The Coltrane that will not let me go

Coming in at an instant less than 33 minutes in length, John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" may constitute the most important musical half-hour many of us ever have -- or ever will -- spend. Recorded on the influential Impulse label on December, 9, 1964, "A Love Supreme" has been continuously available ever since and its status as a jazz monument only seems to become more firmly rooted in popular opinion as time passes.

Thousands of us music lovers ignorantly managed, however, not to hear the album until Coltrane was already dead three years later and a good many of us came to the recording and to Coltrane's large catalogue of work through the back door of rock.

A personal experience: Like many teenagers, I was smitten by the adventure of rock 'n' roll's transformation to rock during the final half of the 1960s. And, like many, I was a prolific reader of fan magazines in which musicians I admired talked about their influences, charted their growth and opined about the musicians important to the maturation of string-bean, adolescent pop into something of more aesthetic weight. Frequently mentioned were Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and John Coltrane.

But it wasn't until Coltrane died in July 1967 that his influence penetrated my adolescent brain. Bear in mind that the flow of modal forms into jazz already had been well-established in the 1950s, but the sounds of India didn't make their way into pop music until the winter of 1965, when Beatle George Harrison unleashed his sitar on "Norwegian Wood." After that, "rock" stood on its own and the "roll" was seldom heard of again. Typical of the progressively sophisticated use of modes in rock was the work of The Byrds, an American group that featured a jangly, jet-engine trademark sound pinned to an unabashed blend of electric guitars with the folk music and topical song of the Bob Dylan oeuvre.

Upon Coltrane's death, Byrds David Crosby and Roger McGuinn gave a cogent interview in which they discussed Trane's influence on their music -- specifically through the vehicle of "A Love Supreme" -- and McGuinn freely admitted to stealing one of his riffs for the 12-string solo a Byrds cut titled "Eight Miles High." This was a revelation to rock fans unschooled in the intricacies of jazz, and I was admiring enough of The Byrds to go looking for "A Love Supreme," surely the first among equals in Trane's huge recorded output.

In those days, at least half the pleasure of owning a new vinyl LP consisted in reading the liner notes as the platter spun on the turntable for the first time. As I recall, the album cover was a gatefold and, inside, I found a long meditation/poem by Coltrane in praise of the Almighty and a message addressed to the listener that explained the conception behind the recording's four sections and thanking, among others, his sidemen, the ever-artful drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner.
The four sections of the suite -- "Acknowledgement," "Resolution," "Pursuance" and "Psalm" -- are, not surprisingly, the musical equivalent of the long walk down a spiritual path that begins with a surrender to something greater than oneself and eventually ends with a psalm of praise that itself stands both as a monument to final understanding and as a mile-marker that points the way farther along for those who will follow. "Resolution" is perhaps the most familiar theme of the piece, in which the pilgrim hits his stride in his path to "Pursuance," a vigorous and engaged journey for knowledge which, with Tyner's frenetic runs and chords, wedded with Jones and Garrison's solid rhythm of the road, gives one the impression of our pilgrim skipping, tripping and, often, running headlong and scarily out of balance for the end of his journey, pausing occasionally for breather, as when Garrison takes an extended solo, but pushing ever forward.

It is widely observed that "A Love Supreme" is perhaps not Coltrane's most accessible piece of work. But even those of us who make that admission know that the two years' worth of recordings that remained to him are even more confounding to the unpracticed ear than some of the unfamiliar sounds that emanate from this, his masterpiece.

In addition to its many virtues -- the conciseness, the vibe, the earnestness, the logic, the motive -- "A Love Supreme" always will have pride of place on my music shelf because it stands as the pinnacle of Trane's tenor saxophone performances. To be sure, he took a lot from his predecessors -- Sidney Bechet comes to mind -- and opened a gate for soprano players. But I've always felt that the tenor was his first and last love and that his tone on "A Love Supreme" is some of his best on record.

So there it is. "A Love Supreme" forever changed my understanding of where the pop music I grew up loving came from, and it also has pointed the way to where the music of my mature years is going. For 35 years, it has not let me go. Like Miles Davis' "Kind Of Blue," it is forever fresh.