A Love Supreme: the Gospel according to John Coltrane

“did you define love
john coltrane
when you wrote ‘one up, one down’
even years ago
when your raw aggression first trauma’d my ears

i wondered.

or did you define it later
with ‘a love supreme’
your perfectly balanced love chant
perhaps you got it right
at rainy newport, where you spoke of stormy balance

i still wonder.”

This is of course what Allan Browne writes, in his poem ‘one up, one down’, featured in his book conjuror’ (Extempore, 2012) and although it is futile to debate with poetry, I have to say that no, Coltrane did not define love with A Love Supreme. Because, to define is to confine, to set limitations; the very act of definition is to conquer a notion. There is no conquest in A Love Supreme – just quest.

50 years after its inception and recording, ‘A Love Supreme’ is a work of art – one of the most significant ones to emerge in the 20th century, in any art form – that continues to inspire awe in the listener, because it the same sentiment felt by its creator. Coltrane stands in awe of his subject, God, and it is this message of love delivered with audacity and humility that makes his work timeless. Far from defining, far from giving answers, Coltrane, through his bigger than life performance, posed the same questions that every human being asks, from birth to death. ‘Is God a three-letter word for Love?’, Duke Ellington would rephrase the question a few years later, in his third Sacred Concert. Coltrane had already made the same point in 1965. His suite, a blend of modal jazz and hard-bop with sperms of free jazz and its roots firmly based in the blues and gospel tradition, is at the same time a love chant, a battle cry and a hymn. In what is arguably the single most important recording in the ‘spiritual jazz’ sub-genre, Coltrane reaches both to the inner depths of his soul and to the universe, trying to communicate to the higher power. The irony being, of course, that in this case, the higher power in question was himself.

There is a church devoted to St. John Coltrane, in San Francisco. ‘Our mission is to paint the globe with the message of A Love Supreme, and in doing so promote global unity, peace on earth, and knowledge of the one true living God’, reads the statement in the African Orthodox Church’s website. Coltrane’s canonisation is not irrelevant to the fact that the saxophonist managed to quit heroin ‘cold turkey’, through the power of his music, as the popular legend among ‘Trane fans has it. It goes without saying that the ‘Coltrane Liturgy’ (i.e. A love supreme) is an essential part of the Divine Mass of this church.

A number of other jazz preachers have used the Gospel according to John Coltrane, from John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana, to Kurt Elling and Jose James; both Brandford and Wynton Marsalis have offered beautiful renditions, as has the sublime David Murray. Of essential listening should be the version included in cuban percussionist Miguel ‘Angá’ Díaz’s album Echu Mingua, which also includes an evocation to spirits.

A celebration of ‘A Love Supreme’ is, of course, one of the highlights of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival’s Summer Sessions, with a dream team of musicians offering their version of the Coltrane Liturgy at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club: Dale Barlow (saxophone), Barney McAll (piano), Phil Rex (bass) and Danny Fischer (drums). Both concerts were sold out. Not bad for a religious service.

(UPDATE)

It wasn’t until well into the concert, when after an hour had passed, that Dale Burlow summoned the spirit of John Coltrane. That is, when he actually called out his name; up to that point, he has been doing it as promised: by playing his sax as intensely as he could. Leading a quartet of brilliant performers that created a rich texture of sound, Barlow knew better than try to imitate Coltrane. With a healthy balance of self-consciousness and self-sarcasm, he suggested a fiery, yet playful and lyrical approach to the material, smartly switching to the flute for what proved to be the best, more laid-back, breezy parts of the gig. Barney McAll’s inventive and dense playing, far from McCoy Tyner’s distinct staccato, offered the kind of narrative that did justice to the term ‘re-imagining’. In that, he find an ally in Danny Fisher, an expressive drummer who attacked his cymbals with flair and ingenuity. But the true star of the quartet was Phil Rex, who seemed eager to fill any space his bandmates could leave uncovered and who took every chance he could get to step forward and shine. It’s very rare to find a bass player with such a distinct, big sound and the quartet put this quality of his to good use, even giving him the opening phrase of ‘Acknowledgement’, to the surprise of anyone expecting the distinct Coltrane phrase – that is to the surprise of everyone.

Playing in front of a packed venue – ‘I didn’t get into jazz to sell out’, quipped Barlow – the quartet managed to deliver on their promise and turn a wonderful, inspired and inspirational performance, that had the audience on their feet, feeling the love. Amen.

Links

Melbourne International Jazz Festival Summer Sessions: A Love Supreme.

The African Orthodox Church of St. John Coltrane

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