Bobby Zankel: Revisiting Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”
AAJ: To shift the focus a bit, you've told me you sometimes use mythology from various cultures as an inspiration for your music. There was that concert with the Warriors and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, where his composition used Hindu myths, and yours, I believe, employed African Pygmy mythology. I wonder if mythology or scripture played a role in your version of A Love Supreme?
BZ: In California, there's a Church of John Coltrane. Coltrane's grandfather was an AME minister. What Coltrane is doing with his shouting sound, and so on, is traditional African religious worship transferred to the American cultural milieu. Connecting with the spirits and the primal forces through rhythm, sound, and overtones, is the way Africans summon their ancestors and the spirit world. Coltrane himself might not have thought about it that way, but to me, that's clearly what it's about.
AAJ: Lewis Porter and others refer to that "shout," that lift that happens at the end of Coltrane's phrases, as the "preacher" effect of Coltrane, but you're linking it to the African roots.
BZ: The preacher is standing in a church, but his genetic sense memory and what Buddhists define as his eighth consciousness is coming from an African perspective.
AAJ: Did you self-consciously employ that African perspective in your version?
BZ: That perspective needs a human life to animate it, and that really is where the improvisation comes in. My role as composer is to create the situations for those improvisations. The rhythmic cycles I use are designed to take it into a spiritual place. So you create places where there are enough rhythms turning over and sounds coming in different directions that it will make the Holy Ghost appear [laughter].
AAJ: We know that Coltrane was interested in several spiritual traditions. He knew about Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on. In a certain way, listening to A Love Supreme makes me ask anew just who it is that I'm praying to when I pray.
BZ: That's such a great question; I was at a Buddhist meeting last week, and that question came up.
AAJ: I get a feeling in this piece that Coltrane is speaking to the One God, the monotheistic God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But I'm not really sure about that.
BZ: I think that's your own take on it. We're talking about music, and we're talking about art. The beauty of your point of view is that it's familiar, that's what we know. But there are other ways of understanding the spirit, as abstract, as laws, and so on. But in an artistic sense, I don't think it matters how you break it down. In all traditions, it's beyond words. As a Nichiren Buddhist, we focus on a scroll, but we're praying to the highest potential in our lives. In a sense we're praying to the universe, but that universe is also in ourselves, so it empowers the person who prays. In Buddhism, the power exists in each human being, even as frail as we are. You're looking inside yourself for the source, so it's very empowering.
AAJ: There is that element in Western religion as well: "God is in our hearts," and so on. But perhaps Buddhism emphasizes the human condition more, and places less emphasis on an external God. In any case, the poem that Coltrane wrote as the inspiration or credo for A Love Supreme could easily have been spoken in an African-American church service.
BZ: That's the tradition in which Coltrane grew up. He grew up in a preacher's world, a Christian world. That was his language, but he was referring to something more. He himself said that the poem was not Christian or Muslim as such.
AAJ: In A Love Supreme, Coltrane played the syllables of the poem on his saxophone. He didn't speak them as such. Do you use the words of the poem in your piece?
BZ: We will have the great vocalist, Ruth Naomi Floyd, sing the words of the poem. And we have the big band arrangement over her singing. Ruth and I had done something similar in 2007 at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, and I'm reworking some of that. So she'll sing parts of the poem based on the notes that Coltrane improvised in his solo.
AAJ: That should be thrilling. She has an incredible voice and is equally at home with jazz and gospel music.
BZ: One thing I'd like to make clear that's very important is that the second section, "Resolution," was not arranged by me. It was arranged by our bassist, Anthony Tidd.
AAJ: How did that come about?
BZ: We were going through rehearsals, and trying out bits and pieces, and Anthony said, "I already have an arrangement of 'Resolution" for big band." He's done arrangements of Stravinsky and Debussy, and he worked for ten years with [saxophonist] Steve Coleman. Tidd is a great musician.
AAJ: I wanted to ask you how you yourself learned composingon your own or with a mentor or at a music school?
BZ: I picked up some compositional skills inn my studies with Dennis Sandole [the legendary Philadelphia based teacher of such jazz legends as guitarist Pat Martino and saxophonist James Moody, among many others]; John Coltrane was also his student. During my time with Sandole, I really developed musically. Every fourth week, Sandole had me write an eight-bar theme. I got so involved with moving voicings that it turned into some very involved pieces that had at least five moving parts .He turned me on to orchestration books, he inspired me, and I would bring all my early composing to him. Sandole himself was an autodidact, and he really trusted that idea of learning on your own. I think he felt that music was such a personal expression that he didn't impose himself. He just kept an eye on things.
Also, between about 1970 and 1973, I played in [pianist] Cecil Taylor's big band, and he was writing new music every day. And we'd work on putting it together for the big band, so I got a feeling for orchestration for a large ensemble.