A Love Supreme, John Coltrane’s signature album, was recorded in one session with his quartet on December 9, 1964 at the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey and released by Impulse! Records in February of the following year.
The intricate piece flourished from a four-note seed of a relatively simple idea based on the words “a love supreme”, that allowed the musicians—tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison—to subtly and carefully entwine it into a 33-minute long four-part suite.
The four movements “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalms” symbolize the stepping-stones of Coltrane’s spiritual quest and struggle for purity while overcoming drug and alcohol addiction, which resulted in being fired from Miles Davis’ group. As a true jazz alchemist, Coltraine transformed suffering into a hymn, announcing a major thematic trend in his later works.
In the manuscript, Coltrane writes that the A Love Supreme motif should be “played in all keys together.” In “Acknowledgement,” he indeed repeats the basic theme in all keys culminating with famous chanting of the theme at the end of the movement. Lewis Porter, the author of John Coltrane: His Life and Music (1999) says: “To me, he’s giving you a message here. Now he’s saying it’s everywhere. It’s in all 12 keys. Anywhere you look, you’re going to find this “Love Supreme”.”
Coltrane was entirely involved in every aspect of A Love Supreme: recording the chant, writing the liner notes and composing a devotional poem to accompany the crowning movement “Psalms” where he performs what he calls a “musical recitation of prayer”, “playing” the words on the saxophone instead of speaking them. Some scholars have considered this performance an homage to the sermons of African American preachers.
Even though there are no recorded interviews of him speaking about the concept behind his masterpiece, this exalting piece of music held an evident personal significance for the ingenious saxophonist. In fact, Coltrane gave very few verbal directions even to his band mates. Tyner remembers the unusual, almost magical atmosphere surrounding the session and calls the album a culmination and natural extension of chemistry honed through years of playing together live.
Powerful and vulnerable at the same time, A Love Supreme exudes with the attuned emotional effusions of each member of Coltrane’s quartet, bringing together the hard bop sensibilities of his early career, Miles Davis-inspired modal influences and the free jazz style he later adopted.
The album’s influence has been extensive from John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana guitar version of “Acknowledgement” to vocal versions by Will Downing, José James and Kurt Elling. The suite also forms four tracks on the Branford Marsalis Quartet album titled Footsteps of Our Fathers. Wynton Marsalis followed his brother’s footsteps and recorded the suite in 2003 with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
By December 1965 Coltrane’s monumental achievement was named Downbeat magazine’s Album of the Year, nominated for two Grammy Awards and listed by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Quite popular for a jazz album, selling about 500,000 copies by 1970, it still remains a doorway to Coltrane’s music to many people who wouldn’t consider themselves jazz fans.
As further testimony to the recording’s importance, the manuscript for the album is part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution along with 25 rare and never before displayed photographs from the A Love Supreme recording session and one of Coltrane’s three principal saxophones that his son Ravi generously donated in March 2014.
“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being. When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups…I want to speak to their souls.” ― John Coltrane
Fun Fact: Coltrane’s home in Dix Hills, Long Island, has been considered as the site of inspiration for A Love Supreme. Now, Coltrane’s son Ravi, Carlos Santana and others want to turn this house into a museum and learning center. They are trying to raise the funds to make this dream a reality.