The Religious Experience of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”

Fifty years on, the masterwork has come to stand for everything that is real and authentic in jazz

It didn’t take me very long into my first encounter with John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme to know that there was something special about it. My saxophone teacher had told me that “it was pretty far out there,” which was enough for me to check it out. As soon as I got it I noticed the CD’s black and white spine, which stood in stark contrast to the orange and black design of all the other Impulse! albums I owned. And Coltrane’s letter to his listeners and his prayer were a complete surprise. Immediately after popping the disc in my player Trane’s opening fanfare hit, announcing something I couldn’t grasp, yet could feel in my body. Special, indeed.

John Coltrane and his classic quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones recorded the album in December of 1964, and released it on Impulse! in February of 1965. Now fifty years old, A Love Supreme has captured the imagination of anyone who has heard it, perhaps more so than any other jazz album. It is that rare album—especially for jazz—that not only manages to find critical and commercial success, but seems to grow in status and power as the decades march on.

Whereas the value of some art isn’t realized for years, or even generations, after its creation A Love Supreme was instantly recognized to be a masterwork. In his five-star review of the album for Downbeat, Don DeMichael made a point to place this work above what Coltrane had done before. Noting a change from Coltrane’s previous work, DeMichael observed the presence of “a peace not often heard in his playing previously,” a peace that “induces reflection in the listener.” It is, DeMichael concluded, “a significant album” and a “work of art.”

The public agreed. A Love Supreme received two Grammy nominations, Downbeat’s readers crowned it 1965’s best album, and it went on to sell over half a million copies, making it the second highest selling jazz album of all time. As Ashley Kahn noted in his liner notes to the 2002 Deluxe Edition, the album “rides an ever-ascending path of reverence and reach.” Now, fifty years later, the stature of A Love Supreme has not diminished, and it carries a wide array of meanings for all of its listeners, regardless of whether they are casual jazz fans, professional jazz musicians, poets, or historians.

For saxophonists two generations removed from its creation, A Love Supreme hasn’t lost any of its power and importance in the body of Coltrane’s work. Jon Irabagon first heard the album in high school while he was checking out Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, and Sonny Rollins. “What struck me right away was the immediacy and urgency of everyone’s playing.” Irabagon sees the album as “a culmination of all that Coltrane was working on up to that point. His repeated playing and experimenting on tunes such as “Impressions” and “My Favorite Things,” night after night, for several years, in addition to his personal beliefs, led to this album, which makes it even more inspiring in context.”

Bay Area tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley echoes Irabagon’s sentiments. Wiley considers A Love Supreme to be the “culmination of Coltrane’s musical and professional development to that point. Having had hits like “My Favorite Things,” having played with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, getting a good record deal. These things enabled him to have a working band. Having such great dedication to the music, and being able to work his music out, night after night, and having his spiritual awakening. It was just a culmination of everything in his life that resonated in this piece of music.”

While A Love Supreme represents the high point of Coltrane’s career to that point, it wasn’t just the creativity, quality, and urgency of the playing that made it special. The way it communicated greater ideas beyond the music so strongly is what gives it so much power. For Irabagon “the idea of a larger form piece reflecting bigger, non-musical ideas was a revelation. Even back then I realized that the bigger statements really are the most important parts of that record, which is part of why it has become such a classic.” The spiritual and religious aspects that Irabagon alludes to is a vital ingredient to what makes A Love Supreme stand out as one of the most iconic, revered, and popular recordings in the century-long history of jazz.

I asked Wiley if he remembered how he felt when he first heard A Love Supreme. He immediately exclaimed “Oh man, it hit me from note one!” Having grown up in the black church, Wiley connected Coltrane’s opening fanfare to the beginning of the church service. “The service always starts with a prayer by the deacon, an in-time, out-of-time chant. In the same way that A Love Supreme opens up. It’s like the opening call, like the opening chant, and then it settles in. And then you get into that groove.”

Wiley is far from the only person to feel the spiritual aspects in the album’s opening. The first time writer Nathaniel Mackey—many of whose poems and novels are about jazz—heard the album “it struck me as very different, not only from the other jazz on the radio station, but from Trane’s earlier music. The radio station liked to play ‘Acknowledgement,’ and the opening was so different. It was like Trane was trying to open up a new kind of space, a religious space. The vertical nature of the opening, it was almost like Trane was trying to think of a way to reach for the religious.” Mackey felt the religious quality of the music before he ever saw the liner notes. When he finally saw them, they “confirmed what your ears told you.”

The religious aspect is only one element in the mythology and legend of A Love Supreme. Jazz historian Tony Whyton, whose book Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album, considers the album to be the most canonical of jazz works and suggests that it fills a mythic role in jazz history. It is not just considered a piece of fine art; it is seen as being touched by the divine and has come to stand for everything that is real and authentic in jazz.

Part of the album’s mythology and symbolism, Whyton suggests, stems from Coltrane’s untimely death in 1967. He reminds his readers of all the writing that portray Coltrane’s life as almost pre-ordained and points out the common deification of Coltrane. This religious reverence for the saxophone is perhaps most clearly seen in the existence of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, whose mission “is to paint the globe with the message of A Love Supreme, and in doing so promote global unity, peace on earth and knowledge of the one true living God.” The symbolism that A Love Supreme and Coltrane hold, Whyton suggests, make the album difficult to imitate, which perhaps explains why it is not often recorded.

Compared to Coltrane compositions such as “Blue Trane,” “Giant Steps,” and “Crescent,” there are relatively few recordings of A Love Supreme. Branford Marsalis included a recording of it on his 2002 album Footsteps of Our Fathers, which also included a treatment of Sonny Rollins’ The Freedom Suite. The following year Marsalis released a DVD of his quartet’s performance of it at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra recorded it in 2005, and the Turtle Island String Quartet included a short arrangement of it on their 2007 Coltrane tribute album. But aside from assorted performances of individual tracks by artists ranging from Kenny Garrett to Kurt Elling, musicians have largely refrained from recording the entire suite.

Irabagon, who in an uncannily convincing fashion just played the roles of Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s recent remake of Kind of Blue, feels that recording A Love Supreme would be difficult “because the original is so complete, so well-thought out and such an original statement that it could really be perfect on its own. I think to re-record or pay tribute to any particular album or person, you really have to have an idea of what you are trying to capture and what statement you are trying to make with it. For A Love Supreme, finding that statement over what Coltrane originally envisioned would be a difficult and humbling task in many ways.”

To record A Love Supreme, Whyton explains, is made all the more difficult because of the mythology surrounding the album. “Any musician who takes it on would have to take on the myth as well. The album has taken on an almost untouchable status.” This difficulty may explain why even full recordings of the suite do not include some of its original features. While Marsalis’s recording of the suite features the same instrumentation as the original there are notable differences between the two. Far from recreating the album note by note, Marsalis does not play Trane’s opening on “Acknowledgement,” nor does he chant as the tune segues into the bass solo that begins “Resolution.” One of the most striking differences is that Marsalis’s version of “Psalm” is quite shorter than Coltrane’s, as Marsalis does not recite the prayer. The performance by Marsalis and his band is, as always, exceptional, and one can hear elements of Coltrane in Marsalis’s playing even as Marsalis works to create something new.

This drive to use Coltrane’s style and being influenced by A Love Supreme in particular is not limited to musicians. The album’s influence is felt deeply in the work of writers, artists, and filmmakers. The “Coltrane Poem” has become so prevalent that it has almost become a sub-genre in its own right. A Love Supreme had a direct impact on Mackey’s poetry and novels, which have a long and open structure, much like a lengthy Coltrane solo.

Trane, Mackey explained to me, “is all over my work” and he is “one of the touchstones for me.” He first saw the saxophonist in late 1965 at the Village Gate in New York when he was a freshman at Princeton. Coltrane’s band was large that night—he had added a second bassist and drummer, as well as saxophonists Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, and Pharoah Sanders. Mackey was blown away by the second set, which consisted of an hour long performance of “Out of this World.” His fascination with how the group extended the performance of one song to an hour in length is the same reason why A Love Supreme is so important to him.

That A Love Supreme is “a long work and a set of interconnected songs, not just a five or even a twelve minute cut, but a whole album, is what made it very important. Just like Duke Ellington’s suites, and later Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, A Love Supreme opened up a new possibility for black music and art.” The ways that Coltrane could keep pulling materials out the same melody or riff and making them new greatly influenced Mackey’s writing. “The sense you are never done with motifs was really important.” In 1978 he published his first collection of poetry entitled Four for Trane. He described the collection’s final poem as a breakthrough for him, in which the impact and influence of Coltrane’s long forms showed itself in the poem. From then on, the ways Coltrane used large and open ended forms and returned to the same themes became large a part of the way Mackey would continue to write about music.

Like the power it holds for Mackey, A Love Supreme continues to exert a pull on the musicians who have come after it. In particular, Mackey sees saxophonist Steve Coleman following some of the groundwork that Coltrane laid down. Mackey can’t gauge the extent to which A Love Supreme still resonates for a wider audience however. “Certainly for me it does, and certainly for musicians. There will always be ears to hear it and it will always be listened to.”

Whyton seconds Mackey’s assertion that it still resonates with musicians. He observes that “A Love Supreme has permeated much of the music that has followed it and that a lot of jazz is articulated in these ways now.” Its musical influence, especially when combined with the myth surrounding it and its creator demonstrates the power an album can have. Whyton believes that because of these elements “A Love Supreme is the best example of how a record can take on and create multiple meanings. The secret of its success,” Whyton says, “exists on several levels: musically, spiritually, politically, and even from the great design awareness of the packaging.” Few albums of any genre work so powerfully in so many ways.

When placed in the larger context of American music, Irabagon finds that “A Love Supreme is an important musical work, jazz or otherwise. The dedication, urgency and singular vision of this record can be inspiring to anyone, not just musicians and not just jazz lovers. I have worn out a couple of copies of this record, so I’ve definitely listened to it from different angles and at different times in my life, and even today it stands as one of the top examples of what jazz can be. I put A Love Supreme at the top of my list of essential and favorite Coltrane albums and can find new things every time I listen.”

For Wiley it all boils down to love. “That’s why that theme resonates with so many people. A love supreme—that thing resonates. And it’s a true theme of love. You talk to people who got married to A Love Supreme, you talk to people who make love to A Love Supreme. It has that universal call of love.”

Fifty years on, Coltrane’s universal call of love shows no signs of losing any of its power.

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