#47: John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme" (1965)

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John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a sonic dedication to the power of love to spark change and universal greatness. The format is a suite with four parts—Acknowledgment, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalms. The music, recorded in just one session on a winter night in 1964, is accompanied by a poem, “A Love Supreme.” The fourth part of the suite is a musical narration of these lines.

Coltrane uses the liner notes to address the journey that brought him to the point of the album:

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. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT ... IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME –.”

It is clear that Coltrane reveres God, yet taken as a whole, his meditation on the theme of love feels non-denominational. The love supreme that Coltrane shares with us is Agape, a universal love. His message extends far beyond the arc of religion.

Acknowledgment

If we think about what questions this work asks, it seems that it wants to know if we understand the value of love to heal.

Ashley Kahn, a music journalist who has profiled both Coltrane and Miles Davis, has said that talking about Coltrane ultimately means talking about yourself. “If you look at the book [A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album], it starts and it ends with me talking about myself and how A Love Supreme forces me to talk about my own spirituality. There is no way to avoid it. If you are going to be an open and honest listener, and allow this music to enter you—which was Coltrane’s intent — you have to be willing to speak about yourself.” When asked if Coltrane’s work was challenging people “to address their own seldom-visited emotions,” she said, “He often spoke about how music should be a challenge, and that it shouldn’t come too easily.”

What have we let go? What have we cast off that was holding us back from love? What demons have we exorcised? What weights can no longer claim us? What did we let go of for love?

What kind of love heals us? What kind of love is good for us?

On the other side of these questions is the love that we want, the peace we say we need. Name the thing. There is peace there. Where there was despair, there is now hope that something new is on the horizon. Maybe love is what we are led to after fighting off our darkest shadows. Maybe this is how we heal.

Resolution

Coltrane’s heroin habit threatened to take it all—it even got him fired from Miles Davis’ band.

“I have seen God – I have seen ungodly,” he tells us.

He eventually got clean. He made it to the other side. So great an effort that often fails and makes no promises—a true transformation with no simple solutions or easy answers, only hard-fought roads through.

In his essay “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin touched on the inherent loneliness facing  artists. “It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help. Or it is like the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control.”

Coltrane accepted the heaviness of the crown he wore, both for what he overcame and his role at the time of this album’s making as the unofficial arbiter of new musical possibilities. Clearly he felt the responsibility to share his spiritual ecstasy. A Love Supreme straddled the old and the new ways of looking not only at improvisation through sound but also through the artist’s journey.

“No road is an easy one, but they all go to God,” says Coltrane.

Pursuance

What is a love supreme? Many listeners have grappled with the ephemeral nature of this concept.

In the Paris Review, Sam Stephenson says Coltrane’s music “increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness.” Miles Davis said the album “reached out and influenced those people who were into peace. Hippies and people like that.” Is it a coincidence that after battling his own addiction, Coltrane inspired in others a spiritual, ecstatic devotion?

He was even the impetus for the creation of a church—Saint John Coltrane Spiritual Community—where the “A Love Supreme” meditation takes place every Sunday.

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin describes the circumstances that bring us to an acceptance of the magnitude of universal love. “The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left.”

It’s telling that many critics feel that A Love Supreme is not an album meant for the novice Coltrane listener, acknowledging that it was a very divisive album among jazz fans when it was released. “Musicians especially know the history behind it, where Coltrane came from, and the intensity that he put into his life,” says Kahn. “This intensity didn’t exist just for this one recording session. He was at it 24/7, for basically most of his adult life. Now, that is very daunting. And for the result of that work to be a recording like A Love Supreme, most people would retreat from that.”

Psalm

A Love Supreme is a meditation. The last part of the suite, Psalms, is a musical poem, where each line Coltrane plays represents a part of the poem he wrote to accompany it.

Lewis Porter, a jazz pianist who wrote John Coltrane: His Life and Music, says, “The four sections—‘Acknowledgement,’ ‘Resolution,’ ‘Pursuance,’ and ‘Psalms’—recreate Coltrane’s own progress as he first learned to acknowledge the divine, resolved to pursue it, searched and eventually celebrated in song what he attained. The first part is improvised over the repeated bass motif with no set chorus length. We don’t realize until the end of ‘Acknowledgement’ that this motif means the words ‘a love supreme.’ Coltrane prepares us for this near the end of his solo by playing the motif in each of the 12 keys and in various registers. He finally plays in unison with the bass in F and chants ‘a love supreme.’ It’s a sort of reverse development, saving the exposition, or perhaps ‘revelation’ in this case, for the end. He’s telling us that God is everywhere—in every register and in every key.”

God breathes through us so completely…
so gently we hardly feel it... yet
it is our everything.
Thank you God.
ELATION
ELEGANCEEXALTATION
All from God.
Thank you God. Amen.

In just 32 minutes, we are asked to reckon with the transformative nature of love. Love doesn’t always have the power to quell demons, but perhaps when it does, the results are divine.

—Lee Erica Elder