Beyond A Love Supreme

Tony Whyton By

Sign in to view read count
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."


More Articles

Read The Royal Roost: Birthplace of Bop Book Excerpts The Royal Roost: Birthplace of Bop
by Richard Carlin
Published: March 30, 2016
Read Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion Book Excerpts Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion
by Jason Bivins
Published: September 24, 2015
Read Zappa and Jazz: Did it Really Smell Funny, Frank? Book Excerpts Zappa and Jazz: Did it Really Smell Funny, Frank?
by Geoffrey Wills
Published: September 15, 2015
Read Mingus Speaks Book Excerpts Mingus Speaks
by John Goodman
Published: July 22, 2015
Read Jive-Colored Glasses Book Excerpts Jive-Colored Glasses
by John Goodman
Published: July 16, 2015
Read "John Daversa Big Band at The Baked Potato" Live Reviews John Daversa Big Band at The Baked Potato
by Paul Naser
Published: June 3, 2016
Read "Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil – 1964" My Blue Note Obsession Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil – 1964
by Marc Davis
Published: December 21, 2016
Read "Jack Wilkins: Playing What He's Preaching" Interviews Jack Wilkins: Playing What He's Preaching
by Rob Rosenblum
Published: December 29, 2016
Read "Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years in Mono" The Vinyl Post Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years in Mono
by C. Andrew Hovan
Published: November 10, 2016
Read "Matt Schofield at Nectar's" Live Reviews Matt Schofield at Nectar's
by Doug Collette
Published: July 11, 2016
Read "Meet Luis Torregrosa" Out and About: The Super Fans Meet Luis Torregrosa
by Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper
Published: January 3, 2017

Post a comment

comments powered by Disqus


Support our sponsor

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!