"A Love Supreme/The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album"
by Ashley Kahn
The Canonization of Coltrane's A Love Supreme
review by Kurt Gottschalk
In an era where it's all-to-easy to bemoan the popular inattention with which jazz is received, we have to take it where we can get it. The dead are more cherished than the living, and the died-too-young revered most of all. It's a sad state of affairs for what has been referred to as
At least the anniversaries are important, and the major labels do see fit to treat their history with pride every so often. Duke Ellington and Louie Armstrong were, quite rightly, given the royal treatment for their centenaries, and - to a lesser degree - John Coltrane's major statement has now been given a significant nod with an important reissue and a photo-filled, coffee table book documenting the making of the record.
To not include A Love Supreme on any list of most important jazz records could only be an act of belligerence. It's as plain a watershed moment in the history of music as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Rites of Spring. When it came out in 1965, it announced that the spirituality in black American music wasn't only to be found in slave songs and blues hollers. It was a serious and unmistakable statement. From the pensive cover photo to the prayer contained in the liner notes (the former chosen and the latter written by Coltrane himself), it was clear that this was a deeply felt act, a lying down in humility before one's creator.
The album was something of an apogee for Trane, marking (to overgeneralize only slightly) a shift from collections of songs to large-scale works, and a striving toward realizing an ecstatic passion, a vision beyond earthly existence. It is a serious work, in other words, which deserves the serious treatment it has now received.
The Impulse!/Verve Music Group 2-cd reissue of Coltrane's classic record collects everything that could reasonably be asked for - things oft bootlegged and rumored - into one set, starting with the removal of the wretched orange added to the cover for the original cd issue (Impulse! titles had a black, white and orange motif, but the first vinyl release of A Love Supreme was in pristine black and white).
Like the dignity of the cover, the sound of the album has been given proper treatment. While previous cd issues of the disc suffered from the fact that original masters were thought to be lost, for the "Deluxe Edition" release engineer Rudy van Gelder tracked down alternate master tapes sent to London CKCKCK for the European release, making the new transfer the closest to the original masters we're likely ever to hear.
And the sound here is gorgeous. The so familiar opening, the gong, the bass line, all shine. But the real revelation is the short vocal passage. In the muddy original mix, it was reasonable to assume that the members of the quartet broke into the "A love supreme" chant at the end of "Acknowledgement," the first of the four parts that make up the 32-minute suite. But here it is clear (and confirmed in Ashley Kahn's book, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album) that the vocal section is Trane, alone and overdubbed.
Kahn quotes Wayne Shorter, a saxophonist and Coltrane contemporary, as saying that Coltrane seems to chant "along with Elvin Jones and someone else maybe." And even van Gelder tells Kahn that "he did the voice live -- I don't believe his voice was overdubbed." But Kahn's archeological work proves otherwise.
As the chant begins, an audible dimension of reverb opens up, typical of the effect of overdubbing, or multitracking. It seems the additional voices were taped later. The voices sound layered, more alike than disparate. One further clue supports the argument that after a full day to think about it, Coltrane decided to add another voice: his own. A briefly jotted line on the audition tape box from December 10 reads: '900243 - Part I - voice overdub.'
Such a level of insight would probably not dawn on the casual listener, but the effect in the cleaned-up recording is hard to miss, and there's something chilling about hearing Coltrane's voice, clear and layered on top of itself, singing the familiar three-word chant.
That is probably the most dramatic revelation in the remastered recording, but the sound throughout benefits from a clarity that is relieving after a series of cd issues, all of which failed to shine.
The smartest thing about the package, however, is letting the album stand on its own. Far too often with important and ballyhooed reissues, the chaff is spliced back onto the wheat, providing historically interesting material but detracting from the feeling of the album as a single piece, the way the artist intended. Whether for such noble reasons, or just because more than 70 minutes of added material were found to round out the set, the disc sits proudly alone, as it should.
The second disc is essential to anyone who's yearned for it, and probably forgettable to anyone who hasn't. In the notes to the original release, Coltrane thanked Archie Shepp and Art Davis "who both recorded on a track that regrettably won't be released at this time" - a drop of a hint that has maddened fans in the 37 years since the disc was released. The masters have apparently long since been lost, but two takes of the sextet version of the opening segment (each about 9 minutes) were found on a copy of the session van Gelder made for Coltrane. The sound is inferior, and even drops out momentarily, and in the end it's easy to see why Trane didn't use those takes. Shepp's mad scream - like another Trane sideman and saxophone protŽgŽ, Pharaoh Saunders - just doesn't fit within the tightness of the McCoy Tyner/Elvin Jones/Jimmy Garrison quartet.
The remainder of the second disc contains the widely-bootlegged performance from Festival Mondial du Jazz
Kahn's book furthers the royal treatment of the record, attempting to chronicle Coltrane's indoctrination into, and struggles with, Christianity. It serves as something of a biography, not limiting itself to 1964-5, as the title might suggest, and uncovers some interesting background in the process.
But historians are faced with a difficult task, that being putting the enormity of their research into something commercially viable. The book, especially the central section which deals with the construction of the album, might belabor more than many readers will care to follow. But, like the CD, it's a job that may only be done once. For the sake of preservation, it should be done well. If the book is at times tedious, it's still valuable.
The most remarkable section of the book, which maybe shouldn't be a surprise, concerns van Gelder, a producer and engineer so significant in the 1960s that there is now a reissue series in his name. Van Gelder talks about the construction of his studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, about decorating it based on the temperament of who he'd be recording, and even about scheduling photo shoots separate from the recording session so he could switch equipment around rather than reveal what brand of microphone he had used. It's a story of a time and place, and of the lengths to which people went when jazz topped the charts.
Kurt Gottschalk is editor of the online music magazine The Squid's Ear (www.squidsear.com). He can be reached at Kurt@Squidco.com