‘A Love Supreme’ at 50

I have given up long ago on making any kind of easily broken New Year’s resolution to mark the arrival of another year, so for 2016 I decided to do something different that will start me off on the right foot and stay with me through the year ahead: choosing my first musical selection of the year.

That, for me, would be the classic jazz album A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. I can think of no better way to start a new year than by sitting down and once again giving a close listen to this magnificent recording that has inspired so many people around the world since it was released back in February 1965.

But not just the original version of that record — what I’m listening to now as I write these words is A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters, a new three-CD set that commemorates the 50 years since its release by Coltrane to instant, and lasting, public acclaim. This repackaged edition of A Love Supreme is a true musical treasure for the ears and feast for the soul.

What is it about A Love Supreme that makes it so warmly embraced by so many people of differing walks of life all over the planet? I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. Of course, there is the very high level of craftsmanship that all four members of Trane’s classic quartet brought to the table: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums and Trane himself on saxophone — all of them playing at the peak of their prowess and communicating intently with each other on literally every note.

Yet chops alone doesn’t explain it. Then, could it be the sound? Many professional musicians know about a thing call the Universal Tone, that special something that somehow penetrates all barriers and boundaries and hits people right in the heart and unites them in their humanity. Few musicians ever reach that plateau in their lifetime, but Trane’s sound on A Love Supreme is at that universal level, no doubt. But is that all?

Maybe it’s also the pulse of spirituality that A Love Supreme resonates, a reflection of that deep inner place that Trane was at when he composed this four-part suite: “Acknowledgement”, “Resolution”, “Pursuance” and “Psalm”. Popular music is not generally known for its spiritual pursuits; monetary profit is usually the more immediate goal. Yet this record was exceptional in showing that something spiritually nourishing could also do well on the popular charts.

Or perhaps it’s something simpler that most people who listen to A Love Supreme tend to overlook: Coltrane’s direct message to each owner of the record.

The original liner notes on the album’s inner jacket, written by Trane himself, are very honest and open about how he was moved by his relationship with God (or however you want to define that entity) to share A Love Supreme with the world as a new direction in his musical development. Most liner notes of jazz records back then were written by so-called professional jazz critics, and there often seemed to be a gap between how a critic explained the music to you in a particular album’s liner notes and how you, the listener, received the music and felt about it. Trane, as the artist, bypassed that critique completely and addressed you personally in writing. How often does that ever happen on a major record label?

In the end, it’s not any one of these factors but rather all of them put together, I think, that sets A Love Supreme so far apart, above and ahead of other musical recordings, both in and outside of jazz. And this newly released, three-disc commemorative edition of A Love Supreme shows that the reverence in which people have held Coltrane’s landmark recording is as high as ever.

The first disc in this new edition includes the original 33-minute stereo version of A Love Supreme and a couple of mono versions of the tunes that were in Coltrane’s personal possession.

Disc 2 is where most of the new stuff is: assorted studio outtakes from the recording of A Love Supreme back in December 1964 — both a sextet session (featuring additional players Archie Shepp on tenor sax and Art Davis on bass) and the quartet session, which Trane eventually decided to go with in publicly releasing the record.

The third disc features the Coltrane quartet performing A Love Supreme at a jazz festival in France in summer 1965, which is reportedly the one and only time that the entire Love Supreme suite was performed in concert. You can view a video excerpt of that rare performance here (full audio link here).

And to top it all off, the inner packaging of the new edition includes some archival handwritten notes and compositional sketches by John Coltrane himself, including the album’s original liner notes and Coltrane’s direct message to the reader. The accompanying booklet also has some rarely seen photos of Trane and (believe it or not!) a well-written essay by Ashley Kahn, who I consider to be the only jazz writer worthy of critiquing this subject matter and capable of doing a good job at it.

So, A Love Supreme has now turned 50. And I can’t imagine a better way for me to spend my own 57th birthday, today, than by listening to it once again and taking in all the feeling and deep vibes that have made this record the very special gift it is. The perfect way to begin a year.

And if you’re looking for a recommendation on how to kick off your own New Year in a meaningful way, you’ve got it right here. Just listen…and enjoy.

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