John Coltrane- A Love Supreme (1965)
Updated: Jun 28
John Coltrane - A Love Supreme (Impulse!)
With Special Guest Ashley Kahn
Recorded December 9, 1964
Released January 1965
About The Album
John Coltrane's A Love Supreme is not just a brilliant album; it's an experience. For myself and many others, it's a life-altering experience! The four-piece suite takes us into the light of Coltrane's spiritual awakening.
A Love Supreme represents John Coltrane, jazz's ultimate preacher, at the peak of his creative journey with his classic quartet. It is music that could only be created by a visionary such as Coltrane— a man possessed by finding self-realization through the study of music and religion. Supporting Trane are his apostles: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. Each part of the suite represents a different phase of Coltrane's musical and ethereal quest. A Love Supreme offers a personal experience that transcends, and I urge you to listen to it entirely without distractions. Enjoying A Love Supreme in the right environment will alter your musical DNA and forever change you.
Coltrane's Early Life and Career
I covered John Coltrane quite a bit in season one, but it is essential to understand the man to understand Trane’s music on A Love Supreme. John Coltrane was born and raised in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926. In 1938, his father, uncle, and grandparents died within a few months, and his mother and aunt mainly raised him.
By 1940, John Coltrane began studying sax, and in 1943 he moved to Philadelphia. In 1945 he entered the Navy and played in a band with local service members. By 1946, Coltrane was back in Philadelphia and began working as a sideman, most notably with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Johnny Hodges. Still, few knew of John Coltrane at this point. Trane's big break came when he began working with Miles Davis in 1955, who was rebuilding his career after recovering from a heroin addiction. As a member of Davis' "First Great Quintet, Coltrane was included on such classic albums as Cookin' (1956, Prestige), Relaxin' (1958, Prestige), Workin' (1960, Prestige), and Steamin' (1961, Prestige). His playing with Miles showcased a searching quality and a move to a concept in which he would often play longer phrases to fill space, contrasting Miles Davis' more fragmented approach to phrasing. Then, Coltrane began dealing with heroin addiction. Unhappy with his production and tardiness, Davis fired John Coltrane in early 1957.
To clean up, John Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, where he began a period of self-reflection, which included studying world religions and world music. During this time, Coltrane worked as a member of Thelonious Monk's band and began recording as a leader. Once he kicked his habit, he rejoined Davis' Quintet in 1958. After recording the classic Miles Davis- Kind of Blue (1959, Columbia), Coltrane released a masterpiece with his album Giant Steps (1960, Atlantic), a tremendous showcase of Coltrane's advanced harmonic and melodic concepts and compositions.
In 1960, John Coltrane formed his first quartet. With the group, he released the classic My Favorite Things (Atlantic, 1961). By 1962, Coltrane had solidified his "classic quartet" lineup, including McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. The saxophonist began experimenting with free jazz concepts and elongated solo expressions with the group. By 1964 the quartet was at its creative peak, and the result can be heard on the live releases Crescent (Impulse!,1964) and Live at Birdland (Impulse!,1964). In December of 1964, the group recorded the masterpiece - A Love Supreme (Impulse!,1965).
A Love Supreme
The success and brilliance of A Love Supreme were due to a coming together of four main factors. The first factor is a unification of Coltrane's experience and studies as a musician. Much of this development came when he was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. During his tenure, Coltrane was given ample opportunities to improvise and work out new ideas in real-time; he also gained a more profound knowledge of playing using a less harmonically rich modal approach, particularly when the group recorded Kind of Blue. This modal technique allowed soloists to play over a specific scale structure, thus freeing the improviser from trying to navigate through the rapid chord changes associated with bebop. Another key figure helping to shape Coltrane’s development was the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.
After being fired by Miles Davis in 1957, Coltrane joined Monk’s band, and the two spent hours discussing, playing, and analyzing musical structures. Trane was also profoundly interested and connected to musicians who helped popularize avant-garde music in jazz in the late 50s and early 60s; this includes musicians such as Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. Finally, the saxophonist could also look at his 1960s releases, such as Giant Steps (1960, Atlantic), My Favorite Things (1961, Atlantic), Live at Birdland (1964, Impulse!), and Crescent (1964, Impulse!), which moved beyond the innovations of Miles Davis’ band and often included extended solos and original materials.
The second major factor was John Coltrane’s fascination with religion and philosophy. Although he was born into the Christian faith and went to church every Sunday to hear his grandfather, Reverend William Blair, Trane began studying many religions by 1957 and never prescribed to any one definitive religion.
Another contributing factor to the album's success was the unity created by Coltrane’s band. Pianist McCoy Tyner had perfected a specific way of voicing chords (in fourth voicings) that created a sense of openness and possibility that allowed John Coltrane to explore further. Tyner was also brilliant as a secondary soloist. Drummer Elvin Jones' polyrhythmic approaches and ability to play with an incredible reserve of controlled energy while showing sensitivity when appropriate were vital to the group's sound. Bassist Jimmy Garrison had developed an ability and confidence to shift from broken to straight-time feels while exploring unaccompanied solos and double-stop figures (fragmented bass chords).
The final key factor was the state of America and the world in 1965. The release and recording of the album are connected to that moment in history. In 1964, the year the album was recorded, the country was dealing with the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the new possibilities and the struggles associated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, American involvement in Vietnam, and in music, the arrival of the Beatles and other British invasion bands changed the cultural landscape. In 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches led to the Bloody Sunday violence at Selma, Alabama, and the U.S. increased its involvement in Vietnam. Coltrane's music's seriousness, openness, and freedom are connected with social and political events and to listeners of all races and ages.
Track 1- “Acknowledgment”
The album begins with Elvin Jones hitting a Chinese gong, an instrument you don’t hear on other Coltrane recordings. The sound of the gong creates seriousness, openness, and a connection to Eastern music and philosophy. Trane quickly enters with a flurry of notes against cymbal rolls and open-sounding piano chords. It's almost as if Trane and the band are welcoming his listeners or congregation, signaling his sermon's beginning.
Garrison then enters with the famous four-note bass ostinato setting up the “Love Supreme” theme while Coltrane waits. He then begins preaching through the saxophone against the ostinato bass line and unique Latin-style beat created by Elvin Jones that also connects to the polyrhythmic drumming of Africa. Tyner continues to play open-sounding chord voicing. The time feel is unique and creates a rhythmic backdrop that is specific but also loose and elastic at the same time. Trane pours his soul into his improvisation. His playing grows dynamically, and at times, he overblows the horn to create a specific level of intensity. There is a dynamic arch to his solo. At around 4:45, Trane plays the four-note “Love Supreme” theme and transposes it each time into all keys. According to my mentor and biographer Lewis Porter, Coltrane does this to signify that god is everywhere. As Trane fades out his saxophone, he chants “A Love Supreme” and later overdubs his voice. Garrison ends the first movement by continuing to play the theme, and eventually, the rest of the band stops as Garrison moves into the next movement.
Track 2 - “Resolution”
The track begins as Jimmy Garrison continues his bass solo by playing (double stops) chorded bass figures. Then Coltrane enters with force and passion for offering the central theme. Of all of the four parts of the suite, “Resolution” was the most familiar to the group as they had performed the movement in the clubs before recording it. After Coltrane presents the theme against Elvin's polyrhythmic swing approach and Garrison’s somewhat pedaled bass line, Tyner's solo, like Trane, is expressive, experimental, and brilliant. Tyner is genuinely the perfect pianist to service Coltrane’s vision. Jones and Garrison move into a more traditional walking swing feel during the piano solo. At times Elvin Jones locks into Tyner's rhythmic concept and accents with him. Coltrane reemerges around the 4:00 mark and builds his solo by offering some overblown statements and short phrases that are perfectly connected. The rhythm section perfectly picks up on Coltrane’s energy and adds to it. Coltrane ends the piece by smoothly shifting back to the theme before bringing the “Resolution” to its final resting point. There were seven takes of the tune before we got to the one offered on the recording.
Track 3- “Pursuance”
The movement opens with Elvin Jones playing an unaccompanied 90-second drum solo in which he leaves little space. Without a resting point, he shifts to a fast swing time feel; Coltrane quickly plays the melody and drops off as Tyner offers a solo that displays his ability to create over fast tempos, and his playing showcases his personalized style of voicing chords somewhat ambiguously (4th voicings) while playing melodic runs in the right hand. He is truly a remarkable performer. Coltrane enters around 4:20 and comes in with extreme fire and force, almost like a sprinter waiting for the starting gun to go off. Throughout his solo, he builds along several motifs and plays with an energy and urgency that few could ever hope to replicate. Matching his intensity are Elvin Jones and the rest of the rhythm section. As the saxophonist ends his solo, the band appears to be ending, but Jones continues to play. Then Garrison sneaks back in for an unaccompanied bass solo in which he continues to offer double stops at times and quotes the “Love Supreme” theme early on. Although not the most technical of bassists, Garrison is undoubtedly skilled and often most impressive and interesting during moments where he solos without the band's backing. He played with confidence and a sense of exploring that truly matched John Coltrane’s vision.
Track 4- “Psalm”
The track begins with tympany rolls, with Coltrane joining in almost immediately. At first listen it is obvious that Coltrane is deep in thought and spirit, but the music seems nebulous and not particularly structured due to the lack of a definitive time feel. On the liner notes of the album John Coltrane included an original poem giving thanks to god. As Lewis Porter discovered, Coltrane recites the carefully chosen stanzas of the poem through his saxophone on this track. This was one of the great discoveries regarding the album and serves as yet another reference to John Coltrane's unlimited creativity and genius.
Final Thoughts On The Album
Even though the music made on December 9, which was captured on the album, was magical, Coltrane decided to reenter the studio the next day to try another version. In doing so, he added two more musicians to enhance the sound. Saxophonist Archie Shepp and bassist extraordinaire Art Davis were brought in. This session was not heard for a long time but was eventually unearthed, revealing two alternate versions of “Acknowledgement.” These versions are certainly more heavily layered, but it is apparent that Coltrane made the right choice to stick with the quartet versions. In conclusion, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is like no other recording ever made; it's timeless, emotional, musically brilliant, and deeply spiritual, even to those who question the existence of a higher power. It is a work of art of the highest order and must be regarded as one of the most outstanding achievements of the 20th century.
Following A Love Supreme
Throughout 1965, Coltrane's music continued to become more exploratory and experimental. His usage of LSD may have enhanced some of these new directions during this period. Additionally, Trane continued to augment his group by adding more guest musicians into the mix, and neither McCoy Tyner nor Elvin Jones seemed to appreciate the more avante-garde direction. Tyner was the first to leave in 1965, and early in 1966, Elvin Jones also moved on because he was unhappy sharing the stage with the presence of a second drummer. Garrison continued to play with Coltrane till his death in 1967.
As his stage became crowded and his music grew increasingly dense, including improvisations often lasting over 30 minutes, Coltrane's music became less accessible, and he began alienating much of his audience. For context, one only has to listen to his subsequent three releases The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (1965, Impulse!), Ascension (1966, Impulse!), and Meditations (1966, Impulse!).
In 1967, John Coltrane died of liver disease at 40; few were even aware of his illness. His passing left an incredible void. In 1969, The Church of John Coltrane was established in San Francisco. The church's followers claim that John Coltrane was a saint and point out that Jesus Christ and John Coltrane shared the same initials and died around the same age.
Awards John Coltrane: DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Pulitzer Prize.