I’ve ever to listened straight thru (that would be the excellent, albeit pedestrian, A Charlie Brown Christmas by The Vince Guaraldi Trio), John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was the album that, at eighteen years of age, obliged me to sell every compact disc I owned and buy only jazz records for the remainder of my young life. I was dead serious about this. No more need for Pearl Jam, or The Beatles, or The Pixies. Only jazz… oh and They Might Be Giants. And I guess Wu Tang Clan and The Cure. And Dylan, of course.
So obviously this brave experiment in sequestering myself in a world of jazz was ill-advised and subsequently it did not last. But this was a time of spiritual, existential crisis for me; of sexual frustration; of poor grades; of a self-defeating desire to be poor, a desire to be on my own, a desire to be sure of my own life, to be free of these anxieties. I was experiencing that feeling of ‘becoming’ that we must all surely possess during the heady, upstart months of freshman year.
And so I would say that this record is less an ‘album’ than an assortment of devotional micro-concepts that, rather than lay out canonical riffs or complementary tonics, instead suggest continual ‘becoming’. It matters not to the first-time listener, but these laudatory arrangements are logically broken into a suite of four movements, the first of which is Acknowledgement: a radical departure from Coltrane’s prior or latter work due to the somewhat off-putting, titular mantra near its end:
A love supreme,
A love supreme,
A love supreme,
A love supreme,
A love supreme…
These words, sung aloud by Coltrane and The Quartet, seem to break a kind of jazz-specific fourth wall, as if to remind us that this is something more than jazz, more than a record.
Coltrane was clearly wrestling with his own spiritual quest for purity and a oneness with his god, through a subgenre of jazz called ‘hard bop’; a genre that included the likes of Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy. And though Dolphy and Coltrane play together in some of the best live jazz you or I will ever hear, it stands to this day as the single most religious album I could ever stand to listen to, and is delightfully short and digestible at 33:02. Compare this to his ‘new thing jazz’ Ascension: Edition I which, as a single piece, is itself over thirty eight minutes, and far too challenging for all but the most devoted Coltrane fan:
Listen to Resolution and Pursuance, with their gratifying, hard bop solos from the always colorful pianist McCoy Tyner, percussionist Elvin Jones, tenor sax player and composer John Coltrane, and a fairly contemplative bass solo by Jimmy Garrison. A Love Supreme possess all those elements that made me fall in love with ‘New Thing’ jazz: split notes, counterpoint, syncopation, dissidence/consonance, unapologetic, even cooky atonalism. But all this with a steady, funky rhythm section that only occasionally breaks into the sundry backpedaling and resurgence usually found in ‘new thing’ jazz of the mid to late-Sixties.
I wish I could be as you are, dear reader, and still be able to hear A Love Supreme for the first time. Or be in the room as together we listen, with open minds, and are transformed. I wish I could set your addled mind at ease and tell you that, back in the sixties when Coltrane was still playing, people in the audience would often become overwhelmed and be compelled to momentarily step out of the venue. I wish you and I could sit there in the afterglow and be like two jazz pilgrims that went all the way to ‘The Destination’. But that can’t happen.
Instead, I’ll just tell you to listen to A Love Supreme. For this album is so incredibly important, and stands apart in so many ways from all other jazz records, that I would surely recommend it to anyone. However, due to the spiritual quest underlying it, and the manner in which its composition transcends musical semantics, I must recommend it to he who lays dying, hoping for something sublime to carry him into eternity.