a love supreme - part two...

NOTE:  On Friday, March 25, 2016 - Good Friday - we'll be using Coltrane's masterwork, A Love Supreme, as a way to explore some of the spiritual wisdom of this moment in time. I am currently crafting my working understanding of each movement.

“The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
Ralph EllisonLiving with Music: Jazz Writings

The more I listen carefully and critically to Coltrane's, A Love Supreme, the more I know that it is his soulful homage to the blues saturated in prayer.  As Ellison writes elsewhere, back in the day "it was either live with music or die with noise and we chose rather desperately to live." Such is the fate of African-American artists in the United States - then and now - and 'Trane's fierce desire to live and redeem his life with beauty and truth, blasts through each of the four movements of his "blues" masterwork. Writing as a jazz critic in the early days of this emerging genre, Ellison challenged the performers of his day to make certain that jazz remained connected to both the dance floor and the blues. For "the blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others or by one's own human failing." 

Like many young white hipsters in the 60s, my first encounter with Coltrane left me confused: I knew Delta blues and Chicago blues; like many visitors to the Fillmore East, I knew English blues and psychedelic blues, too. I was turned on to the music of Leadbelly in 6th grade. In the early days of the folk craze, I listened to Mississippi John Hurt's Southern-fried country blues and came to relish the rowdy bravado of Muddy Waters and Little Walter electric urban blues as well. I was stone cold gaga over Peter Green's earl;y work with Fleetwood Mac and adored every incarnation John Mayall and Eric Clapton came up with in their extended careers. But I found Coltrane impenetrable. Sure, Roger McQuinn of The Byrds said his guitar break throughout "8 Miles High" was inspired by Coltrane - and I loved that song - but I still didn't know how to hear what was taking place.  "Favorite Things" was more accessible, but A Love Supreme left me in the dust.

And that's where Coltrane's masterpiece remained for me until this summer: in the quiet of an extended sabbatical - with time to practice, listen and meditate - I started to hear where the master was pointing - and I discovered his creative tribute to the blues. I noted in yesterday's posting, that the first movement of this A Love Supreme, "Acknowledgement," is built upon a free form blues bass groove in F. The second movement, "Resolution," steps beyond an obvious blues sound with its opening descending bass line. But, if you listen carefully, a modified blues form provides the songs inner structure as this movement (mostly) moves from Eb to Gb and F before being resolved in Bb.

In his insightful and challenging, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, Scott Saul observes that Coltrane interprets his blues foundation in this second movement by reworking the sax solo melody from "Acknowledgment." But instead of playing it in F he does so in C against a Bb foundation. 

Thus does Coltrane recall A Love Supreme's original motive while placing it out of 
joint; and remarkably, his improvisation remains on this raised path, his explorations of the pentatonic C scale set against the B-flat ruminations of Tyner and Garrison. It's as if Coltrane were operating in a universe parallel to Tyner and Garrison—one that allows him to mimic them but keeps him from a richer identification. Here Coltrane uses the suite form to test the limits of unity—both the unity that joins past and present (the first and third movements, joined by the three-note cell), and the unity that joins self and other (Coltrane and his bandmates, joined by the improvising in the pentatonic scale. (NOTE: The pentatonic scale is at the heart of the blues.)

Why this matters, of course, is open to vigorous interpretation among jazz purists and those creating experimental liturgies: for my purposes - as a part of a Good Friday experience - it goes back to both Romans 8 ("all things work for good for those who love God" - including I would add all notes) as well as the evening's Scriptural lament in Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
   and by night, but find no rest. 
Yet you are holy,
   enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
   they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
   in you they trusted, and were not put to shame...
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
   you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
   and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
   for trouble is near
   and there is no one to help.

Coltrane opens A Love Supreme with his "Acknowledgment" of a love that guides, shapes and inspires all of creation. He then shares what his inner "Resolution" sounds like by expressing both joy and lament within a form grounded in trust.  The blues, it would seem, born of the Lord, is big enough to hold the totality of life - even that which doesn't fit the traditional scales of our expectations.  


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