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John Coltrane: Exploring the Mystery of A Love Supreme, Part 2

K. Shackelford By

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Part 1 | Part 2

This year marks the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane's album, A Love Supreme. Here is a critical engagement of various parts of A Love Supreme by UC-Berkeley professor and author Dr. Scott Saul. The excerpt is taken from his award winning book Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties. Saul provides a penetrating analysis of the deep spirituality embedded in Coltrane's iconic album, supported by a sharp musical exegesis of various movements of the masterpiece.

Saul writes:

Coltrane forthrightly dramatized that blessing with A Love Supreme, his most famous album and a legacy of his 1957 "spiritual awakening," which led him to reorient himself and give up the drugs and alcohol that had marked his life since the early 1950s. The album is an extended suite devised as a tribute to God, a pilgrim's progress that tracks Coltrane's acknowledgment, pursuit, and discovery of the holy spirit. Recorded in December 1964 and released the following year, it achieved a popularity that was almost magical, given the way that Coltrane's music had previously riven the jazz community. Critics applauded and the public responded also, buying half a million copies by 1970; Down Beat named it album of the year, and Down Beat readers delivered to Coltrane a triple crown—"Jazzman of the Year," best tenor saxophonist, and induction into the magazine's Hall of Fame.

All told, A Love Supreme's success was evidence of a deeper cultural reversal: jazz had gone from being seen as the "devil's music"—music whose appeal lay in its supposed release of unrestrained passions—to a resonant expression of spiritual uplift and gratitude. Like Duke Ellington, who staged his first Sacred Concert with a jazz liturgy in 1965, Coltrane affirmed that jazz could express the deepest of religious longings and even, in Coltrane's case, the most oracular of prophecies. This new ambition led, in turn, to the discovery of a new form. A Love Supreme is one of jazz's great concept albums, a forty-minute suite that links together four different pieces into a larger, circular narrative of spiritual and self-discovery. Its success encouraged Coltrane to pursue the suite form in the more ambitious works of his final years: the clamorous eleven piece Ascension, the underappreciated Meditations (recorded by quartet and sextet), and the series of six spectral duets he recorded with drummer Rashied Ali, released under the title Interstellar Space.

More than Coltrane's earlier music, A Love Supreme presented explicit clues about the nature of the faith behind it and gave listeners a larger musical scaffolding, an album-length narrative, to explore. Coltrane included a poem in the album's packaging, one whose generalized, liturgical language captures the music's elemental drama of submission and empowerment, its faith in the act of surrender and the simultaneous revelation of a supreme force. "I have seen ungodly—none can be greater—none can compare to God," Coltrane wrote. "Thank you God. He will remake us... He always has and he always will." Humility and empowerment, pursuance and constancy: these were the opposites seemingly united, or at least given mutual expression, in Coltrane's suite.

He strove to exemplify how "God breathes through us so completely... so gently we hardly feel it" in his own breathing through his saxophone. And so he was driven to a daunting act of simultaneous impersonation—to be both the pilgrim who surrenders himself to God and the vehicle through which God speaks in his most commanding voice. The poem conveys this sense of self-denying devotion by telling us almost nothing about Coltrane other than his will to serve God ("I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee") and praising God in language that is plain-spoken and stripped of metaphor ("God is. He always was.... No matter what... it is God").

The voice of Coltrane's poem is so self-abnegating that readers might be tempted to consider it artless; yet the poem succeeds largely, like Coltrane's music, by fusing abstraction and a sense of human vulnerability. Its ending—"elation—elegance-exaltation—All from God. Thank you God. Amen."—reads like the destruction of the individual ego in the creation of collective strength, transcendence expressed through gratitude.

I will explain later how Coltrane developed this sound of empowered vulnerability, or vulnerable strength, but first we should consider the structure of A Love Supreme. The suite's structure is what makes it uniquely satisfying among Coltrane's work—or, more precisely, the structure is what gives this piece a greater sense of self-fulfillment, of spiritual resolution, than most of Coltrane's other music, which by contrast conveys the restlessness of transition. A Love Supreme takes the sense of destiny that informed Coltrane's faith—the sense that God "always has and... always will" remake us—and translates it into a musical drama of turbulent resolution, where the act of remaking is suggested through the volatile energies of improvisation, while the sense of resolution is suggested in the suite's larger movement into stasis.

We move through four parts: "Acknowledgment," an open-ended prelude built on a bass ostinato that later folds into the chanting of the words "a love supreme"; "Resolution," an up-tempo cooker that raises the intensity of the suite; "Pursuance," an even more frenetic piece, which begins with an extended Elvin Jones drum solo and seems bursting with improvisatory energy as it strays far from its (small amount of) precomposed thematic material; and "Psalm," a free-form but static saxophone chant where Coltrane "sings," with a note for every syllable, his praise poem "A Love Supreme."

Altogether, the album marvelously balances freedom of form and complexity, looseness and intensity. "Acknowledgment" and "Psalm" frame the piece with double-jointed interplay built around remarkable harmonic constraint (a bass ostinato in the first, a drone on the piano in the second), while "Pursuance" and "Resolution" offer the more familiar Coltrane pleasure of the quartet running through song cycles of twenty-four and twelve bars, respectively.

Let's begin with "Acknowledgment," which guides the listener from humble beginnings to one of jazz's most famous moments of synchronicity. As Lewis Porter has expertly shown, "Acknowledgment" is built around very simple harmonic material, the three notes of F, A-flat, and B-flat. Introduced in a repeated bass figure that propels much of the piece, these three notes form a melodic "cell" that is so adaptable—so easily recoded rhythmically and transposed into different keys—that they serve both as the basis for the bass ostinato and as the building block of Coltrane's 149-bar improvisation. Crucially, they are also the notes that Coltrane, with his love for the abstract sound of fourths and the pentatonic scale, favored more generally: he used them, for instance, at the beginning of "Afro Blue" and (in a different key) "Liberia," "Cousin Mary," and "Equinox."

And so while these notes are rudimentary in conception, at this point in Coltrane's career they unmistakably serve as his musical signature too—the crux of the identity that, as a pilgrim, he places before his God.

Just as Coltrane seemed to strip himself of personality—abstaining not only from alcohol and drugs but also from any gesture that might draw attention to the act of self-presentation (for instance, Charles Mingus's embattled assertion of his genius as a composer, Duke Ellington's love-you-madly bonhomie)—so his musical identity in A Love Supreme is stripped down to the humblest of materials, a mere three notes.

Coltrane was an unlikely cousin of Gertrude Stein, who quipped that compositions must be simple, but simple through complication. He built elaborate structures, with the same unstoppable energy that Stein brought to her voluminous writings, out of purposefully rudimentary beginnings. And, like Stein again, he did so through acts of repetition that were more like conjugations in that they suggested different ways of performing the same action. Through this kind of repetition-based harmonic development, "Acknowledgment" portrays the religious action of spiritual dilation, where the self admits its insignificance so that the spirit can fill the vacuum with its plenitude. Out of its core three notes emerge a whole world of melodic exploration; a minimalist sense of origins dovetails with a maximalist sense of possibility.

As Porter explains, Coltrane conjugates the melodic cell in three ways over his 149-bar solo: first, by intensifying its rhythm, jamming it into a contracted amount of musical space and inserting it around the downbeat; second, by playing it on the full range of his saxophone, climaxing with purposeful strain on ascents into the altissimo register (up to a fifth above the usual top f "); and third, by transposing it into keys other than its home key of F minor—in fact, into keys quite dissonantly related to F minor. In the first 120 measures of his solo Coltrane employs all three methods, playing ingenious, rhythmically jammed, harmonically ripped variations on the melodic cell. Often he strings together consecutive versions of the cell (for instance in measures 33 to 43, with the two groups C-E-flat—F and F—A-flat-B-flat) and plays with a doubled, six-note motif that completes a pentatonic scale.

These acts of melodic addition and manipulation prepare the way for a conclusion that is stunning, by contrast, in its transparency of technique. At measure 121 Coltrane begins playing the bass ostinato on his saxophone. Then he modulates it intact through a series of keys—up a step to G, down to D, up to A-flat, and so on—until he has cycled through every key possible. Finally, after twenty-six of these modulations, he returns to the home key of F and then, putting down his saxophone, begins chanting the four-syllable phrase "a love supreme" over the four-note ostinato, with an added voice adding heft. The voices continue chanting for forty seconds over Jones's Afro-Latin accents and Tyner's punctuating quartal chords.

In A Love Supreme's drama of spiritual perfection, this moment of chanting feels especially perfect—and although it's easy to speculate why, it's more difficult to capture the sensation.

Partly it is the appeal of voices in unison: Coltrane's quartet usually operates through loosely interlocking grooves, so it is a small wonder to hear bass and voices singing together. The excess in Coltrane's sound has been pared away, the need for heightened drama has disappeared, and we feel clarity, relief. But this relief is infused by the strangeness of hearing Coltrane's actual voice, the strangeness of him chanting in a register that is close to the relaxed tones of everyday speech. We are accustomed to hearing his voice through his instrument, and locked in extreme struggle with it, squawking, honking, screeching—doing everything, that is, except talking serenely. At least for this brief moment of chanting, he seems to have surpassed the resources of his instrument and found a new, calm voice. Ironically, he becomes God's explicit vehicle by dropping his saxophone, the instrument that has brought him to this point of transcendence but now seems a mere accessory.

Perhaps most crucially, though, the power of this moment comes from our sense that a preordained design has just been revealed to us. Coltrane's solo had been tending toward the four-note, four-syllable mantra the entire course of his solo and we had not realized it. For this reason, the ending of "Acknowledgment" satisfies the listener in unusual ways. Unlike most jazz arrangements, which cycle after the solos back to a restatement of the head, "Acknowledgment" cycles to a revelation of the head: the central melody precipitates out of the solo.

Moreover, Coltrane has seeded this unison moment of revelation with a series of gestures that seem to make a systematic point. By playing the ostinato in every key and register immediately before the chant, he works to illustrate his poem's central proposition: "In You [God] all things are possible." He seems to be willfully testing the boundaries of dissonance, suggesting that "a love supreme" can bless even the most dissonant notes with the ability to sound as though they have their place. He conjures a universe where noise and harmony can merge, where every individual, no matter how errant, can succeed in the fulfillment of some larger design. The small melodic cell may begin as Coltrane's private signature, but its infinite transformation suggests that it might just be ours too.

Just as "Acknowledgment" moves from peaceful simplicity to tense energy and then back to an act of restful recapitulation, the whole of A Love Supreme moves in a larger arc from relaxation to intensity and then to peace. Coltrane follows "Acknowledgment" with "Resolution" and "Pursuance," both of which ratchet up the energy of the quartet. The tempo accelerates, the quartet's interplay becomes more dense, and Coltrane's playing in particular becomes more digressive and chromatic, recalling the sweat soaked 1961 Village Vanguard performance of "Chasin' the Trane."

The oddly titled "Resolution" is the movement that departs most dramatically from "Acknowledgment"'s central melodic cell and the pentatonic scale. It has a keening eight-bar melody, repeated three times with slight variations at its end, which descends inventively down an octave. Beginning on a high E-flat, it climbs down to rest on the dissonant flat fifth (A), then segues through the harmonic minor (G-flat) to the lower E-flat.

The flat fifth and harmonic minor foreshadow the direction of Coltrane's subsequent improvisation, which twists through a distinctly chromatic solo. "Pursuance," meanwhile, reintroduces "Acknowledgment"'s melodic cell, but in a disguised form. As Porter explains, Coltrane shrewdly plays the cell in "Pursuance's" theme but transposes it to the scale of C, even as the rest of the quartet uses B-flat as its tonal center. Thus does Coltrane recall A Love Supreme's original motive while placing it out of joint; and remarkably, his improvisation remains on this raised path, his explorations of the pentatonic C scale set against the B-flat ruminations of Tyner and Garrison. It's as if Coltrane were operating in a universe parallel to Tyner and Garrison—one that allows him to mimic them but keeps him from a richer identification. Here Coltrane uses the suite form to test the limits of unity—both the unity that joins past and present (the first and third movements, joined by the three-note cell), and the unity that joins self and other (Coltrane and his bandmates, joined by the improvising in the pentatonic scale).

What is the point of this grand performance, spun out of the most rudimentary materials? "Psalm," the final installment of A Love Supreme, underscores that the larger logic of the piece is one of self-sacrifice: Coltrane is trying to dramatize the integrity, ubiquity, and power of God through a paradoxically empowering act of self-limitation and self-purification. As in a black church service, the ritual of the chant—the preaching of the word and the gestures of call and response between preacher (Coltrane) and congregation (the rest of the quartet)—create a vacuum that the Holy Spirit then floods with energy. After "Resolution," which strays far from the three-note cell, and after "Pursuance," which reintroduces the three-note cell but does it askew, Coltrane ends with a harmonically static saxophone chanting of his praise poem. It is a performance whose beauty emerges out of a controlling set of compositional restraints. As we noted earlier, Coltrane follows his own praise poem note for syllable, with each poetic phrase joined to a musical phrase.

The repeated phrase "Thank you God," for instance, corresponds with a three-note figure that varies slightly and returns us emphatically to the tonic. All the musicians perform in a C-minor force field with a strong gravitational pull: Tyner rocks on G—C--G in his left hand, Garrison sticks largely to the signposts of C minor, and even Coltrane the perennial wanderer does not deviate from the minor pentatonic scale. "Psalm" extends the recitative texture of the opening moments of "Liberia" over its entirety. For seven minutes, Coltrane sings rubato over Jones's splashing cymbals and rolling timpani. Because "Psalm"'s static harmonies limit the eventfulness of the piece, we are especially attuned to its larger dynamic, the drama of a saxophone preaching to its congregation. In this case, of course, Coltrane has literalized the metaphor of his saxophone as the voice of a preacher, with his poem "A Love Supreme" serving as his sermon.

For Saul's analysis on Psalm, check out Part I.

Courtesy of Scott Saul. Excerpted from Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Harvard University Press, 2004).

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