October 21, 2020


John Coltrane: Ballads/A Love Supreme (Jacob Nierenberg, 10/21/20, Spectrum Culture)

Coltrane found God in 1957 after several years of heroin abuse and alcoholism, which had stalled his career. (He'd been fired from Davis' First Great Quintet for his addictions, though the trumpeter would hire Coltrane again the following year.) Suddenly, the troubled-but-brilliant saxophone player experienced what he referred to in A Love Supreme's liner notes as "a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life," and took to his craft with renewed purpose. He signed to Atlantic Records in 1959 and released his seminal Giant Steps in 1960, the same year he began working with pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. But it wasn't until Coltrane moved to Impulse! Records and formed the classic lineup of his quartet with the addition of bassist Jimmy Garrison that he began recording his most forward-thinking material, from the big-band sound of Africa/Brass to the free-jazz squalls of Ascension and Meditations.

Although A Love Supreme was released just two years before Coltrane's death, it sits at the fulcrum of his career and remains the most common entry point into his body of work. Deeply spiritual but never didactic, stylistically restless but never esoteric, it strikes the perfect balance between its creator's more accessible and more experimental poles, which is all the more surprising given how late he was in his career when he recorded it. (Given Coltrane's many posthumous releases, it sits at about the midpoint of his discography.) It's often lumped into the category of "avant-garde" jazz, but it's not avant-garde in the sense that it abandons jazz traditions and forms so much as it draws from various strains of the genre. A Love Supreme, like almost every other great jazz album of its decade, owes a debt to Kind of Blue for popularizing modal jazz, a style of playing that eschews conventional chord changes in favor of fluid improvisation around scales. But you can also hear hard bop in Tyner's blocky piano chords on "Resolution" and "Pursuance" as he backs up Coltrane; when it's Tyner's turn to solo on these tracks, it sounds like he's playing in both styles at once. You can even pick out bits of free jazz in Coltrane's wilder solos, months before he threw himself headlong into the subgenre.

But it also makes sense to talk about how A Love Supreme works in terms of moods, not just in terms of chords and notes. The four movements on A Love Supreme feel like an emotional odyssey: they rise and fall, together on the macroscale and within themselves. From its opening gong to Coltrane's chanting the album's title, "Acknowledgement" feels like an awakening, hinting at something beyond what the music or the words "a love supreme" can convey. There's a similar electricity to "Pursuance," which features solos from all four members of the quartet: Jones and Garrison get full minutes to themselves, with Garrison's deep, brooding plucks leading into the somber final movement, "Psalm." Coltrane's saxophone takes on an almost mournful quality on "Psalm," bearing more resemblance to "Alabama"--Coltrane's dirge for the four girls murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing--than to his playing on "Acknowledgement" and "Pursuance," which demonstrate the dense but breathtakingly fluid runs of notes (what jazz historian Ira Gitler dubbed "sheets of sound") that were unique to Coltrane even in his pre-Atlantic albums.

Posted by at October 21, 2020 6:36 PM