Wednesday, April 16, 2014

47 A Love Supreme (1965) John Coltrane

1. A Love Supreme Part I: Acknowledgement
2. A Love Supreme Part II - Resolution
3. A Love Supreme, Part III: Pursuance
4. A Love Supreme, Part IV-Psalm

On paper this looks like a truly terrible idea. It's one of those albums that just doesn't work when you describe it to someone.

It's basically an attempt to mix Jazz and religion which theoretically shouldn't work. With all respect to God, I'm not sure what place he has in modern Jazz. Miles Davis never gave the almighty much credit mainly because he felt God should be paying him dues and not the other way around. Other jazz artists are too entrenched in wine, women and song to be taking the time to pause in prayer. But then religion and jazz aren't so diametrically opposed to make the juxtaposition in any way interesting at first glance. Rock, Metal and Rap are all effectively anti-religious so adding elements of religion and creating Christian Rock, Christian Metal and Christian Hip Hop can actually make for an interesting experience. Some of it is terrible obviously, but subverting the genre works sometimes as well.

Jazz just feels like it should be focusing on smokey clubs with one eye in the bedroom not focused at all on church.

As if combining religion and jazz wasn't bad enough, Coltrane insists on adding a repetitive mantra to his music. Jazz should be allowed to free form off wherever it wants to go. It should soar away on wings into unchartered territories and meander off to happy places that nobody thought it would go. It shouldn't be tied down. I have favourite jazz albums that I listen to often but I can't actually hum you any of because there's no repetitive melody that gets stuck in my head. Coltrane deliberated wanted to anchor his music in a single repetitive mantra. It appears early on as a baseline but later he has the temerity to sing it. I say sing but I really mean chant. Coltrane repeats the phrase "A love supreme" over and over without much melodic variation. 

Religious jazz music with chanting sounds bad enough but Coltrane takes things a step further and plays a poem on his sax. Coltrane sat down one afternoon and wrote what is basically a love poem to god complete with King James English. The poem appeared in the liner notes and there's a reason it doesn't make it into anthologies of great poetry, or even anthologies of great religious poetry or even anthologies of great poetry written by black guys and it probably wouldn't even make it into anthologies of great poetry written by sax players. It's a bit formless and clunky and sounds like a stream of conciseness written by a guy who is really a big fan of God but not averse to partaking in the sort of substances normally frowned upon by organised religion: "Thought waves--heat waves--all vibrations--all paths lead to God."  I've never heard heatwaves in any religious poetry I've ever encountered. It also wanders between addressing an audience and directly addressing God which makes it a bit confusing at times. "With all we share God.It is all with God.It is all with Thee." 

Someone should have stopped Coltrane at some point. When he went into a studio and said "I want to make a religous jazz album with a repetitive mantra and a formless poem without a recognised meter that I'm going to play on my sax... someone should have said "John, no. Stick to what you're good at"

But the thing is that it works. It really does. The mantra on its own would be kind of annoying but used in moderation in the midst of some magnificent jazz music it actually works as an excellent counterpoint to everything else that's going on. Whenever I hear the title of this album I can't help but start chanting "A love supreme" over and over again in my head and it's not actually an unwelcome presence. You wouldn't know that Coltrane's soling is his attempt to replicate a poem with his instrument but even if you do it doesn't take away from the fact that the guy can really play. 

The thing is that creating a religious jazz album with a mantra is definitely a bad idea in the same way that climbing to the top of Mount Everest is a bad idea. It all depends on who has come up with the notion in the first place. For the vast majority of people a jaunt up the tallest mountain in the world is a terrible idea but for Edmund Hilary it was a triumph. Mantra-laden jazz albums would be a bad idea for pretty everyone except someone as insanely talented as John Coltrane. It helps that he's backed himself with some other incredible talents on other instruments. Jimmy Garrison on double bass, Elvin Jones on drums and McCoy Tyner on Piano were huge talents in their own right and had been playing with Coltrane for long enough to bond well as a tight quartet and not just a collection of players. 

If you haven't heard A Love Supreme then I strongly suggest you do. It's a crazy notion but a near perfect jazz album and worth your time getting to know. Who knows, it might just be a religious experience.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "But now there are many sax players that can play better than Coltrane, they are much polished and straight. I think about Kenny G., for instance. His rythmic session is much more regular, whereas Coltrane's session seems sometimes to loose the beat. "

-You've just said Kenny G is better than Coltrane. There are people who would feel that was a sin punishable by death.

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