Recording of February 2016: A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters
John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, Art Davis, bass; Elvin Jones, drums
Impulse! 80023727-02 (3 CDs). 1965/2015. Bob Thiele, orig. prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, orig. eng.; Harry Weinger, Ashley Kahn, reissue prods.; Kevin Reeves, reissue mastering. ADD? TT: 2:43:31
Performance *****
Sonics *****

While every jazz fan has his or her favorite period of John Coltrane's career—the promising Prestige years, the "hits" on Atlantic, the single knockout punch of Blue Trane, his lone album for Blue Note—nearly everyone agrees that the intensely realized vision and sonic charms of A Love Supreme make that album his masterpiece. The recordings Coltrane made for his final label, Impulse!, at first swung between more free jazz outings like Impressions (1963) and more conventional recordings, such as duet albums with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman (both in 1963). A Love Supreme (1965) was his most coherent artistic statement, one grounded in his love for God, and embodying an affirmation of the power of love over dissension and division. The album also marked the beginning of Coltrane's final two years, in which he would relentlessly plumb new depths of meaning in his music, and hone an ever more assaultive, angular sound that seethed with emotion and an endless stream of ideas. The strident, dissonant, refractory music that followed A Love Supreme, and now known as his New Thing, remains controversial.

In late summer of 1964, the tenor saxophonist, who by then had kicked a drug habit and experienced what he called "a spiritual awakening," stopped touring and returned to his new home in Dix Hills, in suburban Long Island. Retreating to a bedroom over the garage, he wrote, over several days, a short, 33-minute suite in four parts that celebrated his rebirth: A Love Supreme. As Ashley Kahn's liner notes explain, when it was completed, Coltrane told his second wife, Alice, "This is the first time I have everything ready." Opening with "Acknowledgement," this very focused composition continues through "Resolution," "Pursuance," and "Psalm." Several pages of music written in Coltrane's own hand, as well as a handwritten draft of his liner notes for the project, signed "With love to all, I thank you," are included in The Complete Masters.

Much of this new and expanded three-CD (or MP3 download) edition was previously released on A Love Supreme: Deluxe Edition (2002). Disc 1 of the new set contains the original 1965 album's stereo mix, as well as mono reference masters of "Pursuance" and "Psalm" that Coltrane gave to engineer Rudy Van Gelder. While every scrap of recorded Coltrane is at least worth hearing, neither of the mono takes adds much to the conversation.

Disc 3 contains the band that made A Love Supreme: Coltrane's "classic" quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones playing the entire A Love Supreme suite at the Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes on July 26, 1965. After years of bootlegs, the official release of this concert, in much improved sound, was the big selling point of the 2002 Deluxe Edition.

What's most attractive about The Complete Masters is disc 2, which contains six takes of an alternate version of "Acknowledgement"—four of them previously unreleased—recorded the day after the quartet sessions that produced the original album. In that session, also recorded by Van Gelder, two additional instrumental voices were added: bassist Art Davis and, especially, tenor saxophonist and Coltrane admirer Archie Shepp. While the Deluxe Edition included slightly edited versions of the first two of these takes, and both are presented here in stereo for the first time, all six takes of the sextet versions are very special and important additions to the collective understanding of Coltrane and his art.

Tracks 6 and 7 of disc 2 are the two previously released takes of "Acknowledgement." "(Take 1/Alternate)" opens with the magical sound of Van Gelder's voice calling out the take, and sets the pattern for how the sextet would play Coltrane's visionary masterpiece. Instead of Coltrane's vocal chant of "a LOVE supreme," echoed by Jimmy Garrison's bass, that so startled many when they first heard it in 1965, the sextet version features furious interplay between Coltrane and Shepp. "(Take 2/Alternate)" continues this pattern: the two tenor saxophones together and in opposition, rather than Coltrane's chanting. In track 8, "Acknowledgement (Take 3/Breakdown with Studio Dialogue)," Coltrane and Jones are heard talking about the piece. Takes 4–6 find Shepp's thinner, sharper tone taking a role equal to Coltrane's. The combination transforms this once-welcoming first section of the suite into a louder, much more active and aggressive opening statement that presages the Coltrane albums soon to come.

This change, continued across all six sextet takes, is this set's most startling revelation. This entire sextet session is a fascinating look into Coltrane's creative process—and begs the question of why he chose to release the quartet rather than the sextet versions, or even stuck to his original plan of recording A Love Supreme with a nonet. Staying with the sextet approach would have hindered the accessibility of A Love Supreme, and kept it from being the second-most-purchased, if not loved, jazz album after Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. Throughout these explorations—so great to hear after their five decades in the can—the drumming of the late Elvin Jones deserves special mention. His usual potent blend of raw propulsion below and intricate, detailed cymbal work above confirm, yet again, his seminal place in the history of modern jazz drumming.

Released in celebration of the album's 50th anniversary and of the 60th anniversary of Verve Records, of which Impulse! is now a part, A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters is perhaps the final word on Coltrane's masterpiece. According to Universal Music, owners of Impulse! and Verve, everything usable on the newly discovered tapes has been included here; according to James Krents from Universal, "There is nothing else on these tapes to share."—Robert Baird

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for sharing- RB.
Indeed, this was a great way to wind down 2015. For those that have not bought this set- do so immediately!

I am ready to read and hear about the wonderful Jazz releases for 2016.