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
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.