Spotlight: John Coltrane – ‘A Love Supreme’

A titanic spiritual statement...

Around the time he started taking heroin (because Charlie Parker took heroin), John Coltrane wrote a piece of music – his first – called 'Nothing Beats A Trial But A Failure'. At the end of its first practice, he threw it into the gutter.

Then, "during the year 1957," as Coltrane says in the liner notes to 'A Love Supreme', "I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening." That year, Thelonius Monk hired him, and he quit heroin and alcohol. He also met McCoy Tyner, who later played piano in Coltrane's great quartet – the quartet – along with Jimmy Garrison and the extraordinary, riotous drummer, Elvin Jones.

In the summer of 1964, Alice Coltrane saw her husband walk down their stairs "like Moses coming down from the mountain.” In his hand, a piece of music, on which he'd written a direction: "attempt to reach transcendent blissful stability." And Coltrane did reach it on December 9th1964, when he recorded 'A Love Supreme' in one day.

'A Love Supreme' is the sound of a man reconciled to himself or, rather, to a journey: the self as a state of being, of motion – as Mickey Dolenz, drummer of that other great mystical outfit The Monkees, said: “God is a verb.”

This album is dizzying, compact, yearning, sated, screaming, ohmming, rigorous, robed, naked. It is both open-hearted and challenging, ascetic and passionately democratic. If God is a verb, 'A Love Supreme' is this 'and', this conjunction; an action uniting very different experiences in the same time and space.

Coltrane, he says, had been given the "privilege to make others happy through music." His notion of happiness was not uncomplicated. He told an interviewer that "it would not be honest… to sacrifice my personal search for the satisfaction of my fans." Coltrane's music is always an attempt to speak with honesty. If it ends up in the gutter, so be it. Honesty must cost something. And Coltrane valued his audience too highly to deceive us.

Hence 'A Love Supreme', addressed to his "Dear Listener". It begins with the 'Acknowledgement'. Coltrane plays a pattern of D, E, F-sharp, G, A-flat and F, shadowing a poem of thanks he wrote in the liner notes. This pattern rises in offering: sinuous, rich as a spiral of votive smoke.

As it ascends, the pattern forces Coltrane to skip one line in the poem: "In you all things are possible." Only God can do everything – even John Coltrane's been humbled. So he puts down his saxophone, his strength, and sings: "A love supreme. A love supreme. A love supreme."

If this sounds like a chore, blame me. 'A Love Supreme' is half an hour of cohesive, highly felt, almost telepathic playing. Coltrane and Jones pop. It's never grandiose. It does not play God. Rather, it perfectly recreates the feeling being in the presence of the sublime.

Call it good. Call it bad. It is perfect. This is the sound of a formidable artist consigning himself to the awestruck limitations of his voice. Like everyone's capable of making this declaration of love. You. Me. Coltrane believes we all have the freedom to raise voices of our own.

“A love supreme. A love supreme. A love supreme.”

Words: Freddy Syborn

– – –

Buy Clash Magazine
Get Clash on your mobile, for free: iPhone / Android

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.