Bobby Zankel: Revisiting Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”

Victor L. Schermer By

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John Coltrane's iconic A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) is a jazz perennial, continuing to attract and move listeners around the globe nearly five decades after it was released. Great musicians, such as guitarists John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana, and saxophonist Joshua Redman cite its profound influence on their career. The Branford Marsalis Quartet , with A Love Supreme Live (Marsalis Music, 2004, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, on A Love Supreme (Palmetto, 2005), The Turtle Island String Quartet's A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane (Telarc, 2007) and others have recorded adaptations of the composition, using their own instrumentation and ideas.

Now Bobby Zankel, saxophonist and founding leader of the Philadelphia-based avant-garde big band, Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, has made his own composition based on Coltrane's masterpiece, premiered in an outdoor concert in the City of Brotherly Love on September 22, 2012, a day before what would have been the late Coltrane's 86th birthday.

For that purpose, Zankel recruited two of his saxophone cohorts, Dave Liebman and Odean Pope----both icons in their own right—as featured soloists. All three were heavily inspired and influenced by Coltrane and often improvise on his compositions. Liebman's reconstruction of Coltrane's late career masterpiece Meditations (Impulse!, 1966), with Meditations (Arkadia Jazz, 1998), is a remarkable accomplishment that only someone who could get totally inside Coltrane's head could achieve.

With three musicians of such brilliance participating in this singular event, Liebman's advance take on the project was as concise as ever, responding briefly in the midst of a road trip: "Bobby says it all with incredible honesty and humility concerning this monumental piece of music. Coltrane was and will be forever one of the greatest artists of all time. Playing his music is always an honor and a privilege. I look forward to playing with Bobby and Odean on this special occasion." Zankel's own appreciation of Coltrane, as well as his unique identity as a musician, emerges clearly in the following interview.

All About Jazz: First, I'd like to discuss your thoughts and reactions regarding the original Coltrane composition and recording of A Love Supreme.

Bobby Zankel: I'll do my best. I don't approach this music as a scholar. I have been thrilled listening to it for more than forty years. I would say John Coltrane's music kept my life going at a number of crucial moments. A Love Supreme had a lot to do with why I have devoted my life to becoming an artist musician. It has been an unending source of spiritual and musical inspiration to me.

Chapter Index

The Lasting Impact and Influence of Coltrane's A Love Supreme

AAJ: Among the scholars is Lewis Porter, who has provided a remarkable analysis of the recording in his classic biography of Coltrane, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (University of Michigan Press, 1999). This is obviously a very important piece of music. It's deeply spiritual. It's a complete suite, organized into a coherent whole. It has inspired many musicians and multitudes of listeners. Some critics consider it a milestone in the history of jazz, implying that it's a musical breakthrough. However, it could be argued that it's vintage Coltrane, more of what he was already doing rather than something new. Do you think it's a jazz milestone? What do you think A Love Supreme contributed to jazz as music?

BZ: To put it simply, the profound influence this piece has had on people's lives even years after it was recorded shows its enormous significance. It's a four-section suite, and Lewis Porter did a great job breaking it down structurally and musically, in terms of compositional, rhythm, harmony, and improvisational conceptions. It's not revolutionary in its materials or its use of the materials. What makes it so great and so important is the conception of basing a four-movement piece on a very clear idea that Coltrane had, one which is best articulated in the poem of the liner notes and the "Psalm" section, and out of that creating a four-part, 35 minutes of music that was so communicative. He was able to communicate a religious and spiritual idea. He was able to say what he wanted to say so clearly, so deeply from his own heart, and touch so many other peoples' hearts.

Sometimes, a person does a piece of music or a work of art, and it just hits people's souls. It really moves everybody. A Love Supreme did just that, but even more, his intent was so specific, and I think it affected people in exactly the way that he set out to do. I say that not just on the basis of conjecture, but on the basis of the words of the poem, which are so clear. Not only did he convey that poem in the "Psalm" section, but the other three sections built themselves, creating an arc that found itself and resolved itself in that last section in a way that defies normal artistic intent and success. He really spoke to peoples' hearts throughout.

AAJ: The liner notes by Coltrane himself say that he had a "spiritual awakening" a couple of years before he wrote A Love Supreme. Do you know anything about the nature of that spiritual experience?

BZ: I believe he had that awakening in 1957. That was the year that he stopped using heroin and began his recovery from addiction, which in itself was a tremendous spiritual/physical battle and victory. When a person can overcome such a problem, it's often followed by a sense of purpose and mission in life. In Coltrane's case, he was a musician who had the potential to do still more. He was already beginning to be a success with [trumpeter] Miles Davis and, being such a thoughtful and spiritual person, his awakening led him to something more than being concerned just with his own success and his family life. He began to really care about the destiny of humanity. He was tremendously focused on music and knew about the power of sound, and he talked about really wanting to affect people through his music. He was working many nights a week playing in front of people, so his art wasn't cloistered. He wasn't a "man on the mountain" but communicating to other human beings. Most of his playing was done in clubs where he was ten, twenty feet away from his audience and had the opportunity to touch them with his art. And as time went on, in 1964, when A Love Supreme was done, the country was in turmoil, with the Civil Rights movement and the first words about a war in Viet Nam. I think he had a strong social awareness and was aware of the need to improve people's lives.

AAJ: You really highlight the cultural changes taking place at that time, much of which involved spirituality. There is an inherent contradiction in jazz; that it's a form of entertainment that's done in nightclubs and on the fringes of society, and at the same time it's a deeply spiritual craft and expression. And Coltrane leaned more and more to the spiritual side as he went along.

BZ: Yes. And pulling together paradoxical realities is something that geniuses do. On the one hand, Coltrane was a performer, and on the other he was a true artist seeking to deal with his idea of truth whether people liked it or not. He was on both sides of the line, trying to please people and at the same time following his artistic inclinations. At the end of his life he was dealing with a lot of people deserting what he was doing, and yet he still went all the way with it.

Sources and Ideas for Zankel's Version of A Love Supreme

AAJ: Wikipedia has a brief article on the year 1965 in jazz, and it's startling to be reminded of what was going on: breakthroughs by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver, Ornette Coleman, and others just in that one year. It was an incredible period in the evolution of jazz. I wonder whether, in writing your composition based on A Love Supreme, you went back to that time in your mind for inspiration?

BZ: Even before we get started on my composition, I want to say that I didn't really choose to do this piece. I was approached about doing it by Mark Christman of the Ars Nova Workshop. He said, to me "Let's do something for Coltrane's birthday," which I usually do every year anyway. His birthday is September 23, and we're doing the performance of my piece on September 22 [2012] on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

Despite my reservations, I accepted Mark's offer. A few years ago I wrote a suite called A Force for Good, using some of Coltrane's ideas to produce a four-part suite, which also featured Odean and vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd. This time, Mark suggested I do one of Coltrane's albums. Frankly, I never liked the idea of using an iconic album for my own purposes. I've never been into that. However, it's so rare to get a paid gig for my big band, the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, and then to honor Coltrane's birthday and have enough money to bring in saxophonists Odean Pope and Dave Liebman and vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd. So I took up the offer. At first, Mark let me choose the album, and I thought of Coltrane's last one, Interstellar Space (Impulse!, 1974), which would really have been unique with the big band. Then Mark suggested A Love Supreme, and I sort of winced; it's such a perfect creation. But I agreed to do a work based on it, but just looking at it as a starting point, something to build around, to open up and apply some of my own personal musical ideas.

AAJ: As you may know, there are already several adaptations of A Love Supreme that have already been recorded. Are you familiar with any of them?

BZ: Not very much—but, come to think of it, I went on the web and heard Branford Marsalis soloing on one of the parts. So I have heard Branford do it. He's a wonderful saxophonist. And Jeff "Tain" Watts is really a great drummer.

AAJ: Speaking of drummers, on the original Love Supreme album, Elvin Jones is just out of this world, exceptional even for him. Also, I wanted to ask you if you listened to Coltrane's live concert version on the Deluxe Edition (Impulse!, 2002)?

BZ: Yes, I've had that for years. It's a lot livelier and looser than the studio recording. And it was performed a year after the studio work. Coltrane was evolving so rapidly that he was in a totally other place. It's the same structure, but his playing was more open.

AAJ: Would you call it "free jazz"?

BZ: I don't think you would call it free jazz. Coltrane's language was always very specific. But he expanded things.

AAJ: So now let's focus back on your own version of A Love Supreme. You were asked by Mark Christman to do this for Ars Nova?

BZ: This is not an Ars Nova project. Mark was also involved with the Rotunda, a community arts space near the open air location we're using.

AAJ: I like to explore how musicians think and develop musical concepts. So let's look at your composition. First of all, did you stick to the four-movement structure that Coltrane used?

BZ: Yes. I didn't want to vary that because in a sense they are four distinct pieces of music, and I wanted to use each of them. I had a lead sheet for the first section and had done an arrangement of it a long time ago, but it was very rudimentary. So I began listening to the Coltrane version a lot, and then sitting at the piano, and seeing what I could do. The first section, "Acknowledgement" has two main aspects: The out-of-time introduction, and then the famous bass line and chant. During the same time period, I happened to be working on a project for woodwind quartet plus jazz quartet. So I tried to combine efforts. I worked on a version for the woodwind quartet, which I had to complete sooner for a concert. So I wrote for the quartet, and then reorchestrated it for the big band.

AAJ: So which parts of the Coltrane album did you quote directly, and where did you go your own way?

BZ: Let me go through the process with you. I took the out-of-time intro, where Coltrane plays some arpeggios and long melodic notes. I took those more or less verbatim, and then expanded them. I changed a few notes and changed some keys, moving it around. And I created a certain feeling, out-of-time, trying to get the same feeling Coltrane got, and within that I created some extended chords for the big band, which Odean Pope and Dave Liebman could improvise over, introducing their voices into the equation.

Then there's the second part, where Coltrane chants the words "A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme..." I used those intervallic relationships of the bass line which everyone knows. But I added some rhythmic ideas that I've been working on for a long time. I took the 4/4 rhythm and turned it into a fourteen-beat phrase, a two-three-four-five additive rhythm, creating a kind of rhythmic mode. So after the listener is locked into the simple familiar phrase, I start making it spin on a rhythmic axis, which I think is very exciting. Then I created some cross-rhythms based on those subdivisions, so the listener's head is starting to spin. Then I come back and play the melody, expanded so it fits the rhythmic idea. So you're hearing the original melody, a point of familiarity and comfort, but yet it is asymmetrical. Plus—over this asymmetrical section, I construct something like maybe what Coltrane would've played as a solo, but it's not a solo, but some virtuosic written notes which everyone plays in unison, creating a sort of "super sax" vibe.

And then the solos begin. So that's how I went about that section. And I had the great fortune of using my woodwind quartet to rehearse it! They read so well, and they nailed it, and we got to perform it at the Philadelphia Art Museum Friday Night Jazz series. So I felt very good about that section because it had been tested.

AAJ: When you were writing your version of A Love Supreme, were you actively thinking of Odean Pope and David Liebman doing the solo work?

BZ: I tried to create solo spaces where they could do their thing, so their playing was on my mind.

AAJ: I'm going to ask you a question from a somewhat skeptical viewpoint, but my purpose is to get you to rebut it. To me, Dave Liebman, Odean Pope, and yourself are such individualistic artists, and so different from each other. It's a totally different experience listening to each of you. To me, it seems crazy to try to bring those two guys into your music; how can you possibly successfully bring those diverse styles together?

BZ: I disagree. I think we are very compatible. Dave played with the Warriors once for a festival. Odean and I have played on each other's recordings. I would recommend the Odean Pope Quartet's Fresh Breeze (CIMP, 2010), which includes Odean, myself, Craig McIver on drums and Lee Smith on bass. I think we sound great together. Also, contrasts are sometimes good. Think of Gene Ammons playing with Sonny Stitt, or Johnny Griffin with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. And what about John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders? In fact, Coltrane recorded a couple of outtakes from A Love Supreme with Archie Shepp!

AAJ: You just sold your point; okay, you win [laughter]. That's a perfect counterargument.

Spiritual and Religious Influences

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 composing—on 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.

Other Projects in the Works

AAJ: One final question, what other projects do you have coming up?

BZ: Lots of interesting things. At the Painted Bride [performance space and gallery in Philadelphia] we're going to have two Sundays—October 21 and November 4 [2012]—where we will perform a section from The Spirit's Break to Freedom, a music/dance/video I produced in collaboration with choreographer Germaine Ingram about the practice of slavery in our nation's first President's House.

Also coming up is a commission to write some music based on the work of the visual artist, John Dowell. I'm writing new music and we'll perform it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in conjunction with an exhibit of his art work. I spent time with John Dowell in the 1970s. He would make prints and paintings that in his mind were experienced as if they were musical scores! He was a musician as well as a visual artist. He actually had a band I was in that played at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, the Hirschorn Museum, and places like that. Dowell was a self-taught musician, and I'd give him various things to play on the piano. But the Art Museum is going to have an exhibit of his art work. It's part of a big retrospective of the Brandywine Print Club. I'll be performing a composition I'm writing for that occasion.

Selected Discography

Fred Ho / The Green Monster Big Band, Year of the Tiger (Innova, 2011)

Bobby Zankel & The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, Ceremonies of Forgiveness (Dreambox, 2006)

Tyrone Brown, Between Midnight and Dawn (Dreambox, 2005)

Ruth Naomi Floyd, Fan Into Flame (Contour, 2002)

Bobby Zankel, Transcend & Triumph (CIMP, 2001)

Bobby Zankel, Prayer and Action (CIMP, 1997)

Bobby Zankel, Emerging from the Earth (Cadence, 1995)

Bobby Zankel, Human Flowers (CIMP, 1995)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Bobby Zankel

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