Counterbalance No. 67: John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’

John Coltrane
A Love Supreme

Mendelsohn: John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme marks only the second jazz album we’ve encountered on the Great List. The last one we worked over was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and in the intervening weeks I’ve done absolutely no work toward learning how to listen to jazz. My attempts at doing so in the past were also a failure—I received a D when I took a Jazz class my freshman year of college. How hard could it be, I thought? All you have to do is listen to jazz.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the free-form expressionist tendencies that come skittering off this record, but if we’re going to talk about chord structures, odd time signatures, and modality, please don’t be offended when my eyes glass over and I go to my happy place, which, for your information, is a rock concert where all of my favorite bands battle monsters with the power of their rock and roll.

There are about 30 seconds on this record where I forget I’m listening to jazz. It’s about seven minutes into “Pursuance”, where Elvin Jones is rocking out that unhinged drum solo and all I want after it ends is for an electric guitar to pick up and the rock to start. Instead, I’m met with Jimmy Garrison’s subdued bass solo, which on a technical level is probably astounding, but for rock purposes, it’s a bit of a snooze-fest and a complete letdown. I think that sums up how I feel about jazz in general.

Klinger: I would be better able to see your point if we were talking about a regular jazz album—some relatively run of the mill disc by Sonny Clark or Sonny Stitt or Sonny Criss. But we’re not. We’re talking about A Love Supreme, which is quite simply on an entirely different level from just about any other LP we’ve discussed so far. A Love Supreme is a prayer; it’s a declaration of not only faith, but also the arduous process by which one pursues that faith. It’s an album of such intense seeking that it’s hard for me to imagine someone listening to it and only hearing an ordinary jazz LP. And along the way, he takes three other musicians along on this journey, inspiring them to dig deeper into their playing.

A Love Supreme is really pretty much my favorite piece of recorded music. It’s an album that I’ve returned to several times in my life when I’ve been looking for spiritual uplift, and it’s never failed me. Just hearing that initial saxophone glissando is like turning a light on in my brain, and I’m in a different place. Almost literally—all this week I’d be listening to A Love Supreme on my way to work and before I knew it I was pulling into my parking space. I’d go so far as to call it sacred, and that’s not something I say all that often, especially not about popular music.

Mendelsohn: Well, now I feel bad for leading so flippant. Sort of. I get what you are saying about the way you connect with this record. I too have records that make me feel ways about stuff, although I might stop short at spiritual and I don’t think I could get anywhere near sacred. But then, you and I might have different notions about such vagaries of human nature. As I’ve expressed earlier, I have difficulty with jazz. Maybe it’s a lack of interest or maybe I’m missing a couple of essential bones in my ears that allow me to understand and enjoy jazz. Either way, I’m ripe for conversion. Think of my ears as a tiny tropical island, peopled by simple heathens who have not come to appreciate the light of jazz. Lead me through this, Klinger—show me the way, before my tiny ear people grow tired of your proselytizing and decide to cook you for dinner. What sets A Love Supreme apart from the typical jazz record? What am I not hearing?

Klinger: I’d like to say that in order to fully appreciate A Love Supreme, you need to consider the evolution of Coltrane’s music over time. You need to appreciate how he began developing his “sheets of sound”—the intensely fast, precisely arranged streams of notes that became his trademark in the late 1950s—through almost compulsive practice on his tenor and, later, soprano saxophones. How even that seemed to come about as a result of Trane kicking a heroin habit before that. I’d like to say that you need to recognize the level of intensity that he clearly brought to everything he did and how his move toward a deeper spirituality reflects that commitment, both creative and destructive.

I’d like to say all that, but then I’d also have to acknowledge that my experience with A Love Supreme isn’t like that at all. I first heard “Acknowledgement” in Spike Lee’s 1990 joint Mo’ Better Blues. I’d listened to a little bit of jazz by that point, but I was certainly no expert. Still, I knew this was a disc I needed to have. I’ve often said that I listened to jazz for a long time before I actually heard it, and that was certainly the case with A Love Supreme. It was only after repeatedly letting the album wash over me that I really began to feel its power. Now it’s hard to hear it any other way. I mean, generally jazz works on a couple of different levels. You can listen to it in a strictly atmospheric sense and it’s a pleasant enough experience. Then you can lean in and hear how the musicians are interacting with the piece and with each other, and you can recognize how technically impressive it can be. With A Love Supreme, I maintain that there’s a third level, a spiritual place where its true meaning lies. But I don’t expect it’s just going to jump out and convert your little ear heathens right away.

Mendelsohn: No, my tiny little ear heathens are pretty well set in their ways. I don’t know if a full-on conversion will ever be in the cards, no matter how much I listen to this record. The only real chance would be to slowly supplant some of their beliefs by replacing them with similar ones, or simply co-opting the existing ones. Bait and switch might also work—lure them in with a little rock, lock the doors, and turn on the jazz.

So where on the jazz spectrum does A Love Supreme place as opposed to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue? Are they One and Two and therefore deemed worthy for inclusion on the Great List? Or am I missing something in translation?

Klinger: Well, they’re really pretty different albums, but I can see where Kind of Blue would get the leg up over Coltrane. It’s just a more accessible record, and one that I’d suggest to anyone who’s trying to get into jazz. (We’re also bound by the more arbitrary point that the compiler of the Great List tends not to include genre-specific lists, so jazz is less likely to enter the discussion.) A Love Supreme is more of a suite of songs, with one movement leading into the next. The bass solo you mentioned pulls the piece from the more frantic “Pursuance” into the serenity of the “Psalm”—which by the way, features Coltrane essentially “reciting” the prayer printed inside the album’s jacket. When I discovered that fact—only about 10 years ago—I just about plotzed.

Ultimately, though, you touched on something earlier that’s probably jazz’s main image problem—classrooms make people sleepy. And let’s face it, jazz makes people sleepy. There is absolutely nothing about a classroom (and tests and books and teachers’ dirty looks) that is conducive to developing an actual affection for music in general and jazz in particular. I hate the thought of people treating music like it’s a museum piece that requires our reverence, because to me that makes it harder for people to appreciate it on a gut level. And whenever I lean forward a little bit and really hear how Elvin Jones’ rhythms are pushing these songs along, or feel McCoy Tyner’s luminous chords bursting through like sunbeams, it hits just right.

Come to think of it, that combination of sheer musicianship and spiritual seeking is a big reason why this album has crossed over the way so many other jazz albums haven’t. Remember, too, that it came out in 1965. It was custom-made for a generation that was looking for gurus, and Coltrane was well-positioned to fit the bill.

Mendelsohn: Yes, but now those gurus are gone, replaced by CEOs and pre-packaged visionaries with set expiration dates. Culturally, I don’t know how well A Love Supreme will continue to translate. I would like to think this album will retain a high ranking moving into the future, but I would also like to think that one day I will wake up and like jazz. The unfortunate truth is that neither is likely to happen. For me, it’s seems like A Love Supreme requires much more of an investment than the normal music fan may be willing to make. There will still be those that find the price of admission to be quite the bargain, but without the accessibility of Miles Davis or even a little crossover appeal, I’d be concerned that A Love Supreme may be one of those records that is destined to fade.