A Love Supreme is simply beautiful—a work of art that causes one to examine oneself and dig deeper into ones emotional existence. When I first heard this album two years ago, I was confused by the different sound that Coltrane explores in this four-part orchestration. It was unclear to me how John Coltrane, a hard-bop “bebop” musician that I grew up listening to, was playing tonal music and compositions that focused on the purity of the melody. In A Love Supreme, Coltrane is searching for the core of his sound. He explores the spirituality of his music and is accepting how his talents come from a higher being. In a sense, Coltrane was showing gratitude.
Now, A Love Supreme is one of those albums that involve a broader historical context before truly understanding the intent behind this monumental album.
John Coltrane began playing in high school, highly influenced by the great saxophone masters like Lester Young and Johnny Hodges. After high school, Coltrane continued his musical studies in Philadelphia, later going off to war. Upon his return, John Coltrane began exploring and establishing his purpose as a musician. Highly intrigued by the works of Coleman Hawkins and other leading musicians at the time like Jimmy Heath, Coltrane developed a passion for experimentation and decided to devote his career to innovating and continuing to evolve musically. It was then that he worked with trumpeter Miles Davis and found the freedom he was searching for to propel him into establishing his musical approach. From then on, Coltrane began touring with his own quartet composed of pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison. They recorded popular monumental selling albums like Giant Steps, Impressions, Blue Train, and My Favorite Things. This group later became his rhythm section for A Love Supreme.
Coltrane’s musical career can easily be separated into two eras: the hard bop era and the spiritual era. Although there is no distinction on when Coltrane transitioned into his spiritual period, many agree that A Love Supreme was the first album that identified this new sound. This change in sound is apparent by the open and free tonal centers that each of his compositions explored. Coltrane is no longer playing over complicated changes that somehow found its way to exploring every key. He is also no longer focusing on the structure of the tune but rather the melody of the tune. In this album, Coltrane defines his musical voice and explores the tonality that surrounds it. Usually staying in one key, John Coltrane establishes his sound and breaks down an emotional barrier, setting his soul free and allowing his music to uncover a new identity. Coltrane also believed that his music can cause a conscious change in a person and bring on a positive effect through the sounds he made. A Love Supreme definitely presents Coltrane’s musical purpose to lead others both mentally and emotionally. This album not only changed his musical style but influenced others musicians as well.
Now, A Love Supreme is like a story, a musical journey within itself. Each individual track is unique and contributes to the album as a whole, creating an overall effect. The album begins with him questioning and exploring the tonal center. He is establishing his boundaries and “acknowledging” his purpose for this album. Setting up the mood, Coltrane opens his music to be a spiritual haven. The first song “Acknowledgement” starts off with a gong that quickly disappears as Coltrane makes a musical cadenza. Then, out of the chaos, the bass comes in with a reoccurring rhythmic line that John Coltrane picks up and explores. It is this line that he continues to resort back to. It is like his lifeline back to reality as he finds himself lost in the dark realm of his music. Playing simple lines that flow over the rhythm section, you can hear the piano, bass, and drums holding a strong groove. At the end of Coltrane’s solo, a monotone chant is heard in the background which later diminishes into a bass solo. This is a transition into the next track entitled “Resolution”. Now this song is different from the first track in that it has a strong harmonic melody. It flows more smoothly and fluidly. It sounds like Coltrane has found his way back, playing stronger and more upfront. Continuing to venture out and explore during his solo, Coltrane introduces a familiarity in his modern sound and structure of his solos—starts off with a strong harmonic pattern and develops it. “Resolution” ends with a common lick that the group plays as they slowly fade into the next song, “Pursuance”. Now, this is my least favorite song on this album in that it doesn’t contribute too much to the overarching theme. This tune is very high energy and busy which I find to contradict Coltrane’s purpose for this album. During the saxophone solo, Coltrane plays on the harsher end of his sound. Although he still maintains the idea of focusing on a strong melody, this song, overall, seems out-of-place. Yet, “Pursuance” does give off a climactic feeling and does create a distinct contrast which allows “Psalms”, the next song, to shine. “Psalms” is the last part in this four-part suite and it goes back to the open tonal center found in the first song. The only difference is that this song presents a different sound in that Coltrane plays softly and more harmonically. It appears to be that Coltrane has finally found peace in his soul and is expressing his gratitude for God; a peace that delivers a purity and beauty in the warmth of Coltrane’s sound.
After listening to this album again, I find more respect for Coltrane as a musician and as a person. His music, especially this album, directly reflects who he is as a person. From the warmth of his sound and the beauty in how he constructs his solos, I more and more want to mirror my playing to match this great jazz legend. As a tenor saxophonist myself, I listen in awe because I am constantly reminded that music is more than just entertaining. Music is expressing your deepest thoughts, dilemmas, feelings, and ideas. It is also a unique voice that speaks stronger than any word. No matter what you say, it is how you say it. This album confirms that you do not need to play “a lot of notes” in order to truly get your message across. As long as you hold a strong melody and play with conviction, your sound and idea will be heard. Also, I learned that the power of music can influence more than just other musicians. It can influence anyone who is open to listening and understanding. Music is the universal language. It will connect with anyone no matter who they are, what language they speak, where they come from, and/or what nationality they are. John Coltrane has really shown that a love for music reigns supreme, “A love supreme”.