Returning a Gift to God
One of the great redemptive post-heroin jazz albums in the history of redemptive post-heroin jazz albums, A Love Supreme was recorded the same way it was composed, and was composed the same way it was conceived: quickly, in the moment’s inspiration. It happened in 1964, seven years after it all turned around for John Coltrane. He went upstairs with nothing but pen, paper, and saxophone, and didn’t come down until five days later. When he did, “t was like Moses coming down from the mountain,” according to his wife, Alice, “it was so beautiful. He walked down and there was that joy, that peace in his face, tranquility. He said, ‘This is the first time that I have received the music for all that I want to record, in a suite. This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.’” Earlier in the year, in the form of John Coltrane, Jr., he had received a gift from God. Now he was ready to return to God, bearing a gift of his own, in gratitude.
Ashley Kahn, who has a singular knack for detailing the way jazz masterpieces are created, has now turned his attentions to that gift—and although jazz aficionados should certainly be grateful, I can’t think of any reason why the casual listener should be. This book, like Kahn’s exploration of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, (an album, incidentally, on which Coltrane played tenor sax), is too often what one might charitably call esoteric. A typical passage has Lewis Porter explaining why drummer McCoy Tyner fit into the Coltrane quartet so easily: “Tyner developed a particular type of voicing in fourths that characterized the sound of the quartet; whereas triads have a certain earthy familiarity, fourth chords are abstract, perhaps because they avoid the familiar ring of popular songs.” Observations like these, coming as they do with such heavy consistency, remind anyone who needs reminding that jazz is not nearly as interesting to read about, in its particulars, as it is to listen to, in its generalities.
Not that Kahn is interested only in the way a machine functions, the way its gears grind and its parts perform. He’s also here to tell us what purpose it serves to the culture at large—-what traditions A Love Supreme belongs to, and what traditions belong to A Love Supreme He tells us that “one can find the phrase employed as the title of a sampler of 80s love songs; worldbeat, soul, rap, R&B, and psychobilly albums; twelve-inch techno and house singles from Europe; a 1974 hymnal from Tennessee; a retitling of the Pauline Hopkins novel Contending Forces; a British soccer fanzine; and a high-quality photographic collection of African-American couples, with permission granted by Alice Coltrane”—who did not, however, allow the phrase to be employed as the title of a Spike Lee movie, the one we know as Mo’ Better Blues.
Much more significantly, it served as a defining inspiration for everyone from non-jazz musicians, such as Carlos Santana, to jazz icons, such as the Brothers Marsalis. No less an eminence than Joshua Redman says, “I actually had to stop listening to A Love Supreme—I think it was very dangerous for me as a musician. There was no way I was ever going to be able to play like that, so I had to say, ‘Look, this is so overwhelming as a musical statement, that if I keep listening to it, I won’t be able to find any meaning in what I’m trying to do as a musician.’”
Naturally, it found its deepest resonance in black culture, but it went way beyond there; it was a favorite of the hippies, and then it went even deeper still. According to Frank Lowe, a saxophonic prodigy of Coltrane’s: “It took on a universality that could embrace these other things and still keep its blackness. In other words, it’s not like us against the world. It’s like all these other things are included and we are the world.” And after listening to so much reverence, it’s refreshing to hear what one Sun Ra has to say about the debt A Love Supreme owes him: “[After my group] moved to New York [in 1961] and stayed in a hotel, Coltrane would come by, and I’d talk to him again about things? [H]e never gave me a cup of coffee.”
Usually, it took Coltrane and his musicans several two-hour sessions to record an album. This time they just went in and blew the whole thing out right there: one four-hour session—eight to midnight—and that was it. It helped that he was playing with a band that worked in the Coltrane style—a band that he could entrust with a large degree freedom, with complete faith that they would do right by the song. Coltrane himself was prone to a far-ranging adventurousness, at this time, taking his sound to a level of drunken experimentation that only the sober can safely explore: playing the notes over-long and over-hard, bringing the song to a fevered frenzy that would often culminate in the saxophonist supreme biting down on the reed, intentionally, to suggest a strangled cry, the last desperate squeal of a man too choked-up to enunciate his own pitiful sorrow.
He’d come a long way since the days when he was one of Dizzy Gillespie’s tenors, looking pretty and playing the notes. Miles Davis liked him enough to hire him on to play his notes, then fired him, then brought him back: “Trane was the only one who knew all the tunes. I couldn’t risk have nobody who didn’t know the tunes.” Before long, Ornette Coleman, with his eccentric instrument and even more-eccentric sound, had pied-pipered Coltrane away from convention for good. After that, he came under the spell and apprenticeship of Thelonious Monk. Now it was official: he wouldn’t be playing nobody’s notes no more.
You don’t need to believe in God to believe in what Coltrane considered his “humble offering to Him.” Nor do you need to know that the song “Psalm” was played as a syllable-by-syllable recitation of the poem on the album’s cover; or that the album was recorded in a dimmed-down studio, to better give it that nightclub feel; or that it went gold and was selected by Downbeat as album of the year; or that it has its origins as an expression of gratitude for that year seven years prior, 1957, in which Coltrane had kicked junk and found artistic independence.
And don’t pay much attention to Ashley Kahn when he tells you that to the jazz enthusiast and non-enthusiast alike, A Love Supreme is initially “off-putting,” due to “the raw emotions of Coltrane’s cadences,” all those “vocal-like slurs, shrieks, and rapid-fire runs,” to say nothing of Coltrane’s vocals themselves, the real thing, arriving like a blessing out of absolutely nowhere, chanting the title as a refrain, omnipresent and mysterious—for these are the very reasons Kahn has even written this book, the reasons A Love Supreme caught on and stayed on. John Coltrane had been deep in the dark shadows his whole career, and this time he was going to make sure that even the non-believers saw visions and heard voices.