This month marked the 50th anniversary of the release of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, one of the most important jazz releases of all time. Featuring the essential quartet of Coltrane’s iconic tenor sax, Jimmy Garrison on double bass, Elvin Jones on percussion, and McCoy Tyner on piano, the album reaches beyond traditional greatness into a place of spiritual sublimity.
A Love Supreme taps into something incredibly human — the body feels it, moves, vibrates — but also something beyond human, stretching the mind to an ethereal realm. To anyone that’s given the record a spin, that cycle of four notes lodges into the brain and unlocks something special. For Coltrane himself, this was his paean to a supreme power, whatever that might be; it certainly has connected listeners to their own perceived version of that power. For many, A Love Supreme also opened the door to the power of jazz, of music, and of art in general. For some, despite the darkness and struggles of the world, it acted as a reminder of the power of existence itself, of the beauty of the moment despite the looming shadows.
For me, it was a mixture of all these things. Before any other genre, jazz engaged and amazed my senses, and the way the first movement, “Acknowledgement”, unfolds exemplified this. A ceremonial gong rings before Jones and Garrison’s rhythms weave in and out of each other with a deceptive fluidity. Coltrane and Tyner shift and meld and change tones and chords at what to the uninitiated sound like random intervals, but produce a magical confluence of necessity. Later, the repeated chants of the album’s title drive things into a sort of ecstatic ritual, repeating those words as an attempt to draw love and beauty and hope into the world. This is clearly music with a purpose, a message, but it also feels wholly natural and organic. I feel like nothing could do justice to explain what A Love Supreme showed me of the world, but I can say that it opened my eyes in a way that no other piece of art has.
To do what we can to honor the album, we reached out to musicians across genres to give their own thoughts and reactions. While everyone from U2’s Bono to Carlos Santana have credited the album as an influence, we spoke with a panel that includes musicians ranging from MacArthur Fellowship-awarded jazz saxophonist Ken Vandermark to up-and-coming throwback soul singer Lili K., all giving their own angle on the impact of A Love Supreme.
Lili K., throwback soul/jazz vocalist, songwriter
“A love supreme, a love supreme…” That legendary four-note melody will forever hold a place in my heart … and will of course be stuck in my head while writing this piece. John Coltrane was one of my earliest introductions to the jazz world — I’ve always looked to his music as a reference guide when creating, when studying improvisation. Coltrane is what I listened to while writing papers or taking tests throughout my academic career. He seemed to turn on a switch in my mind.
My early Coltrane listening years were primarily dedicated to Blue Train, but I started listening to A Love Supreme heavily my senior year of high school. I actually bought the album as a gift for my boyfriend at the time … and ended up keeping it for myself. I’m selfish with my Coltrane, what can I say? I immediately felt the spirituality of the album — the listening experience was ridden with the highs and lows of emotion. Even before reading the album’s liner notes, I always interpreted A Love Supreme to be about God — or about whatever higher power of the universe one believes in. The kind of love that embodies gratitude and appreciation, having overcome pain and struggle. Knowing of Coltrane’s battle with heroin — his battle being a black man in America — this message of a “supreme” love becomes even more powerful.
Of the four-part suite, “A Love Supreme Part IV – Psalm” is probably my favorite piece. For some inexplicable reason, this movement reaches me. It gives me goosebumps, it makes me lose myself for a few minutes; it almost always brings me to tears. This closing piece sounds like a final prayer, like the end of the story. Upon reading A Love Supreme‘s liner notes, you see that’s exactly what it is.
To wrap things up: I love me some John Coltrane, and I’m eternally grateful for his existence.
Keefe Jackson, saxophonist/reedist/composer
I was introduced to Coltrane’s music via Ascension, Om, and Expression from my dad’s record collection. Later, A Love Supreme was the first record I bought on CD. There was an ecstatic feeling; I listened to it over and over. The grooves and vamps and chanting, which may have made it more accessible for many, didn’t help or hinder me finding a way in. If anything, I was used to a less “coherent” sound from Coltrane.
Foils. We’ve heard Pharoah Sanders with the group on many recordings from 1965 to 1967. There are a couple of alternate takes of “Acknowledgement” with Archie Shepp as the other horn player, one of very few recordings with the two of them together. It’s illuminating to hear Shepp’s seed-scattering phrasing and blues-drenched swagger as a counterpoint to Coltrane’s more “clean,” motivic-spiritual playing.
Evolution. With a group sound very different from the original record, on a live version of A Love Supreme from the 1965 Antibes jazz festival, we hear the transition to Coltrane’s late period, recorded during the same summer that Ascension was made.
José James, jazz/hip-hop vocalist
I consider this album one of the crowning achievements of black art, musically, spiritually, and emotionally. What John Coltrane achieved that day was extraordinary: the combination of jazz, blues, gospel, Latin, and African music into a personal prayer to the Divine.
The amazing thing about A Love Supreme is that it happens in real time — the first time you hear it, you are listening to it exactly as the musicians experienced it. As McCoy Tyner told me, “We just followed John.” There’s only one harmony part overdubbed at the very end for effect. It captures a moment and an actual conversation between Coltrane and God. I mean, who does that?
The first time I heard it I was a 17-year-old high school dropout and runaway, and it washed over me like a true revelation. It touched me to the core with its beauty, power, and honesty. When I found out there were words to “Psalm” and that Coltrane is singing/reciting them through his horn, I was even more amazed. This is art in its finest form.
Nels Cline, Wilco guitarist, composer
The music of John Coltrane changed my path in music/life forever. Hearing Africa (an edited version on John Coltrane: His Greatest Years Vol. One) in a friend’s apartment when I was 16 opened up a universe that I had no inkling of as a rock ’n’ roll obsessive. His sound, simultaneously haunting and inviting, had no precedent in my world until that day. I wanted to know more — know everything — about this man, and I was despondent when I learned that he had passed away a few years prior to my discovering him and his music. But it is not hyperbole to say that Coltrane’s music, particularly that of the mid-’60s, caused major shift in my musical direction, sending me into a new world of so-called “jazz” and beyond.
I am pretty sure that the first record I actually bought by John Coltrane was A Love Supreme, probably because it was by then (1971) rightfully considered a classic representation of his classic quartet in their “modal” period, and this was what had grabbed me. The album’s title and the now-iconic, austere cover photo also grabbed me. I didn’t know until a little later that this was being called “anti-jazz” by some because it steadfastly eschewed the harmonic movement associated with the Tin Pan Alley songbook and such repertoire. But as a rock, blues, and Indian classical music fan, it sounded glorious to my young ears. Also, in the early ’70s, many musicians were turning to spiritual and/or mystical inspiration, and A Love Supreme may well be one of the ultimate marriages of spiritual aspiration/intent with powerful, soulful, and innovative musical vision, and I was personally ready for and interested in this connection. Springing from a deep well of human emotion, accomplishment, and piety, A Love Supreme is a humble offering whose power to inspire never diminishes. It is seriously beautiful, beautifully serious, timelessly transporting.
Sam Amidon, folk singer-songwriter
The first Coltrane album I ever bought was Crescent, which is the album that comes just before A Love Supreme. Crescent is a more internal, sly, and uncertain record, and those qualities drew me in, more so initially than the solemn majesty of A Love Supreme. But, listening now, I hear what a powerful and profound statement A Love Supreme is. As my friend Noah would say, it’s a “complete opinion.” And the musicians are on fire. Elvin Jones sounds like a whole army and McCoy Tyner sounds like he’s writing a novel on the piano. Unbelievable!
I think when I was younger, the singing in the first movement made me uncomfortable. It was so unaffected and clumsy compared to the majesty of the playing. I didn’t recognize then what a brave element of this music it was for them to put down their instruments and sing so simply.
When I was 16, I used to lie down on the floor in the afternoon and doze off with my headphones on, usually while listening to a Miles Davis or Coltrane album at high volume. Sometimes as I began to fall asleep, the instruments would speak to me. I would hear the phrases as sentences, the horns speaking words. I could never remember what the words were after, but the questions and answers of the musical phrases remained in my mind as a kind of speech. I wish I could go back into those dreams and figure out what Trane’s saxophone was saying…
Ken Vandermark, saxophonist/reedist/composer
A Love Supreme apparently sold almost half a million copies by 1970. Despite this success, John Coltrane only performed the material in concert once (there is a live version of the suite from a festival gig in France that took place in July of 1965, about half a year after the studio session). Compared to the number of times he played “My Favorite Things” throughout his career (one of his early “hits”), it seems strange that he never really revisited the material of this suite again. The day after he recorded A Love Supreme with his classic quartet of Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner, Coltrane went back into the studio to record a sextet version of the opening piece, “Acknowledgement”, adding Art Davis and Archie Shepp to the group. It doesn’t work as well, and not only because of losing the signature “chant.” As great a musician as Archie Shepp is, his approach to the mood of the composition feels inappropriate. And when the rendition in France is compared to the studio version, though it’s extremely interesting, the performance feels overwrought (something I never feel when listening to Coltrane’s live performances in contrast to his studio sessions).
In a sense, I believe these facts point to why John Coltrane never reworked or performed the music of A Love Supreme again, as a suite or utilizing the pieces separately. I am not a religious person, but it is hard not to hear A Love Supreme as the testament of an individual’s belief in God during the existential times of the 1960s. The album presents Coltrane’s lone voice in a statement supported by the choir of his band, the studio transformed into a sacred space for one day, no secondary comment from another saxophonist needed, no stage set in front of a cheering crowd wanted — just a man alone with his faith. I think that John Coltrane knew he could not repeat the experience of A Love Supreme again, and after that he went onto other ensembles and other hymns: Kulu Sé Mama, Ascension, Meditations, Expression, Om.