Sunday, February 28, 2016

a love supreme - part one...

NOTE:  For the next few weeks, I will be sharing thoughts and interpretations of our
emerging work with John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. This is the first in a series based upon our liturgy for Good Friday.

On Good Friday 2016 (Friday, March 25, 2016 for most folk) our small band of artists, vocalists and instrumental guests will share a public reflection on God's mysterious love based upon our take on "A Love Supreme." For the jazz cognoscenti, this is Coltrane's masterwork - a living testament to his genius - and we will use it as our foundation. But this evening will not be a mere recreation of Coltrane's composition in honor of its 50th anniversary. Rather, we are treating it as the creative scaffolding upon which we will construct additional layers of vocal compositions, poems, prayers, scriptures and extended silences - a night of spiritual aesthetics formed by the via negativa - as befits a liturgy shaped by the ancient prayer: 

O happy fault that earned for us so great and glorious a Redeemer!
O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O necessary sin of Adam that has been destroyed completely by the death of Christ!

My understanding of Good Friday has certainly morphed over the decades - and our experiments with this liturgy have gone through wild permutations, too. Currently, in addition to the obvious lament saturating the death of Jesus on the Cross, I sense that Good Friday invites us to explore:  1) the mystery of God's steadfast love even in the midst of suffering; and 2) the relentlessness of grace. Two portions of Scripture guide my hunch both from the experiential wisdom of St. Paul:

+ First Corinthians 13: 11-13:  When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see as in a mirror darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. For now these things abideth: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.  This is at the heart of Christ's ministry and the very kernal of truth out of which the rest of the gospel bears fruit. Without trusting in the mystery of love, Good Friday is agony and abandonment without redemption.

+ Romans 8: 26-39:  The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. And the One who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. Therefore, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to God's purpose... That is why I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  The testimony of those who trust - and trust is the heart of faith - know that when we relinquish our control, God's love can work in and through us in ways beyond comprehension. This, too, is part of the "love supreme" of Good Friday spirituality.
Consequently, this year's journey into the emptiness of Good Friday will be filled with quiet time as well as extended jazz improvisation. But here's the truly fascinating truth that has slowly taken hold of my heart: ALL of what we'll be exploring is rooted in the blues. Coltrane's fascinating music starts with a grace-filled romp through the blues as a musical form but then moves two or three steps beyond. Our vocals and poems will take up this methodology using various forms of lament as a reference point but moving well beyond the obvious, too. Because that is where faith carries us on Good Friday:  it is not a destination locked away in the tomb. It is a descent into Hell that keeps moving back into Life towards the blessings of Heaven.

Here is an example from the first movement of A Love Supreme called "Acknowledgment." After the opening fanfare that announces the start of something important, the bass plays a free form "blues riff" in F that provides the firm foundation upon which rhythms and melodies are created, improvised upon and relinquished.

The chords that are played in and around this riff - the varying rhythms created by the drums and the soaring melodies of the saxophone - are all born of the blues. I sense this is true throughout the other three movements of this composition, too. Coltrane starts with a form - and a melody - and then plays through it and around it to evoke the vastness of God's gracious love. There are NO limits here; there are no constrictions either: All is God. And the only way into this incomprehensible freedom - even in the midst of suffering and lament - is to start with a familiar form (the blues) and then let it be shattered by love. Like St. Paul on the Damascus Road, Coltrane is saying: "I once was blind... but NOW I see." Or he is paraphrasing the gracious parent in the parable of the wayward child: "I can only rejoice because once my child was lost, but now she is found." 

Listen to the completely unstructured way Coltrane plays the opening riff over and even through our traditional understanding of scales at the climax of "Acknowledgment." He is mirroring in a dark way the opening bass groove. This is his aural invitation into the steadfast love of the Lord. And then, just so that we're not left completely in a realm beyond human comprehension, he concludes this composition with a chant.  "A love supreme" is sung/spoken/ chanted over and over using by the now familiar opening riff as our point of reference. And it is all about tenderness. It is our hope that as we play with this song, our vocalists will take up Coltrane's prayer and both sing this chant with harmonies but maybe even play with other parts of the song using their voices as yet one more instrument of ecstatic praise.

This type of spiritual aesthetics is soul food for me. I take the traditions of the church very seriously. At the same time, as Heschel notes, when they become an heirloom rather that a fountain of living faith, religion becomes meaningless. Our era is one where cruel Christians (and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists, too) render religion ugly and ridiculous every day. But even their atrocities can not blot out the steadfast love of the Lord. It is my hope that our work in this vein opens some hearts and minds to God's grace.

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