John Coltrane's Masterpiece Breathes New Life With 'A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle'
John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, recorded near the close of 1964 and released early the following year, inhabits an exalted plane beyond the realm of most other albums, in any musical genre. Easily one of the most celebrated jazz recordings ever made, it radiates a deep, devotional gravitas — a palpably focused ardor that has long inspired actual worship, as Jazz Night in America explored in a recent documentary short.
For Coltrane — among the most revered saxophonists, then as now — A Love Supreme also stood as a pinpoint moment in a changing picture. The mid-'60s were a period of hurtling evolution for him, as he pushed ever further into musical catharsis and away from the familiar moorings of jazz performance. He was seeking a direct spiritual expression that would set the standard for a cadre of improvisers coming up behind him, like fellow tenor heralds Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, who both appeared on his free-jazz landmark, Ascension,in June of '65.
That July, a month after the Ascension sessions, Coltrane and his quartet played the only widely known performance of A Love Supreme, at the Festival Jazz d'Antibes in Juan-les-Pins, France. The set was included on a deluxe reissue of the album in 2002; this moment has also been preserved through some brief footage available online, which can feel almost miraculous to behold.
The Antibes recording has stood as the lone living document of Coltrane's suite — until today, when Impulse! announced the October release of A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle. Recorded at the end of a weeklong residency at The Penthouse by Joe Brazil, one of Coltrane's trusted friends, it presents this music in a glorious new light, and with remarkably clear sound. (Brazil used the club system, two microphones and an Ampex reel-to-reel, and then preserved the tapes for nearly half a century, as if guarding a Holy Grail. They were found in his archive after his death in 2008.)
The fact that Coltrane performed A Love Supreme in Seattle in 1965 has long been known to a small circle of dwindling eyewitnesses and deep Trane-ologists — like jazz historian Lewis Porter, who wrote one of the essays in the new album's liner notes. But because there was never any audio documentation, the fact was never more than a footnote in A Love Supreme lore.
Besides, there was already a separate chronicle of this engagement: Live in Seattle, a double album released in 1971, several years after Coltrane's death. (Last year, the Seattle Times included it on a short list of essential live albums made in the Emerald City.) For proponents of Coltrane's late period, with its plunge into tumultuous abstraction, Live in Seattle is a touchstone. For some other listeners, it can be a forbiddingly strong elixir. In his book John Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Ben Ratliff characterized it alongside other albums of the period as "expressions of blazing single-mindedness; they can express what the poet Robert Lowell, one of Coltrane's contemporaries, once called 'the monotony of the sublime.' "
The music on A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle is sublime in every sense of the word, without a trace of monotony. Its release is as significant an event in jazz-historical terms as any archival gem unearthed in the last decade or more. But that's an academic way of stating the case, which is that this album contains both the focused fire of A Love Supreme, as a call of gratitude to the divine, and the more chaotic fervor of the "New Thing" then coalescing in Coltrane's creative circle. It feels fully realized and bursting with possibility, all at the same time.
Some of this surely has to do with the combination of a telepathic working band and an eager set of interlopers. Along with Coltrane's fearless rhythm section — McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums — the recording includes robust guest contributions by Sanders, alto saxophonist Carlos Ward and a second bassist, Donald "Rafael" Garrett. The chemistry among this cohort is fearsome, and by no means a settled proposition. When the album is released in physical form, it will include liner notes by Porter and another noted Coltrane historian, Ashley Kahn, which shed valuable light on this notion and more.
This morning, along with its announcement, Impulse released "A Love Supreme Pt. IV – Psalm," the piece that concludes the set and the suite. As even a casual Coltrane-ologist will tell you, the recitative melody of this movement scans neatly with the prayerlike poem printed as the liner notes for A Love Supreme — a feature that Coltrane never made explicit, though it holds up to scrutiny; Porter is among those who brought this insight into the public consciousness.
The live version of "Psalm" begins precisely as the album version does: in an anticipatory rustle of piano and percussion, with Coltrane's tenor stating the melody in a distinctly vocal register. Within the first minute, though, he reaches toward an ecstatic mode, before receding into a simmer. Tyner and Jones are spectacularly attuned to the flux of his dynamics and cadence, rolling in free tempo through their extrapolation of the theme. (Pay attention to the moments of ebbing quiet, and how they return to a fever pitch as naturally as the tide lapping a shore.)
When the piece is over, leaving just a meditative ellipsis of prayer bells, Coltrane's audience seems almost too overwhelmed for a proper ovation. (Earlier in the suite — after "Part III – Pursuance," for instance — the response is more assured and sustained.) Perhaps it was the sheer intensity of the experience, which could have made clapping seem like something other than the appropriate response. Perhaps, judging by the quiet before a second round of applause, the club patrons were gauging some uncertain signal from the stage.
Or, as is always possible, it could be that a portion of those in the room simply weren't prepared to process what they'd just witnessed. It wouldn't be the first time for Coltrane, nor the last. But if they weren't ready then, some 56 years ago, we're surely ready now.
Copyright 2021 WBGO. To see more, visit WBGO.