Recording of December 2021: A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle
Impulse!/UMe (CD B0034290-02, LP B0034291-01, download). 2021. Ravi Coltrane, prod.; Kevin Reeves, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ***½

John Coltrane's career as a bandleader can be divided, with haphazard tidiness, into three periods. His so-called classic quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, which deserves every bit of its legendary status, dominates the 1962–1965 middle section and encompasses Coltrane's greatest achievements. Before that was the ramp-up and after lay the free jazz experiments.

Real life, of course, wasn't so simple. In 1997, the fantastic four-disc set The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings expanded the view of 1962's Coltrane "Live" at the Village Vanguard, showing the whole of the four-night run with eight musicians in various combinations before the emergence of what became his working band. We don't have such documentation for the post-quartet transition, but A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, recorded in 1965 and released for the first time in October, helps elucidate the period leading up to his radical transformation.

The Seattle recording is notable in many ways, not least in what a joy it is to listen to. It's one of only two live recordings, and one of very few live performances, of the suite that marks the pinnacle of his career. It shows him putting what he, too, considered a significant statement into the language of his later years, the quartet augmented by saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Carlos Ward and bassist Donald Rafael Garrett. The Seattle performance is less structured than the studio album, nicely relaxed, with extra interludes for group improvisation. It reveals a malleable work, not frozen in time and on tape but, like everything Coltrane did, adaptable to new approaches and ideas.

The possibility of moving A Love Supreme from middle-to late-period Trane (or that it could exist in both periods) shows how misleading those divisions are. Coltrane's music was always changing, and external factors hastened the evolution. Tyner left the group at the end of 1965, and Jones departed the following January, each citing Coltrane's move into free improvisation with larger ensembles as the reason. Coltrane had been adding players to the lineup, experimenting. Losing half the band freed him to pursue music with different, and less, structure.

The audio quality on the new Love Supreme is good, quite clear for a 1965 club recording and certainly better than recent Coltrane finds The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording (recorded in 1967 and released in 2001) and Offering: Live at Temple University (recorded in 1966, released in 2014). But it isn't perfect. The recording was made with two onstage mikes, both picking up Jones's kit: The drums are too high in the mix. It hardly ruins the recording, though, and casual listeners might not notice the imbalance.

A Love Supreme—the original recording—was made at Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio in December 1964 and released the following month. In February and May of 1965, the quartet returned to Van Gelder's studio to record The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, a set of recognizable, audience-pleasing tunes. Freer studio sessions in June ended up on Transition, Living Space, and Kulu Sé Mama. Later that month, Coltrane and an expanded ensemble recorded Ascension—an album that stands with Ornette Coleman's 1961 Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation as one of the essential early statements of spontaneous music.

After a European tour and some studio sessions that would be released after Coltrane's death, the group headed west and, on September 30, with Sanders and Garrett at the Penthouse in Seattle, recorded this performance. The next day, they were in a studio in nearby Lynnwood, recording Om. Two weeks later, in Los Angeles, Coltrane and an octet recorded the title track for Kulu Sé Mama. The following month, back at Van Gelder's studio, he recorded his Meditations suite with the sextet that included Ali and Sanders, after which Tyner, then Jones, left the band. It was an explosive year of the sort few musicians have.

In his essential book A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album, Ashley Kahn writes, "The signs of his future direction were already present in the Love Supreme sessions. Coltrane's measured key-hopping on 'Acknowledgement' presage a harmonic approach in his playing bordering on—and soon embracing—a passionate atonality. His penchant for chanting would resurface on recordings like Om; his love of poetry on the album cover of Kulu Sé Mama."

Viewing 1965 as a line rather than a break makes greater sense of Coltrane's later work. A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle helps unmuddy the waters. It's a valuable addition to the Coltrane discography—fresh yet familiar and eminently enjoyable.—Kurt Gottschalk

Aja1's picture

I had great anticipation for this album, and invited my "jazz buddies" over to listen to it on vinyl as I am the audiophile of the group and have a system that can do some justice to good recordings. We couldn't get through side one of disc one. As you said, the recording quality is OK, maybe even good. But the mix is unfortunate. Coltrane is barely audible, or at best, sounds like a side man. Sanders' sax is more prominent than the star's. And of course all that drum. We pivoted to other Coltrane from that time period and enjoyed the night. Always exciting for a new live find, but this one was a disappointment.

Aja1's picture one is to blame here, I was just disappointed with the experience of listening to it. I'm glad it exists!

Allen Fant's picture

Nice review- KG.
This release serves as a historical document, if anything else.
Plenty of Audiophile versions of "A Love Supreme."

avanti1960's picture

the audio quality seems to presumptuous. Especially considering this IS a John Coltrane recording. The consequence of drums too forward in the mix, piano about right, means that John's sax is literally buried and incoherent at times.
Casual listeners should notice, incoherent listeners might not.....

stevegriggs's picture

Granted, the microphone placement is not optimal for balance across all dynamic ranges, but check out how quietly and sensitively Elvin plays during McCoy's piano solo during Pursuance.

Astolfo's picture

Agreed, what a missed opportunity! What a disappointment, a saxophone gasping for the air the drums suck away, even the piano notes come through with bare life. What was in the producer's and recording engineer's mind?