A recent broadcast of American Routes featured commentary and music from and about two of jazz’s greatest composers and players, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Now, I have as much authority to say anything of significance about jazz as I do classical music, or reggae, but this American Routes episode, equal parts mystifying and enlightening, inspired me to try and talk about what I consider to be John Coltrane’s sublime masterpiece (of which there could be several): A Love Supreme. Bear with my crummy analogies and musical equivocations–if I can motivate a single person to experience this album for him or herself, I will consider this humble post successful.
A Love Supreme is not occasional music. It’s too giant-hearted, to all encompassing to just be heard as a soundtrack to a rainy day or while studying for finals. To be truly heard, i must be listened to, all receptors open and accommodating. I gave it a thorough listen in my bike ride home from Anna O’Brien’s, where I waited for a tribute concert to Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters. The album formed the sonic landscape from town to my boat home in Salt Lake.
The ride along Beretania–straight, easy going–was accompanied by “Acknowledgement,” while the insistence of “Resolution” pushed me from the downtown streets onto Nimitz Highway. “Pursuance,” with its skittering intensity made up the start-stop traffic light intervals along Dillingham, and “Psalm” meditated upon itself just I was passing Marukai and the locked lot where they park the garbage trucks. Then it was along the cat-infested Nimitz bike path, up the freeway to Rainbow Marina.
Now if we were to say that Miles Davis is the Plato of jazz music (and we can go as far as we want with this analogy–Louis Armstrong as Socrates, Monk/Parker/Gillespie as Aristotle, Sonny Rollins as Sophocles, Ornette Coleman as Aristophanes, and so on), then John Coltrane is Jazz’s Homer, describing in aural poetry humankind’s sometimes brutal quest for physical mastery, sonic purity, wisdom beyond potential, frustration, humility, irreverence to the gods and a never-ending transformation that goes beyond substance and becomes a purer ideal. A Love Supreme is a monumental struggle with human limitations, an internal Odyssey that starts in the lofty heights of the intellect and concludes in the depths of the soul.
The way I listen to A Love Supreme applies the internal Odyssey analogy to the four parts of the album: I hear “Acknowledgement” as the consciousness of the brain, “Resolution” as the explosive outbursts of the body. “Pursuance” is the electric flow of the blood, and “Psalm is the ultimate surrender of the spirit to quietude, the acceptance of coming home. Each piece is dominated by a member of the quartet (Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones), each one of whom imbues their section with the distilled characteristics of human expression.
“Acknowledgement” is ruled by Coltrane’s horn, Here he lays down the thesis, melodically and harmonically, for his great work. All the other components in “Acknowledgement” (Coltrane’s is the only solo) contribute to the supporting rhythm of the enterprise–even the piano is essentially and rhythm instrument, at the same time complementing the horn’s single note runs harmonically. In an academic sense, everything that follows “Acknowledgement” is contained in the subsequent pieces, albeit in different forms.
“Pursuance,” or what I consider the Body segment of A Love Supreme, allows the piano to take prominence (one of the key attributes of the album, and jazz music in general, is generosity). There is definitely some pretty keyboard work here, but Tyner morphs into a rawer kind of beauty, the pounding of chords at times dissonant. This is fighting, this is making love, this is sweating, this is the body in its most elevated state of excitement. Coltrane’s horn, playing the most recognized melody of the work, lays over Tyner’s bones like a shimmering skin.
“Resolution,” the Blood of the work, is stewarded by the singular drummer Elvin Jones, the noise of his kit seeming to emanate from all places at once, like a heartbeat in our heads. In “Resolution” the music is played with the most abandon, its inspiration less than the argument put forth in the first track than something much more elemental. Jones leads the listener inward, where the interplay of cells and molecules and atoms is electric and natural, and thought itself is an afterthought.
Garrison’s bass drives us to the final descent to the core of he music in “Psalm,” the progressions and notes going lower into the round soft nebula of the soul. All other aspects of the song cycle have been transcended–lust, violence, disquiet, the eternal thirst of the conscious–and all that is left in the final few moments of A Love Supreme is a comforting, ego-eroding surrender. When the other instruments join in, the clash and scattering of notes and beats is replaced by a warm harmony the size of the universe.
I’m not suggesting this is the correct way to listen and interpret A Love Supreme. Rather it is the egotistical reaction of a fan who doesn’t feel fulfilled by a piece of music unless he can articulate his reaction to it in some way, especially when that reaction is profound. What’s important is that you must listen. Your life will be bigger, your brain that much more enriched, your soul that much more whole for the experience. This is not shadows in the cave kind of music–this is revelation of the sun kind of music.