Book Review: A Love Supreme

A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album
by Ashley Kahn; Foreword by Elvin Jones. New York, Viking Books, 2002; hardcover, 260 pages, 9" by 8". $27.95.

Writing an entire book about just one record—especially one that clocks in at just 32:47—might seem a questionable proposition at best. However, A Love Supreme, saxophonist John Coltrane's 1965 concept album with his "classic" quartet (McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums), is one of the handful of recordings important enough to merit such extensive attention.

This is the definitive book about one of the most important jazz albums. Even if you're not a jazz fan, there's a lot to be said for at least sampling from the book, in the interest of cultural literacy. If you are a jazz fan—or if you want to begin an in-depth exploration of jazz—this book is a must-read.

If you're totally unfamiliar with Coltrane's A Love Supreme, or know it only by name, some introduction is in order. Coltrane's career can perhaps best be viewed as a struggle against the limits of conventional jazz improvisation, and also ultimately against the limitations of conventional saxophone technique. Somewhat of an introvert and unquestionably a perfectionist, Coltrane reportedly went so far as to work his way through Nicholas Slonimsky's massive Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.

Talent, plus never-ending practice, allowed Coltrane to develop a revolutionary facility for rapid improvisatory passagework outside the bounds of traditional major or minor tonality. One critic coined the phrase "sheets of sound," and it stuck.

A Love Supreme is a concept album. The concept is Coltrane's gratitude to God for the spiritual reawakening that Coltrane credited for the cold-turkey end to his heroin addiction, his rededication to study (with Thelonious Monk), and his debut as a leader—all of which took place in 1957. The album packaging includes both a letter from Coltrane to the listener, and a devotional poem, also by Coltrane, which he entitled "A Love Supreme."

The album is in four parts, the last two connected. Part 1, "Acknowledgment," starts with the famous Chinese-gong-plus-piano-chord opening to Coltrane's introductory fanfare. That fanfare soon gives way to the album's signature bass line/melody of "a love su-preme; a love su-preme." Later in that track Coltrane chants that phrase repeatedly, with subtle variations in stress and tone that parallel Garrison's bass playing.

Part 2, "Resolution," is an up-tempo, swinging jazz number that showcases Coltrane's "classic" quartet at the height of its ensemble powers and shared self-confidence.

Part 3 is called "Pursuance." A higher-energy piece and freer in its improvisations, with more focus on solos, it leads directly to Part 4, "Psalm." This quiet track is built on an extensive, introspective monologue by Coltrane, in which, as scholar Lewis Porter pointed out, Coltrane uses his sax to phrase, syllable by syllable, the words to the devotional poem "A Love Supreme."

Coltrane and his quartet partners recorded A Love Supreme live in the studio in one evening session on December 9, 1964 at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey. The sound is direct and clear and very natural, with a gratifying amount of room ambience, but not enough to blur the focus. All the commercially released tracks were done in single takes, except for brief overdubs of Coltrane's vocal chanting, and also at the end of "Psalm."

Author Ashley Kahn has researched and organized what appears to be nearly all the extant information about A Love Supreme. Kahn interviewed all the surviving participants in the recording session, as well as most of Coltrane's colleagues and family members. The book's cover reproduces the original photographic print (including signs of wear from handling and improper storage) that was used for the album's cover, while the endpapers reproduce Coltrane's first draft of the devotional poem. It is hard to imagine anything this book lacks in the way of source material.

The book's presentation is accessible to the general reader, in that Kahn's writing is free of jargon or technical language. The book does not presuppose any great familiarity with Coltrane's body of work, or even jazz in general. These aspects actually make A Love Supreme an excellent introduction to jazz for the listener who has not had much experience with it. (That being said with the proviso that Kahn's approach is to focus exhaustively on one of one artist's landmark recordings and drill down deeply, rather than take a broad and therefore necessarily shallow survey.)

Fascinating factoids abound, including the arresting one that, for his efforts that night, Coltrane grossed $284.66—and the other quartet members got half that. The book includes five "sidebar" chapters that focus on engineer Rudy Van Gelder, the Impulse! record label, and other related topics.

One thing this book makes clear is that, for CD listeners at least, the only version to have is the two-CD Deluxe Edition, released in 2002 (Impulse! 314 589 945-2). Previous CD issues were derived from equalized, compressed, second-generation tapes that had a transfer-induced flaw during the first three minutes of "Pursuance." (Second-generation tapes of some sort must suffice; the original session master tapes have been lost. The label apparently threw them out, perhaps in an effort to cut storage costs.)

For the Deluxe Edition, the reissue producers were able to locate uncompressed and unequalized master-tape copies that had been sent to EMI for producing LPs in England. The Deluxe Edition includes a second CD that has a live performance in France of the entire suite, outtakes from the quartet session, and previously unreleased sextet tracks with Archie Shepp and Art Davis. The single-layer (non-hybrid) stereo SACD is of the original album tracks only; I haven't heard it (Verve 589596).

I highly recommend this book. However, if you find its completeness daunting and you just want to get your feet slightly wet, Coltrane's family maintains a very classy website, www.johncoltrane.com. In addition to the biography and discography you would expect, there is no-cost streaming audio of 12 of Coltrane's most beloved recordings, as well as some video footage of the A Love Supreme concert in France. Not to be missed.

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