Whether you believe in God or not, (I personally do) I think it’s safe to say that Man generally searches for some sort of enlightenment, focus or purpose for living throughout their lives. This search might lead to God, it might lead to a God-substitute such as money or fame, or it may lead to dissatisfaction. Some search and find meaning in something, others search and find meaning in nothing, but the point is that I believe all people search for this enlightenment; God or otherwise. John Coltrane searched through music. His saxophone playing revealed an intense desire and burning passion that could not be expressed through words. In many of his later albums, his music took on an elegiac or prayer-like quality, often meditative and yearning, as though he were searching for answers to all of life’s great questions. In A Love Supreme, his musical gifts and spirituality combined to produce the zenith of his career; a hugely powerful, personal work that reveals more of Coltrane’s innermost thoughts and desires than any interview or explanation could offer. In working with his regular quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, the music has a wholeness, a feeling of unity and belonging that came from their almost 3 year time together. While Coltrane is clearly the leader and the creator of such a masterwork, each musician shares his desire to give their all for some higher purpose.
The 4 long tracks make up a whole suite, and are named Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, Psalm, suggesting a link between them all as part of a quest to achieve purity, a cleansing of sins. In the Acknowledgement, Coltrane acknowledges his own sins, his failures and spiritual struggles. The playing from the quartet is mournful and deliberate, with a steady pulsating bass and elegiac piano that allows Coltrane’s sax to be our focus. His playing ventures from the lower to the upper registers of the instrument, suggesting his far-reaching search for his God. When he hits those low notes, we feel him realizing his impurity, and when the high notes are played they appear to be a struggle, like he can’t quite reach them. Symbolic I believe of his attempts to reach God; coming close to him, but never fully grasping him. The final “acknowledgement” in this suite comes at the end when he firstly starts playing melodic variations on the bassline and then chanting “A Love Supreme” along with it. He has recognized it, the love that he yearns for.
Resolution is a faster, more frenzied track that seems to suggest that although he is glad to have experienced his spiritual awakening, he is realizing that the way is hard; there are many trials and hardships to overcome. It’s perhaps less overtly joyous but loses none of the commitment we heard in the first track. Pursuance is exactly what it sounds like; a chase after this new found understanding. The drums become wilder with Elvin Jones hitting flurry after flurry of cymbal crashes, and each of the musicians has their own solo, a chance to display their own pursuance. McCoy Tyner’s expositional piano solo cascades up and down the keys and Coltrane’s is typical of his “sheets of sound” approach, whereby he blasts out clusters of notes incredibly quickly in a sense of urgency and tumult. Indeed, this improvisational style was unique to Coltrane, and it reveals his intense personal longing. After the hugely dense band performance, Jones is offered a brief drum solo before Jimmy Garrison’s quiet, contemplative bass solo segues the song into the final part of the suite, Psalm. Purportedly Coltrane’s sax plays along with a devotional poem that had written for the liner notes: in other words, he plays a note for every syllable in the poem. Thus the music itself becomes a wordless poem, a dedication of gratitude to his God. It’s perhaps the most abstract thing on here, with no particular time signature and percussion provided by gongs, timpani and washes of cymbals that have a dirge-like quality. Yet it is astoundingly beautiful; an intimate piece of work that’s honest and full of reverence. Coltrane’s saxophone playing is at its most deeply emotional here. Given the words of the poem, this is no surprise: it’s a very personal poem expressing his exuberance and devotion to God. I quote from the poem in the liner notes: “God breathes through us so completely, so gently we hardly feel it, yet it is our everything. Thank you God. ELATION-ELEGANCE-EXALTATION. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.”
A Love Supreme isn’t strictly an album dedicated to the Judeo-Christian God. (Coltrane said he believed “in all religions”) It’s a symbol of the struggle that many go through in order to receive answers about life and indeed life after death. It won’t alienate anybody of any religion or anybody who has no religion: it is, after all, mostly instrumental, besides the chant of “A Love Supreme” in the first part of the suite. Indeed, without thinking of the spiritual inspiration behind it, it can be enjoyed as a brilliant jazz album; one that swings, challenges and excites. But to ignore the strong religious themes reduces this album from being a fantastic album into a simply great one. You don’t have to believe in what Coltrane did in order to hear the struggles and desires he felt when making this album. It’s as honest and soul-baring an album as you’re ever likely to hear.
Words - Adam