It is one of the most iconic openings in musical history. Those first few seconds of A Love Supreme are infinitely recognisable to jazz music aficionados and instantly alluring to those hearing it for the first time.
From the first few seconds of the record, Coltrane hints at something magic. With the opening Asian gong and cymbal washes, the listener is plunged straight into a curious album with many musical meanderings, missing meanings and the feel of a smoky late-night underground jazz club.
A Love Supreme
Pt. I – Acknowledgement
So then begins A Love Supreme, a musical suite split into four parts. Sonically, the record is actually a continuous, non-repetitive piece of music. The style is very John Coltrane, with a solid and recurring rhythm background that is often furious. You can hear an ocean of noise from rumbling snare drums to crashing symbols and slinky bass.
On top of this, Coltrane improvises wild free jazz with his saxophone. The almost eight minutes long opening track “Acknowledgement” starts calmly and then descends into a chaos of chords. Towards the end, the song very slowly takes a step back, Coltrane and another male voice chanting ‘a love supreme’ over and over again as though possessed by a sombre hymn.
Each instrument then takes its lead to withdraw from the noise one by one, before we are left with light tiptoes from the bass. By the end of the track, we are back into silence. Contemplation, perhaps.
Pt. II – Resolution
Then “Resolution”. The album’s second track sounds like a film score, the cross-rhythms of the drumming and staggered piano lending the album a darker edge. Here’s when the saxophone leads like a voice. When Coltrane blows the horn again at 3:56, it feels like the following melody is truly what the track is all about and has spent almost four minutes travelling towards. The entire track, possibly the album’s highlight, bleeds intense brilliance.
Pt. III – Pursuance
An Elvis Jones drum solo begins “Pursuance”. We are then back with the crazy and chaotic tempo, which peaks around the halfway mark. Not for the first time, however, the chaos slowly dies down, each part of the sound removed one by one.
It’s here on this third track you realise all of what the album could be about. It seems like Coltrane is using each song to make sense of the world he is living in. The Love Supreme songs begin calmly and then descend into a manic but controlled disorder. More frenetic chords are thrown into the sound and mixed around again for a few minutes before coming to a halt as each instrument withdraws from the chaos.
Just when you think the track is simply unable to take anymore, Coltrane diffuses the tension by slowly disassembling each instrument one by one. At the end of “Pursuance”, the only thing separating us from silence is the nimble bass sounds which see us out for the last two minutes. It appears almost as though the saxophone is pausing for breath here, like a living and breathing animal, before the track grinds to a halt.
Pt. IV – Psalm
“Psalm” is calmer and more melodic. By this fourth and final track, Coltrane has given the saxophone such a voice, it feels as though he is trying to use the instrument’s chords as his words. This is the part that keeps critics and jazz lovers studying the album now, over sixty years after its release.
If Coltrane’s saxophone could indeed speak, what would it say?
The album is engrained with hints at spirituality throughout. In the years following his exile from Miles Davis’ band, ‘Trane, as Coltrane was known by friends, sought rehabilitation from the crippling drug and alcohol addiction that had threatened to destroy his career. He threw himself into both his spiritual exploration and work, joking that he worked “25 hours a day”.
To what extent Coltrane was spiritual and how much this fed into his music is still debated today. Coltrane himself declared in the liner notes to A Love Supreme that the four-piece suite is “a thank you to God”. In a separate interview, the great saxophonist also referred very specifically to a spiritual awakening he had in 1957, just after he left Mles Davis’ stage in a dishevelled state for the final time: “During the year 1957 I experienced by the grace of God a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time in gratitude I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”
It is surmised this is the literal meaning of the album’s title. Coltrane was convinced a higher power gifted him his talent. Post-album release, he believed this album to be both his favourite and the best representation of the God-given talent he was blessed with from birth.
Indeed, there were positive signs even before the album’s recording. His wife Alice recalled him descending the stairs one morning “like Moses coming down from the mountain” with the full suite drafted out on paper. This was the first time he had ever mapped out one of his musical pieces.
A Love Supreme was then recorded in one session on December 9, 1964, at Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The following year, the record was released by Impulse! record label. It was an immediate hit.
Although Coltrane receives the majority of the credit, this record is also the best representation of his band. Coltrane plays tenor saxophone all throughout the record with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones manning the drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass.
During recording sessions the lights were dimmed throughout the whole recording process, giving the room the feel of a nightclub. This helped to encourage improvisation from a band who’d gelled after many years of playing live together, and who would rehearse and go off-script during live concerts.
The album sessions were so focused, the band later described them as being “almost completely wordless”. Coltrane took the silent lead with his saxophone and the rest followed.
The fact that Coltrane never once discussed the album’s meaning, both publicly and with his bandmates, only adds to the mystique. Throw in the mysterious inner notes, the poem that was released with the album, and the fact that only two recordings of Coltrane performing the suite in full exist, and you can understand the allure.
This brings us to the naming of the songs. That the four parts were called “Acknowledgement”, “Resolution”, “Pursuance”, and “Psalm” fit nearly into the theory that Coltrane, in some way, was communicating directly with his new-found faith. It is all too tempting to study an album too hard and look for meaning where there may not possibly be any. But it does seem fair to surmise that Coltrane’s magnum opus was, in an overt way, utilised as some way of him trying to make sense of his burgeoning religion and spirituality.
Perhaps he found meaning through the free jazz chord progressions or maybe his spirituality freed him enough to be able to let loose and experiment.
We will never know.
Many critics over the years have also connected the album to Coltrane’s political exposure. In the first half of the 1960s he met with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Despite never publicly speaking out about politics, it would have been impossible for Coltrane to not, in some form, be influenced by the events of the early 60s.
In fact, just two years earlier, Coltrane had felt affected enough by the Ku Klux Klan’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama 1963 to write the song “Alabama”. The melody from the track was said to be influenced by the phonetics of a Dr Martin Luther King speech in response to the attack. Four days after the first recording of Alabama, JFK was assassinated in Texas.
That tumultuous year fed into what were an intense ten years for Coltrane. In 1957 he was touring as part of Miles Davis’ band with a bright future ahead of him. In the following years, however, he was kicked out of Davis’ band for crippling addictions to heroin and alcohol; he then went through cold turkey and became sober; released Blue Train (1957), Giant Steps (1960) and A Love Supreme (1965); released 17 live albums and was then inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame. Life, it would seem, could not be better.
Tragically, by 1967, Coltrane would be dead.
Coltrane’s untimely death from liver cancer at the age of 40 only adds to the album’s mythology and mystique. Many years after his death, he was canonised by the African Orthodox Church, becoming Saint John William Coltrane.
His musical legacy still endures and A Love Supreme was finally certified platinum in the United States in 2020, fifty-six years after its release.
A Love Supreme
- Part I – Acknowledgement 7:42
- Part II – Resolution 7:20
- Part III – Pursuance /Part IV – Psalm 17:50
“A Love Supreme” poem, by John Coltrane, from the original liner notes:
A Love Supreme I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord. It all has to do with it. Thank You God. Peace. There is none other. God is. It is so beautiful. Thank You God. God is all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. In you all things are possible. Thank you God. We know. God made us so. Keep your eye on God. God is. He always was. He always will be. No matter what... it is God. He is gracious and merciful. It is most important that I know Thee. Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, throughts,fears and emotions--time--all related...all made from one... all made in one. Blessed be his name. Thought waves--heat waves--all vibrations--all paths lead to God. Thank you God. His way... it is so lovely... it is gracious. It is merciful--Thank you God. One thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God... everything does. Thank you God. Have no fear... believe... Thank you God. The universe has many wonders. God is all. His way... it is so wonderful. Thoughts--deeds--vibrations, etc. They all go back to God and He cleanses all. He is gracious and merciful... Thank you God. Glory to God... God is so alive. God is. God loves. May I be acceptable in Thy sight. We are all one in His grace. The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement of Thee, O Lord. Thank you God. God will wash away all our tears...He always has... He always will. Seek him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday. Let us sing all songs to God. To whom all praise is due... praise God. No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God. With all we share God. It is all with God. It is all with Thee. Obey the Lord. Blessed is He. We are all from one thing... the will of God...thank you God. I have seen God--I have seen ungodly--none can be greater--none can compare to God Thank you God. He will remake... He always has and He always will. It's true--blessed be His name--Thank you God. God breathes through us so completely...so gently we hardly feel it... yet,it is our everything. Thank you God. ELATION--ELEGANCE--EXALTATION-- All from God. Thank you God. Amen. John Coltrane - December, 1964
Discover next: Best of John Coltrane Albums
John Coltrane: vocals, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Garrison: double bass; Elvin Jones: drums, gong, timpani; McCoy Tyner: piano
Release date January 1965