Beyond A Love Supreme

Tony Whyton By

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The following is an excerpt from "Composition/Improvisation" chapter of Beyond A Love Supreme by Tony Whyton (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).


A good example of the way in which binaries shift according to context can be seen when A Love Supreme is described either as a composition or an improvisation. Conventionally, jazz is foregrounded as a live improvised art that is the product of spontaneous creation and inspired performers. When great jazz compositions are created, they provide a wealth of material for musicians to play on, and are most often celebrated through the "liveness" of particular performances; one only has to think of the way in which great Ellington compositions are often linked to special performances or venues (the Cotton Club, Newport, Westminster Abbey, etc.) to get a feel for how composition is still framed in performative terms. With this in mind, the concept of jazz composition is still problematic when the micro-myth of jazz as "in the moment" is evoked. Liveness, improvisation, and spontaneity are often promoted as key tenets of great jazz performance that serve to separate the music both from the calculated, rational, and, by implication, sterile and contrived world of western classical music, and from the overly produced, predictable and formulaic sounds of popular music. Even when recordings of jazz are produced, the emphasis is still often placed on the magic of the recording venue or the energy of the studio environment.

Myths bound up with seminal recordings such as Kind of Blue, for example, promote spontaneity and liveness of performances in order to subvert the edited, engineered, mediated, or produced nature of recordings themselves. Recordings such as these are described as unique, one-off events that capture something magical. Indeed, when describing the way in which great jazz recordings are born, there is a general desire to promote materials as spontaneous. This is usually achieved by stating that musicians often worked with little or no rehearsal time, that compositions were written in the studio or just prior to a recording date, that producers and engineers played a passive role in the recording process and did not interfere with the intentions of the group, that artists performed with compositional sketches only or hardly used any written materials in performance, and that works were recorded in one take. Recordings also promote liveness, the energy or atmosphere of a particular venue or event. This is not only applicable to live recordings (such as Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard, Ellington at Newport 1956, Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall Concert 1938, etc.), but also plays a role in the mythmaking of seminal studio albums. The Rudy van Gelder studio in Englewood Cliffs, for example, has become a shrine to jazz, a mythic recording space that gave birth to recordings such as A Love Supreme.

Although improvisation or liveness is still foregrounded in descriptions of seminal recordings, the growing canonical status of jazz means that "works" (or jazz compositions) are fulfilling a more central role in the story of jazz. Seminal recordings not only reify great historical performances, they are today treated in a similar way to classical compositions, with the singular artist being favored above the group and recordings functioning as a type of score that fixes performance styles and encourages imitation and reenactment. 16 The presence of great jazz works demonstrates that the music has transcended its status as a mere product of popular culture and ascended to the heights of art music or, in the case of Coltrane, it is music touched by the divine. The coexistence of different types of narrative challenges traditional versions of authentic jazz practice as being improvised instead of composed; paradoxically, seminal jazz recordings are both grounded in the social—as they are a product of group dynamics, political and social circumstances—and treated as autonomous, in that they are considered transcendent of time and space. With A Love Supreme, the extent to which the recording is discussed as composed or improvised is continually negotiated and adapted according to what part of the A Love Supreme story is being adhered to.

To give an indication of the way in which the A Love Supreme narrative is changed and adapted, first consider Alice Coltrane's widespread account of the album's creation:

It was like Moses coming down from the mountain, it was so beautiful. He walked down and there was that joy, that peace in his face, tranquility. So I said, "Tell me everything, we didn't see you really for four or five days...." He said, "This is the first time that I have received all of the music for what I want to record, in a suite. This is the first time I have everything, everything ready."

Alice Coltrane describes the conception of A Love Supreme in biblical terms and describes the way in which John Coltrane composed the work during a period of self-imposed isolation. Coltrane had famously locked himself away for five days in order to receive the work; again, the emphasis on the word "receive" promotes Coltrane as a conduit through which God speaks and A Love Supreme as a kind of divine offering. The Moses analogy and surrounding narrative feeds into the creation myth of A Love Supreme and marks the work as something special and spiritually symbolic. Coltrane's isolation confirms the autonomous status of the artwork: the music has been created away from the influence of the everyday world; it has transcended the social. Furthermore, the conception of the work moves beyond mere musical creativity as it has been touched by the presence of God. As a product of genius, the birth of A Love Supreme mirrors other artistic narratives from the myth of Beethoven as the isolated genius, to Stravinsky describing himself as a vessel through which the Rite of Spring flowed. The creation myth associated with A Love Supreme is enhanced by the assertion that, for the first time in his career, Coltrane produced a perfectly conceived composition prior to entering the studio. This not only provides A Love Supreme with a unique status in relation to other Coltrane outputs, but also confirms Coltrane as the sole composer: this work is not about collaboration or group dynamics; it is a personal account of Coltrane's conversance with, and devotion to, God. After his five days in isolation, Coltrane had completed a score that detailed all aspects of the composition.

The details of this manuscript remained undisclosed until a couple of years ago, as Ben Ratliff states:

A manuscript showing this preliminary musical arrangement for A Love Supreme surfaced in late 2004, when Alice Coltrane... offered it to Guernsey's Auction House to be sold. It indicated, among other things, that Coltrane felt the piece could be arranged for a group of nine: tenor saxophone and "one other horn," piano, trap drums, two basses, two conga players, and one timbales player. Other markings on the paper demonstrate his thoughts: toward the end of part one, he noted, a saxophone solo with quartet accompaniment should lead into "all drums multiple meters and voices changing motif in Efmi 'A Love Supreme.' ...At the bottom of the page he writes: "last chord to sound like final chord of Alabama."

Coltrane's composition is well conceived. Indeed, Ratliff suggests that the characteristics identified on the score were realized, even if the final version was only for a quartet. A Love Supreme has a creation story that describes the production of the piece and an authenticated manuscript to back it up, cementing the work's status as Coltrane's magnum opus, probably his most prolific composition. Even without the biblical analogy, the classical proportions of A Love Supreme lead to a position where the work is treated as more "composed" than other Coltrane projects, and the production of the work ties into Coltrane's own desire to write larger-scale forms that move away from jazz standards.

Reprinted from Beyond A Love Supreme by Tony Whyton, with permission from Oxford University Press USA. © 2013 Oxford University Press.

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