John Coltrane was a late bloomer. Born in 1926, the same year as Miles Davis, he spent his twenties in and out of small-time bands, a promising journeyman moving between playing jazz and the more bar-friendly music that was starting to be called R&B. During these early years he had problems with narcotics and alcohol, alternating stretches of heroin use with periods of binge drinking.
Charlie Parker—every sax player's hero when Coltrane was coming up in the 1940s and '50s—had given the junkie life a romantic aura for some naive souls, connecting drug use with creativity. But the underachieving Coltrane was a run-of-the-mill addict, someone broke and in ill health whose habit clearly kept him stuck in place. He was fired from Miles Davis' band in 1957 for showing up on the bandstand dressed in shabby clothes and visibly drunk—by some accounts he took a punch from the trumpeter before being given his walking papers.
And if Coltrane had spiraled and his career had ended there, he'd be remembered now as a musician who flamed out just as he was discovering his voice. But that's not what happened. Everything changed for Coltrane in 1957 when, as he wrote in the liner notes to his defining album, A Love Supreme, he "experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life." During that year, Coltrane stopped drinking and kicked heroin, and from that point forward, his career would unfold with an almost frightening amount of focus and intensity.
These final 10 years are when Coltrane made his mark on the world of jazz as a leader, and he was then seemingly always on the move, in transition, each moment glimpsed as a blur on a continuum rather than a fixed point in space. He wasn't just covering ground, he was accelerating, and every phase of his later career has the attendant feeling of stomach-dropping free-fall, of being pushed forcefully into new places. A Love Supreme, recorded with what was later called his classic quartet, is Coltrane's musical expression of his 1957 epiphany.
It's the sound of a man laying his soul bare. Structured as a suite and delivered in praise of God, everything about the record is designed for maximum emotional impact, from Elvin Jones' opening gong crash to the soft rain of McCoy Tyner's piano clusters to Coltrane's stately fanfare to Jimmy Garrison's iconic four-note bassline to the spoken chant by Coltrane—"a-LOVE-su-PREME, a-LOVE-su-PREME"—that carries out the opening movement, "Acknowledgement". By the time the record gets to the closing "Psalm", which finds Coltrane interpreting on his saxophone the syllables of a poem he'd written to the Creator, A Love Supreme has wrung its concept dry, extracting every drop of feeling from Coltrane's initial vision.
It's as complete a statement as exists in recorded jazz. Hearing it now as part of this exhaustive 2 CD set, which gathers every scrap of material recorded during the sessions, you get a clearer sense than ever before of the different forms A Love Supreme might have taken, and how Coltrane's desire to communicate something specific and profound led to its final shape.
A Love Supreme is also one of the most popular albums in the last 60 years of jazz, selling the kind of numbers usually reserved for pop (it quickly sold more than 100,000 copies, and has almost certainly sold more than a million since). If Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is the most frequently bought first jazz album for those curious about the genre, A Love Supreme is easily number two. But though they were released just seven years apart, there's a world of difference between the two records, and the success of A Love Supreme is trickier to explain.
For all its structural daring, Kind of Blue also functions as an ambient record, with slower tempos and late-night ambiance. A Love Supreme is harder to get a handle on. If you can think of Coltrane's work on a continuum, from the gorgeous melodicism of "My Favorite Things" or Ballads or his album with Duke Ellington on one end and the brutal noise assault of the 1966 concerts collected on Concert in Japan on the other, A Love Supreme sits perfectly at the fulcrum, challenging enough to continually reveal new aspects but accessible enough to inspire newcomers.
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