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John Coltrane: Ballads/A Love Supreme

Atop one of San Francisco’s many hills, about halfway between the Pacific Heights neighborhood and the Panhandle, lies the current location of the St. John Coltrane Church. Prior to its affiliation with the African Orthodox Church in 1982, it was a jazz club named the Yardbird Temple—taking its name from Charlie Parker’s professional sobriquet—founded in the late ‘60s by a young couple whose lives were forever changed when they saw Coltrane perform in September 1965. In Coltrane’s saxophone, Franzo and Marina King heard the voice of God, and they came to worship him as God in the flesh; years later, when the Kings joined the African Orthodox Church, they canonized Coltrane as a saint. Over the last four decades, gentrification has threatened not just the existence of the St. John Coltrane Church, which has had to relocate several times in recent years, but the legacy of jazz and Black culture in San Francisco, whose Fillmore District was once called the Harlem of the West. But on the first Sunday of every month, the faithful congregate at 2097 Turk Boulevard—or, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in a Facebook Live meeting—seeking illumination through scripture, hymns and, of course, the music of John Coltrane.

Such is the power of Coltrane and his magnum opus, A Love Supreme, then and now. Released the same year as the Kings’ “sound baptism,” as they called it, A Love Supreme was met with rapturous reviews, and in the 55 years since it has come to be regarded as one of the two most important records in jazz history. (Its only competition is Kind of Blue, by Coltrane’s former bandleader Miles Davis.) It’s the kind of work that so much ink has already been spilled over that it’s almost impossible to write anything new about it, and re-released so many times that it would be easy to get cynical about the “reissue, repackage, reevaluate” cycle if the album didn’t justify it. Does the world really need a 55th-anniversary remaster of A Love Supreme, without any extra frills or thrills? The answer is yes, and the answer will still be yes five years from now when we’re recognizing its 60th anniversary.

Coltrane found God in 1957 after several years of heroin abuse and alcoholism, which had stalled his career. (He’d been fired from Davis’ First Great Quintet for his addictions, though the trumpeter would hire Coltrane again the following year.) Suddenly, the troubled-but-brilliant saxophone player experienced what he referred to in A Love Supreme’s liner notes as “a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life,” and took to his craft with renewed purpose. He signed to Atlantic Records in 1959 and released his seminal Giant Steps in 1960, the same year he began working with pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. But it wasn’t until Coltrane moved to Impulse! Records and formed the classic lineup of his quartet with the addition of bassist Jimmy Garrison that he began recording his most forward-thinking material, from the big-band sound of Africa/Brass to the free-jazz squalls of Ascension and Meditations.

Although A Love Supreme was released just two years before Coltrane’s death, it sits at the fulcrum of his career and remains the most common entry point into his body of work. Deeply spiritual but never didactic, stylistically restless but never esoteric, it strikes the perfect balance between its creator’s more accessible and more experimental poles, which is all the more surprising given how late he was in his career when he recorded it. (Given Coltrane’s many posthumous releases, it sits at about the midpoint of his discography.) It’s often lumped into the category of “avant-garde” jazz, but it’s not avant-garde in the sense that it abandons jazz traditions and forms so much as it draws from various strains of the genre. A Love Supreme, like almost every other great jazz album of its decade, owes a debt to Kind of Blue for popularizing modal jazz, a style of playing that eschews conventional chord changes in favor of fluid improvisation around scales. But you can also hear hard bop in Tyner’s blocky piano chords on “Resolution” and “Pursuance” as he backs up Coltrane; when it’s Tyner’s turn to solo on these tracks, it sounds like he’s playing in both styles at once. You can even pick out bits of free jazz in Coltrane’s wilder solos, months before he threw himself headlong into the subgenre.

But it also makes sense to talk about how A Love Supreme works in terms of moods, not just in terms of chords and notes. The four movements on A Love Supreme feel like an emotional odyssey: they rise and fall, together on the macroscale and within themselves. From its opening gong to Coltrane’s chanting the album’s title, “Acknowledgement” feels like an awakening, hinting at something beyond what the music or the words “a love supreme” can convey. There’s a similar electricity to “Pursuance,” which features solos from all four members of the quartet: Jones and Garrison get full minutes to themselves, with Garrison’s deep, brooding plucks leading into the somber final movement, “Psalm.” Coltrane’s saxophone takes on an almost mournful quality on “Psalm,” bearing more resemblance to “Alabama”—Coltrane’s dirge for the four girls murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing—than to his playing on “Acknowledgement” and “Pursuance,” which demonstrate the dense but breathtakingly fluid runs of notes (what jazz historian Ira Gitler dubbed “sheets of sound”) that were unique to Coltrane even in his pre-Atlantic albums.

Of course, A Love Supreme is less experimental than Coltrane’s subsequent forays into free jazz, which can be aggressive and all but impenetrable to casual listeners. But it’s also easier on the ears that some of the albums that came before it, like Giant Steps and Coltrane “Live” at the Village Vanguard. The years between these albums and A Love Supreme were more conservative for Coltrane’s music, predominantly consisting of standards and a pair of collaborations with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman. Among these records he made in this period was Ballads, effectively Coltrane’s covers album. The eight songs on Ballads collect some of the finest composers of the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era, such as Jimmy McHugh and Richard Rodgers; half of the songs are over in less than four minutes, and only one clocks in at longer than five minutes. In other words, this isn’t an album on which Coltrane was trying to challenge our conceptions of jazz, or even put his idiosyncratic spin on familiar songs (as on My Favorite Things, which stretched the title track out to nearly 14 minutes).

But that doesn’t mean Ballads punches under Coltrane’s usual weight, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t a treat to listen to. It’s one of Coltrane’s least representative albums, and not even one of his best, but it’s also probably his least demanding. Stripped of Coltrane’s usual sheets of sound, Ballads instead functions as a showcase for his gorgeous saxophone tones, as well as Tyner’s silvery piano melodies. Although Jones appears on all eight tracks and Garrison on all but one, their rhythm section is so understated that at times it sounds as if only Coltrane and Tyner are in the studio. The two play off each other like duet partners in “Say It (Over and Over Again)” and “Too Young to Go Steady,” but Jones and Garrison get a chance to shine on “All or Nothing at All,” giving the song a sprightlier tempo and a subtle but noticeable pair of hips. Listeners who find even A Love Supreme to be on the challenging side, or those who are still trying to decide if they even like jazz, are advised to give Ballads a few spins before coming to a final verdict.

John Coltrane’s ascent into the pantheon of not just jazz, but Western popular music was anything but preordained. He could have lost his life to drink and drugs, like so many other talented young jazz musicians of his era. Instead, he felt moved by the grace of God, and set himself on a new path of creativity and enlightenment. “I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music,” as he wrote in A Love Supreme’s liner notes. For the last ten years of his life, Coltrane’s saxophone became the medium through which he spread the Gospel of the Lord, his way of giving back to God by sharing his gift with anyone who would listen. The only words spoken aloud on A Love Supreme are its title, but every note seems to say: Thank you, God. Amen.

Does the world really need a 55th-anniversary remaster of A Love Supreme, without any extra frills or thrills? The answer is yes, and the answer will still be yes five years from now when we’re recognizing its 60th anniversary.
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