A Love Supreme: the Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album
Seldom do sheer talent, technical mastery, and deep feeling for the music, the times, and the hereafter combine with quite the same alchemy as they did in 1964, when John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme.
In telling the story of the making of that album, Ashley Kahn reprises his successful Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece of two years ago. Kahn's formula is to pick an emblematic recording and use it as the organizing theme for a mini-biography of the artist and meditations on music and society. A journalist and editor, the author knows and loves his subject, writes well, and refrains from overanalyzing the music. In combing the sources, Kahn inevitably lets some minutiae creep in--that it cost $6 to ship a set of tympani for drummer Elvin Jones to Rudy Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs, N.J., recording studio for the session, say--but most readers will welcome the details of what transpired there, as well as Kahn's pointed comments on the record industry.
A Love Supreme was released in 1965, coinciding, as Kahn quotes the record producer Joel Dorn, with "the emergence of a black consciousness" in America. The album gave voice to that consciousness. It was also a personal affirmation of Coltrane's triumph over seven years of addiction to drugs and alcohol. And it was a prayer, as he ingenuously wrote in his own liner notes, "to make others happy through music."
Like great jazz musicians before him, notably Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Coltrane distilled the life around him and spoke it through his horn. The dirgelike "Alabama," written in 1963 after four girls were killed in a church bombing, was based on a Martin Luther King Jr. speech. ("Psalm," which concludes A Love Supreme, resembles it.) At the same time, Coltrane, unlike most other musicians, was "pure music, from the top of his head to the soles of his shoes," as a colleague once described him. During the breaks, when the others headed for the bar and the chicks, Coltrane went into the bathroom--and practiced.
I was in high school in New Jersey when Coltrane first hit and blew through the walls like a cyclone. We saw him on several occasions, my friends and I--he was already a god to us--with Miles Davis, with his own quartet, and finally in Baltimore, at the Left Bank Jazz Society, now the Charles Theatre, in May 1967, two months before he died at age 40 of a liver ailment. It was a racially charged afternoon, the only time fights broke out at the Left Bank; at one point, Coltrane put down his horn and beat his chest with his fists. Less than a year later, following King's assassination, Baltimore's streets exploded in riots.
Even today, A Love Supreme captures the passionate tenor of those times and retains its sublime musical power. Kahn offers a worthy glimpse of its creation.