In Retrospect: 51 years of “A Love Supreme”

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“All Praise Be to God to Whom All Praise Is Due.” — 51 years ago, these words graced and encapsulated a weakened and broken man, an alcoholic and a heroin addict and also a talented saxophonist who had been kicked out of his own jazz band for his vices. 51 years ago, the feeling of grace, which motivated him to kick his addiction, also resulted in one of the most innovative and crucial jazz albums of the 20th century. John Coltrane released “A Love Supreme” in the winter of 1965.

In many ways, speaking about this album is a herculean task — what is there left to say about this record? What more can possibly be expounded about its cultural influence? Perhaps not much, but this: “A Love Supreme” still matters. While jazz, despite being the touchstone of American popular music for almost a hundred years, is largely ignored by most except for its most devoted disciples, I make the case that this album fundamentally revolutionized the soundscape of jazz.

Structurally, this album is simple: Divided into four different parts with each representing thematic progressions, beginning with “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and finally, “Psalm.” For Coltrane, this record signaled a shift to modal jazz, which would eschew the heavy, chord change style Coltrane himself pioneered (known as bebop). Coltrane’s sax is unduly light, and yet carries such complex emotion under each riff. Furthermore, Coltrane’s bandmates are themselves legends: McCoy Tyner, considered one of the best pianists of his time and Elvin Jones on percussion; At the beginning of “Part 3: Pursuance,” Jones delivers one of the most intense and stunning drum solos I have ever heard.

While musicians such as Cecil Taylor and Miles Davis had been experimenting with modal jazz for a few years, Coltrane’s ensemble would move away from pure experimentation to express his inner turmoil. This movement from experimentation into a free form expressiveness from each musician is what gives so many of the songs the tonal gravity. Through this record, Coltrane would inspire countless musicians, from The Grateful Dead and The Doors, to Joni Mitchell and Radiohead.

For Coltrane, a jazz performance was more than a virtuosic performance. It was an exhibition of the player’s existential self, a cathartic release of his own self; to listen to the specific performance was to experience the deepest blues affecting the musician in that given moment. This idea was performed so heavily throughout the entire album that it became a foundational idea for many musicians afterward — from countless guitar solos to hip hop freestyles.
51 years later, in the midst of an election cycle which has reared the vile head of racism countless times and in innumerable forms, this record still proves that there is a fortitude to be found in art, and in “never forget(ting) the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and the rain … ” (from the liner notes). Even if jazz is not the kind of music you, as a listener, are privy to, this is a record worth diving into, even if only for a brief moment.

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