This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the iconic album ‘A Love Supreme’ by John Coltrane. The album is a four-part ‘suite’ (with a running-time of only 33 minutes) that is frequently listed as one of the most important or influential albums in the history of jazz. The album was written as an expression of Coltrane’s gratitude to God and is widely understood to be a reflection of his spiritual quest, arising from his personal struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. It comprises 4 thematically-linked tracks: (1) Acknowledgement, (2) Resolution, (3) Pursuance, and (4) Psalm.
My admiration for this record has nothing to do with Coltrane’s faith or spirituality. As an atheist, I have no religious connection to the music and I do not believe that such a connection is necessary in order to engage with the work. I love the music and feel that it was (and continues to be) an eye-opener for me with regard to the approach to improvisation, the development of melodic ideas and the ensemble interaction. So, here’s a short list of the musical reasons for my love of this incredible album. There is very little in the way of analysis of the music and I do not intend to draw any conclusions – this post is simply me, as an admirer of the album, providing some insight into why I love it. Please feel free to comment below and add your own reasons to the list – I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this music.
1: The Voice
One of the most immediately distinguishing aspects of Coltrane’s playing is the ‘hard-edged’, ‘bleak’, ‘trebly’ tone of his tenor saxophone playing. For some people (myself included) this lends a sense of urgency and focus to the overall impression of his sound and is one of the reasons that his playing is so mesmerising at times and startling at others. For other people, his sound lacks the warmth and humanity of some of his tenor-playing contemporaries, such as Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon or Wayne Shorter. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy the sound of Coltrane’s tenor playing the first track of this album ‘Acknowledgement’ provides the listener with an opportunity to hear his human voice which is, in contrast to his tenor playing, husky, vulnerable, imprecise and almost bashful in its delivery.
At approximately 6 minutes, we hear Coltrane ‘chanting’ the phrase ‘A Love Supreme’ to the melody of the main bass riff (see below), introduced earlier in the track. To me, this immediately humanises the track and forges an imagined personal connection with Coltrane and the music he is making. If we listen carefully, we hear that this has been double-tracked. This, I believe, acknowledges the fragility of his voice, however, the effect is that the overdubbed vocal lends support and gives the impression of multiple voices chanting in unison. I distinctly remember hearing the album for the first time when I was around 19 years old and feeling quite sentimental because (a) I was hearing, for the first time, the voice of someone who was rapidly becoming my musical hero or idol at that point (clearly this was made before it was common for recording artists to provide interviews and soundbites for every release) (b) that the human voice was so different to what I had imagined based on the sound of his ‘instrumental voice’.
2: The Riff
I would imagine that, for most people, one of the most memorable parts of this record is the main riff (see transcription, below) which is first introduced in ‘Acknowledgement’ and then explored throughout the rest of the album in various ways. Also, as noted above, this is the melody that is sung when we hear Coltrane chanting ‘A Love Supreme’.
To me, the riff is so simple and inviting that it really acts as a hook which draws the listener in and succinctly provides an insight into the harmonic and stylistic content of the music that follows. Although it consists of only 3 distinct notes, it strongly suggests the F minor pentatonic scale, which in turn, is laden with connotations of the blues and many forms of folk music (the implications of this are a discussion for another day) – areas of music that Coltrane spent a great deal of time studying and incorporating into his own improvisational style.
This is far more than just a great bass riff (and vocal melody) – it is used and recycled, throughout the entire album. One particularly interesting instance of this is towards the end of Coltrane’s solo on ‘Acknowledgement’ (around 4:53):
Coltrane, having essentially finished his somewhat exploratory improvisation returns to the riff in the original key but then immediately transposes it into various unrelated keys, while the basic F minor pedal is continued by the band. By the end of the track, he has transposed it into every key before returning to the original (F minor) and then continuing on vocals. This is very unusual for Coltrane as an improvisational strategy and I think that it is being used as a clear signifier to the listener that this riff is a fundamental element of the composition and that it is ‘omnipresent’ (this, given the background to the music, can clearly also be read as a reference to the supposed omnipresence of God).
3: The Blues
Another fascinating aspect of this album is the extent to which the blues is present. Anyone with a knowledge of Coltrane’s back catalogue will be aware of just how frequently he played and recorded blues tunes throughout his career – there is even an album called ‘Coltrane Plays the Blues’ (although the is essentially a compilation of tracks recorded for Atlantic Records during the My Favourite Things sessions). As described above, the main riff/idea from which the material on this album seems to be derived is very reminiscent of the blues both in terms of the intervals (and the inference of the minor pentatonic) but also the performance. Interestingly, however, in the context of this album which is largely modal, the third track ‘Pursuance’ is a (minor) blues in Bb minor. The track begins with a drum solo by Elvin Jones and then quickly develops into an up-tempo 12 bar (minor) blues. This fast tempo and regularly repeating form is, perhaps, intended to reflect the title – it feels like a pursuit – but it is also a perfect vehicle for Coltrane and the other musicians to reference and explore the pentatonic basis of much of the melodic content on the album. The following image is a transcription of the first chorus of Coltrane’s solo on this track:
As we can see this is entirely based on the F minor pentatonic scale – as is the vast majority of the rest of the tenor solo on this track. This is the same scale that the main riff is based on (see above) – or, at least, strongly suggests -and it seems that this blues context is an ideal environment for Coltrane and the other musicians (Tyner, especially) to develop this original source material.
4: The Lack of Voice
Having started this list talking about the fact that I love the presence of Coltrane’s voice on this record, I want to finish it by making reference to the final track of the album ‘Psalm’ in which the voice is not present. The reason that the lack of voice in this track is significant is that the saxophone melody is a ‘wordless recitation’ of a pre-written devotional poem by Coltrane. Again, the textual content of the poem is not where my interest in this piece lies – rather the way in which it was used musically. Coltrane uses the text as a score and ‘plays’ the words while the rest of the quartet accompany him in free time. Again, this provides a human connection with the musicians for the listener but, it also results in a track which has an entirely different feel. There is no sense of swing or groove in this track at all – the melody and the musicians’ interaction is key. To me, this is a beautiful example of ensemble playing in which all the musicians are striving to support each other and to create coherent music. The following video illustrates this beautifully in Coltrane’s own handwriting: