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John Coltrane's Eternal 'A Love Supreme'

Saxophone legend John Coltrane's 1964 recording, A Love Supreme, is one of the masterworks in the canon of jazz: most musicians know it. Many have performed parts — if not all — of the 32-minute suite.

Now, a new edition of the Coltrane album has been released. It includes the original studio recording plus the only live performance of the complete work. The double CD is a result of research for a new book, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. Its author, Ashley Kahn, prepared an essay on the project for Morning Edition.

"John Coltrane is one of those rare musical figures who transcends both his time and category," Kahn says. "Today, in addition to jazz fans, rockers and rappers, head-bangers and hip-hoppers all swear their allegiance to him. And no album in his catalog reaches a wider audience than A Love Supreme, what he called his 'humble offering to God.'"

A Love Supreme was recorded one December evening in Rudy Van Gelder's legendary studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Pianist McCoy Tyner remembers the unusual, almost magical atmosphere surrounding the session. "Rudy that day dimmed the lights in his studio. I'd never seen him do that and it sort of set an atmosphere. There was just something very, very special about that particular session."

Drummer Elvin Jones says Coltrane "never wrote out any music for us. When he played we more or less had to imagine, or feel, how to interpret the song. And it got to the point where I felt I was almost part of his mind, almost telepathic in a way."

The quartet, which also included bassist Jimmy Garrison, needed little more than the seed of a melodic idea when it hit the studio. Tyner adds: "We had been playing some of that music and we didn't know what it was going to be until we got into the studio. And then it all came together."

Coltrane constructed the suite's main theme around a simple four-note pattern — based on the words "a love supreme."

But A Love Supreme is more than just a musical statement, Kahn says. "It's an unusually complete vision of one man's spirituality expressed through his art. Coltrane used the tools he had available and that he knew: a saxophone, a well-practiced quartet — even his own voice — to create music worthy of his creator."

In a 1966 interview, Coltrane discussed religion and spirituality.

"I've always felt that even though a man was not a Christian, he still has to know the truth some way or another. Or if he was a Christian, he could know the truth." he said. "The truth itself doesn't have any name on it to me. And each man has to find this for himself, I think."

Kahn says the influence of A Love Supreme can't just be measured by the sales charts.

"The truest gauge of this album's effect is in the intensity with which people speak of A Love Supreme and how they pass it on from one person to another — like a cherished, holy object. And in a way it is."

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Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.
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