starting to think about and listen to coltrane's love supreme...

One of the closing commitments in our congregation's year of sabbatical will be our take on John Coltrane's masterwork:  "A Love Supreme."  It represents to me our next step in exploring and embracing sacred jazz. Not only is it the 50th anniversary of the composition, but it will be presented within the context of Good Friday. 

For those who know something about my spiritual journey that weaves the so-called secular into the very fabric of the often segregated sacred in pursuit of God's embodied truth, working with "A Love Supreme" is a natural next step. It is complex and challenging music - for musicians and congregants alike - thoroughly contemplative but never easy listening. That means we must do some preparation for the congregation and wider public concerning how to connect with these bold sounds. Besides our own intense practice as a quartet, there will need to be time given over to teaching and listening to this extraordinary jazz suite. 

And because this will not simply be a rendering of an historic composition, but rather a prayerful invitation to reflect on the presence of the Holy within even the horrors of the human experience - for that is at the heart of Good Friday - we will be blending other music, poetry and prayer into this jazz tapestry, too.  Soon, our small band of vocalists and instrumentalists at church will meet to begin a conversation about what else do we need to bring to both worship and "A Love Supreme." 

In the spirit of the ancient aphorism, "when the student is ready, the Buddha will appear," I was delighted to receive from my daughter and son-in-law a Christmas gift of the new 50th anniversary edition of the Coltrane CD. It includes the original disc from 1964 as well as some out takes and the only live presentation of the whole composition from Le Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes.  And rather than jump into this monster all at once, I've been reading Ashley Kahn's meticulous history and analysis of "A Love Supreme" nightly since Christmas Day. Here are a few insights about the opening that Coltrane entitled "Acknowledgement."

+ It begins with a gong and a fanfare.  The Chinese gong evokes mystery while Coltrane's fanfare on his rich tenor sax let's us know that something important is about to happen. "Whether blown from minarets or at military barracks, as a call to prayer or to arms, it is a time-honored device with a timeless function: fanfares demand attention." (Kahn, p. 97) This fanfare is warm and deep - in E major - not an ordinary setting for jazz horn players, but very natural for those schooled in the guitar blues of the Delta or Chicago. And when bassist, Jimmy Garrison, sets the tone for "Acknowledgement" it is the blues (in F) that provides the foundation.

+ The blues shapes this piece but also invites a rock solid bottom for improvisation. Alice Coltrane, the composer's beloved wife, notes that "When the E major chord hits, the doors of this composition start to open. This is an invitation to go deeper."  The blues riff played in deepens this open door - we know this sound, we "get" the integral relationship between the blues and jazz - and so we can't help but move inside. The 21st century jazz genius, Branford  Marsalis, who has played Bach as well as Brubeck, the Beatles and Hendrix, notes:

You know Led Zepplin's "Whole Lotta Love?" It sounds like "a love supreme" if you are paying attention. Or Willie Dixon's "The Seventh Sun?" That's the same bass line in the first section of " Love Supreme" - it's a blues lick. (And it sets the stage for what follows.)

+ The composition ripens with musical paradox.  "The more Coltrane 'limits' himself (to a time-tested form)... the more he seeks." Using the blues as a kick-off allows the artist to "push himself beyond form, drawing light from dark, pleasure from pain, liberation from constraint." (p. 100) Trane both tips his hat to the bass playing genius of Paul Chambers with whom he played along side with his mentor, Miles Davis ("So What?") and signals to his audience that he is going to take some additional "giant steps" into the future, too. He plays around with rhythm and timing, mixing African beats with Latin and blues grooves, invites McCoy Tyner to play in and out of time on the piano, and then moves beyond the beauty of melody.

+ The closing riffs and chant reveal how the blues and prayer - jazz and world music -
to say nothing of heaven and earth - are all united.  At the close, "Coltrane blows the four-note (opening) pattern thirty-seven times in methodic succession....What began as an "opening" is now raised to an extreme: it sounds as if the tune is being unraveled and reinvented moment by moment." (p. 102) Not only does Trane transpose the riff into a variety of keys - playing the same note patterns on these changes even as they clash against the E major foundation - but he does so inspirationally. Without a plan - in total freedom - creating a tension but also an awareness that seems to proclaim: in every key - against every rhythm - all the notes can be played with equal beauty and promise. 

And then, just so that we don't miss his point, Coltrane chants the words "a love supreme" to the same four beat groove that initiated the composition. Using his voice in a prayer that embraces all theologies and lives beyond all divisions: "It's as if he's saying it doesn't matter what we think we play that's man-made. God, you gave all of us an instrument. We can also offer you praise with the use of the voice that you created in us." (Alice Coltrane.) Wayne Shorter put it like this:

 I think he was saying you must rely on yourself for communications. I think he was going back to square one where the voice is the first announcement of your humanity - your humanity is your instrument.

With a gentle key change that sets up the next composition (from F minor to E flat) Trane's over-dubbed voice wraps-up a first take recording. But not before Garrison's bass brackets the ending with some sweet bluesy notes that anticipate part two: Resolution and resonates with the opening of "Acknowledgement." There is a LOT going on in in these 7:42 minutes:  homage to the past, a tip of the hat to his roots and mentors, an invitation to his audience to rest in the blues even as he pulls them along into a meditation on engagement in the world. Take a listen and follow along if you like... and know that there is more to come.

1) Mark Goodman @
2) Robert Jordano @


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