A Love Supreme
It was the first Coltrane record I heard and then it was about ten years after its release. I suppose I was trying to educate myself about jazz in a haphazard way tracing a path back from the new stuff I was listening to, which consisted mainly of Elton Dean, Keith Tippett, Brotherhood of Breath and anything from the Ogun label or ECM too. But I was looking for some sort of origins. I'd heard many of the people whose music I enjoyed name-check Miles, Ornette and Coltrane. So they seemed to offer fruitful areas to investigate. I did this. And I was/still am grateful. Now, years later, I find myself once again playing the great album in the black and white gatefold sleeve. I suppose I really ought to get hold of a cd copy but somehow I just prefer it as it is.
Ashley Kahn's comprehensive study of the making of the seminal album doesn't just focus on that date in December 1964 when the classic quartet went into the studio with Rudy Van Gelder and laid down the whole thing. He attempts to locate a place for this recording as a part of Coltrane's searching and development, both musically and spiritually. So he takes us back to Hamlet, North Carolina in 1926 and looks at those formative influences; family and church, as well as the music he grew up around. Coltrane is presented as the sensitive boy to whom music became an essential medium of self expression.
Like many of his generation he became steeped in the blues, a musical form that is at the heart of A Love Supreme. He practiced. And then some. Anywhere he had his horn would be his woodshed. Kahn and his various informants emphasise this obsessive drive which Coltrane had to master his instruments. Sometimes it's too easy just to see him as this ascetic figure embarking single-mindedly on a personal goal. Of course, he was human. He had to cold turkey and kick the booze. According to the man's own words inside that gatefold : 'During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening...' So began the journey towards the album which is often seen as his definitive statement. Kahn is of course careful to point out that it was one of several such statements. Albums such as Crescent should not be overlooked. And his 'live' recordings, like Live At The Village Vanguard in 1961, were an equally vital strand of his development and the quartet's. Listen to 'Spiritual' on the later and you will hear some of the sound that was to shape parts of A Love Supreme.
Other important facets of this journey were lessons learned from his time in the Miles Davis sextet, a unit which he outgrew in his quest for a music of his own. Kahn briefly sketches Coltrane's relationship with Davis. Equally important was the desire to find musicians who would share and participate in the vision. McCoy Tyner is often seen as the earnest student of the master while Elvin Jones' relationship is more of an equal force. Listening to the album it is clear that Jones was a powerful contributor to the overall shape of the music. He was a master drummer with ears for music outside the jazz tradition. Just what Coltrane's developing 'world music' outlook needed. Bassist Jimmy Garrison completed the line-up, having the edge over Reggie Workman, though Coltrane, in making the choice, is careful not to put anyone down. The quartet's composition depended on a balance and they were obviously four strong personalities. In Kahn's descriptions Coltrane clearly emerges as the leader both on the bandstand and in the studio.
Once the book arrives at the recording date Kahn painstakingly analyses the whole process, from studio ambience to positioning of microphones and engineer Van Gelder's close involvement and attention to detail, such as when to operate faders as a solo came to an end. Not everyone wants to know about the exact number of takes and false starts made before the final track was in the bag but as a record of the process I do find it fascinating. The final result is pretty flawless but like any band they goofed before getting the final versions down. Kahn covers that too.
What can be said after the release of the album ? Kahn delves into the varied responses to it, drawing on the reactions of some who felt that the music was fine but felt uncomfortable with the 'philosophy' that accompanied it. And he also offers the voice of Down Beat magazine whose reviewer manages a balanced, contextualised view of the album and it's place in Coltrane's career. Kahn does attempt to get beyond the awestruck reactions which do a great deal to obscure the actual music whilst raising Coltrane to mythic status. . Hyperbolic and uncritical devotion are as bad as the sometimes narrow-minded, ignorant condemnations levelled at Coltrane and his output. There are also those dissenters who thought it too radical or avant garde. It seems hard to imagine why from here in 2002. Focussing on the radical in another way, perhaps, Archie Shepp sees it as a part of the growing assertion of black consciousness in America. Diverse individuals like Amira Baraka and Roger McGuinn support this while David Murray who, with his octet, has recently revived some classic Coltrane tracks, suggests a connection to the "whole 'flower-child', hippie base". There is no getting away from the 'spiritual' connotations of this work and the time in which it was created.
Kahn also looks at the legacy the album left in terms of what it meant to other musicians and how they chose to follow it or develop their own music in its wake. He doesn't attempt to look in any detail at what Coltrane did next in the short time he had left. There is enough controversy about what he left behind in those frenetic, exploratory years. Kahn, rightly I think, leaves that for another time, another book maybe.
There can be little doubt though that these 30 odd minutes recorded one December night have had far-reaching effects on the jazz that was to come. This book is a valuable contribution to writings about some of the work Coltrane did and its aftermath.
© 2002 PAUL DONNELLY