This year sees the 50th anniversary of the release of John Coltrane’s undisputed masterpiece. A Love Supreme is one of the most profound records ever released, in any genre. It is one of only two records (the other being Kind of Blue) that alone justify the existence of jazz. While Miles Davis’ most known masterpiece exemplifies the late-night cool of the spectrum, A Love Supreme is all red-hot feeling and far reaching ambition. What you hear is a man pouring his heart out though a saxophone in front of a quartet of unrivaled kinesthetic response. What you’re really listening to, though, is the sound of John Coltrane playing to see God. As Ashley Kahn put it in his 2002 book about the album’s creation, the record possesses “the urgency of free jazz, the agitation of bebop, the familiar feel of the blues, and the orgasmic release of gospel.” It is simultaneously one of the most listenable jazz records and one of the most ethereal, one of the most challenging and one of the most popular. Has a difficult record ever become so ubiquitous?
So what about this super deluxe release (out on Impulse/Verve Records)? There’s a new set of liner notes from the aforementioned Ashley Kahn, and photos of Coltrane’s hand-written notes and charts, as well as other ephemera. (Of course, if you’re interested in this set, you probably already own Kahn’s book, so none of this will be new to you.) In 2002, Impulse released a “Deluxe Edition,” featuring several unreleased alternative takes, and the only known live performance of the suite. That live set is here, as are all surviving alternative takes. It’s not much, really. The main joy here is in the newly added sextet takes. At one time, Coltrane considered recording the album with a group that added bassist Art Davis and saxophonist Archie Shepp (an avant garde titan in his own right) to the quartet. What’s most interesting is listening to the rhythm section auditioning new ideas. Drummer Elvin Jones is trying to get just the right touch of Latin rhythms. Eventually, he’d abandon this approach all together. The twin basses of Jimmy Garrison and Art Davis play the eponymous melody in a round, working hard to get the timing right. That would be discarded as well and Coltrane would turn the secondary bass melody into a mantra, pushing the track and the album into new territory.
Fifty years on, A Love Supreme holds onto its power. From its sublime opening to its ecstatic heights, the music remains palpable. Later on in his short career, Coltrane would leave most listeners behind, urging his horn to speak in new tongues and recording moments two or three steps too outre to become well-loved. Here, though, right on the edge, Coltrane and his classic quartet found the perfect grace between melody and religion, and the sound is sweet, indeed.