John Coltrane: A Love Supreme [Deluxe Edition]

John Coltrane
A Love Supreme [Deluxe Edition]

Any serious attempts at jazz or blues scholarship — professional or amateur — invariably lead to searches for rare or lost artifacts whose existence is rumored but rarely ever even verified. Like Eugene Martone, the obsessed aficionado will go to whatever lengths necessary to hunt down the object of his desire, even though that means an hourly visit to eBay more often than it does selling one’s soul to ol’ Scratch.

For me, and countless others in their formative years of jazzology, that holy grail was a version of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme recorded with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp and second bassist Art Davis augmenting the “classic” Coltrane quartet of McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison. Though its existence had long been alleged, speculation was all but put to rest when Impulse issued the eight-disc Classic Quartet box back in 1998 — a set that included a full disc of outtakes and alternates but disappointed many a Coltrane fan due to the absence of any sextet A Love Supreme material. It was known that Shepp and Davis joined the band during those December 1964 studio sessions, but it seemed as if any tapes that may have been rolling were lost or long misplaced.

When Impulse announced its plans to re-reissue A Love Supreme with two alternate takes of the opening movement “Acknowledgement” from the Shepp/Davis sessions to coincide with what would have been Trane’s 76th birthday, it was met with mixed emotions. Certainly, Coltrane devotees were thrilled at the prospect of finally hearing these fabled recordings (taken from the saxophonist’s personal archives, now overseen by his son Ravi), but it also caused a fair amount of outrage from completists who had upgraded to the pricey Classic Quartet box and were suddenly faced with yet another purchase to maintain the integrity of their collections.

The liner notes for this “deluxe edition” of A Love Supreme spends two whole pages trying to rationalize the superiority of the current remastering job, even in comparison to the 20-bit model Impulse rolled out back in 1995. But while this might be big news for a discerning listener with the equipment and ears to tell the difference, it’s not much more than hair-splitting for even highly dedicated Coltrane fans. Which also leaves very little to say about A Love Supreme that hasn’t already been said in 35 years of jazz criticism — since Kind of Blue can’t even claim to have a religion founded upon it, let’s just say that there’s good reason that A Love Supreme is considered one of the most quintessential records in the history of music and move along, shall we?

Disc two contains all the real treats this set has to offer, beginning with the only recorded live performance of the A Love Supreme suite in its entirety. It might take an army of CPA’s to count how many times this July 1965 Antibes concert has been issued on bootleg LP’s and CD’s, but it’s first official release here at least cleans up the sound significantly (though it’s still plenty rough around the edges). Still, its inclusion in this package is important for how clearly it illustrates the evolution that took place in Coltrane’s music over the short six months that passed after the original studio recording. With the exception of Trane’s more pronounced use of multiphonics in the slightly longer “Resolution”, there’s nothing terribly radical in the quartet’s live rendering of the first two parts. Once they reach “Pursuance”, however, the group is playing more akin to their woollier studio recordings from later that year — after an extended Elvin Jones drum solo, the quartet reconvenes with a vengeance until Tyner and Garrison bow out altogether, leaving Trane and Jones to nearly burn down the stage in a freeform duet.

The rest of disc two consists of four studio outtakes from the original A Love Supreme sessions, one of which (the alternate take of “Resolution”) was already issued on the Classic Quartet box’s rarities disc, while another (the two-minute “breakdown” take of the same piece) is nearly worthless except maybe to a true Coltrane scholar or musicologist. Which leaves the two sextet takes of “Acknowledgement” to beg the question, were they worth all those years of suspense? Well, unfortunately, not really. Although the second of the two is somewhat more refined, they’re both very obviously practice runs — even with Shepp and Davis in tow — that offer little revelation or insight into the piece. Make no mistake — I’m still happy to have heard them and I definitely don’t mean to undermine their absolute historical importance, but I just can’t envision many return visits to these tracks now that the “holy grail” spell has been broken.

So once again, Universal has the upper hand in the consumer vs. music industry struggle, with Coltrane fans all-too-rabidly willing to pay for something the majority of them already own under the hex of a couple of bonus tracks. But when the music at hand is John Coltrane’s, it’s difficult not to let its value transcend capitalism for the sheer emotion it incites — and that’s what makes this deluxe edition a must-have for many, regardless of the marketing stigma involved.