“Hypnotic, repetitive, monotonous”, “it is hard to attach any particular emotional purpose to his work”, “pretentious guff”.
Poet and part-time jazz critic Philip Larkin could barely find a semiquaver worth praising in A Love Supreme, John Coltrane’s then latest recording on Impulse Records. This, to Larkin, was not jazz.
Elsewhere, the reaction was similarly hostile. The Guardian jazz critic Ian Breach called it “a torturous confessional”, “earnest to the point of being harrowing”, “an exercise in musical monotony”. “Coltrane”, he said, “exhausts his material and his listeners.”
In 1957, Coltrane underwent a spiritual awakening. This personal revelation expelled the musician’s crippling heroin addiction and opened the door to the visionary second half of his creative life. Seven years later, Coltrane descended the stairs of his Long Island home. He had spent five secluded days with his horn and a piece of paper. With serenity on his face and in his spirit, he announced he had “everything ready”. “Everything”, to Coltrane and now to us, was A Love Supreme.
With Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and McCoy Tyner on keys, on a December afternoon in New Jersey Trane and his quartet recorded an artistic powerhouse of religious devotion. A cosmic uppercut on the jaw of the listener. The crystallisation of Trane’s awakening seven years earlier.
The album is a religious suite divided into four parts: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. Thirty-three minutes of melody, screeching, chanting, and all the potency of an intravenous DMT trip.
According to Plato, one recognises the essence of beauty through a climb through earth’s individual inherent beauties. Only then will this ascension lead to an understanding of beauty in its most absolute form: the divine.
A Love Supreme follows this order of service. The quartet takes each theme—whether that be the four note title riff in ‘Acknowledgement’ or the stirring melody of ‘Psalm’—and develops it extensively, passing through all keys and textures in its evolution, eventually creating a tonal landscape verging on absolute. From the soft tones on the horn to the cutting shrieks. The trademark rhythmic left hand chords of Tyner on piano to the radiant lines with his right. Vital, too, is Elvin Jones’ rhythmic versatility. He transitions fluidly from 4/4 to 2/4 to triple time, sometimes using more than one simultaneously. A superior ability, Trane remarks of the drummer, to be “three places at the same time”.With the extensive tools available they achieve sonic liberty and with it a higher plane of being.
Perhaps all this development is a bit exhausting. But it's a spiritual renewal, and it should be demanding. It’s not a steaming hot bowl of tomato soup or an episode of How I Met Your Mother.
In the most intensely spiritual moments we are our most human, argues theologian Steven Guthrie. Instead of transcending the human, we inhabit our humanity intensely. A Love Supreme’s ultimate achievement is the expression of this reality.
Halfway through ‘Pursuance’ there is the purest expression of Coltrane’s raw and penetrating human love in the form of painful altissimo cries. Every splinter of joy and despair and anger and love is distilled into these vibrations on an eight centimetre reed. This sound, achieved by an overblowing technique, halts the listener and raises every bodily follicle on end. Fragile and powerful, it is the dramatic pinnacle of the album.
At the end of ‘Acknowledgement’, Coltrane puts down his horn. Here, for the only time in his career, he uses his voice on record. He forgoes his tenor to preach the sermon with the most barefaced vessel of humanity, his vocal chords.
A Love Supreme is unadorned, immediate; a miraculous but coarse expression of God’s love. It is for the lovers of peace, not the indoctrinated jazz critics. Reverend Coltrane, John the Baptist, Saint Coltrane—whatever you want to call him—is above all unconcerned with jazz.
Image from Wikimedia Commons