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.
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