It’s a tall order to find something new to say about A Love Supreme. The album is not only a jazz classic, it’s a watershed moment in modern American music. It’s Coltrane both in pivot and at the utter height of his powers. But, as difficult a record as it is to talk about, it’s still one worth celebrating, now 50 years on. A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters seeks to do just that. And though much of the non-album material here has seen the light of day before, the comprehensive set is still a striking collection, still a reminder of just how influential this record was, and just how much went into the making of it.
The December 1964 recording session in which Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme with his classic quartet — McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums — came at a curious time in Coltrane’s evolution. The group’s previous Impulse record, Crescent, was one of its finest. It was a set full on ballads and some hard-bop numbers, but you could feel the band stretching out, nearing some of the more atonality and soloing that leaves the theme way behind that Coltrane would explore further. The John Coltrane Quartet Plays would follow A Love Surpreme as the final quartet album before Coltrane began recording with Pharoah Sanders on Kulu Se Mama in 1965, and other players such as his wife Alice Coltrane and drummer Rashied Ali joined shortly after. In other words, A Love Supreme came at a unique time in Coltrane’s playing and, as such, honored his tuneful past and melded it with his more experimental future. Ashley Kahn, in the liner notes, excellently reminds us just how different this record — now a standard of the genre — sounded upon its release.
It was also an important shift for Coltrane. This was a record he planned for more than any other before. The artwork in The Complete Masters includes charts, notes, and sketches from the sessions, all the prep and adjustments Coltrane made. It’s almost unthinkable to imagine this was originally intended as an album for a nine-piece band, especially when you hear that opening wash of cymbals from Jones and that indelible, four-note bass lead from Garrison on the album’s first part, “Acknowledgement”. Still striking as well is Coltrane’s voice rising up into the mix to repeat that titular refrain, “A love surpreme, a love surpreme, a love supreme, a love supreme.” Coltrane’s planning sets up some of the sheer perfection of the record: that opening bass line, the Eastern-influenced theme on “Resolution”, that trade back and forth between Coltrane and Tyner on “Pursuance”, the slow rumble that leads us meditatively into “Psalm”. But this is not just a feat of structure and execution. Coltrane recites the poem from the album’s liner notes with his horn in the album’s end, and it’s not the only point you can hear the deep spiritual connection to this music. A man who had kicked heroin nearly a year before, rose out of the shadows of Miles Davis and others to make his own name, this was a man who had found his place, and who had thanks to give.
The extras here are interesting enough for major Coltrane fans, but they also reinforce just how singular the proper album remains. To hear clips of “Acknowledgement” in which Coltrane layers his voice is an interesting insight into the construction of the album, even if it is inessential. With all the takes here, however, there’s more context for the takes of “Acknowledgement” recorded the day after the proper A Love Surpreme recordings. Here the band expands to included free-jazz sax player Archie Shepp and second bass Art Davis. The first take the sextet does together has a bit of Spanish swagger to it, and it’s pretty interesting to hear Sheep and Coltrane go back and forth. The solos are a good deal more brash and edged than anything that ended up on the album, which predict the sounds to come, but feel out of place next to the more nuanced playing on the proper record. The edge gets sanded down on the other Shepp/Davis take, but the song stills feels too crowded to fit the album’s mood. These two takes set off a run of six takes in a row of “Acknowledgement”, the effect of which nearly puts us in one of the player’s shoes, mesmerizing us, wrapping us fully in the world of the sound.
On the three-disc version of The Complete Masters, the only live performance of the album from the classic quartet is included. The set was available on a 2002 reissue of A Love Surpreme already, but it still is a significant document for Coltrane fans. The takes here are far more cut loose than on the record, all that meditation bursting forth in a rush of energetic expression. Oddly enough, the finest, more fascinating moment may come when the band clears out for an extended solo by Jimmy Garrison on a 21-minute version of “Pursuance.” By the time of this 1965 performance, you can hear how the album has seeped into the players’ DNA, how they can make it into anything they want and it would still be theirs. It would still be a A Love Supreme.
For those who have been scooping up previous reissues of the album, A Love Supreme may leave you with only a few new morsels to scrape up. Taken as a whole, though, it still plays as a fitting tribute. Any remaster of the album itself seems superfluous, and there’s no major change to the sound to ignite or incite fans, though this one seems to put Coltrane higher in the mix, to my ear. The important thing is we’ve got the moment captured around the creation of the album. 50 years later, with American music changed indelibly because of it, that seems like enough reason to celebrate A Love Supreme yet again.