“A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane (1965)

Jazz fans will be familiar with the work of Rudy Van Gelder of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., who has been a recording engineer for nearly 70 years. He’s responsible for capturing some of the genre’s most enduring performances for posterity, with many top artists – the ornery Charles Mingus was a notable exception – choosing to use his talents.

Van Gelder had worked with saxophonist John Coltrane on many occasions, dating back to his legendary stint with the Miles Davis Quintet, before Coltrane entered his studio on Dec. 9, 1964.

“He had been in other studios, so he must have felt that I could help him be heard the way he wanted to be heard,” Van Gelder told author Ashley Kahn in 2001. “The fact that he was here said it all.”

With Coltrane were the other members of his quartet, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. As Tyner recalled:

John said very little about what he wanted. If he had certain specifics that he wanted to add to the music or how he wanted it played, he would say it. I think this is so important, because it was an on-the-spot improvisation, honestly approached music, with no pretentions about it at all.

The band had played sections of the four-part suite that became “A Love Supreme” during live gigs, but the studio date marked the first time the musicians would attempt to bring Coltrane’s vision together as a coherent piece.

Van Gelder discussed with Kahn his role in capturing the proceedings:

All of them were two-track recordings, which eliminated an possibility of mixing later. The advantages of doing one or two tunes at a time in a direct-to-two-track mode allowed me to concentrate more on the balance, mix and overall sound. Yes, we could edit the takes, but we couldn’t change the balance.

So, in what truly was a live performance, the quartet launched into one of jazz’s most celebrated recordings.

Jones opens by striking a Chinese gong, the only time Coltrane used that particular instrument, according to Ravi, his son. Coltrane then enters on tenor sax with a tuneful E-major flurry before Garrison starts to play the four-note sequence for which the album is best known.

“Acknowledgement,” as the first section is titled, builds on the basic 4/4 rhythm as Coltrane solos, starting quietly and building with intensity. Jones adds his usual fluidity to complement the saxophonist before the entire band focuses on the thematic four notes.

The Coltrane takes an interesting turn, playing the pattern three dozen times in various keys, in some ways foreshadowing the New Thing atonality that he’d explore at length the following year. As Dave Liebman, who played saxophone in Davis’ and Jones’ bands during the 1970s, noted about Coltrane’s unusual foray:

It’s really towards what he’s about to go into, which is very, very free and non-key-centered improvisation. The way he takes that “a love supreme” motif, and transposes it through all the keys over the ostinato pattern that Jimmy is playing, is a real study. And McCoy is sort of in between, chasing Coltrane, and staying on the same key.

Eventually, Coltane starts reciting the key phrase, with Van Gelder adjusting the microphone after it failed to pick up the initial “a love.” He repeats the chant, augmented by overdubs recorded the next evening, until his voice and the other instruments, except for Garrison’s bass, drop out. Garrison plays a short solo segueing into the next part of the suite.

“Resolution” had been tested live, as evidenced by a recording made at a small Philadelphia club nearly three months before the Van Gelder session. In the studio, the band did seven takes, with the final try being the one that made it to the LP; an outtake is featured on the boxed set “Classic Quartet: The Complete Impulse! Recordings.”

Coltrane enters with a flourish to state the section’s theme, one of Coltrane’s more enduring melodies. Compared with what preceded it, “Resolution” hearkens back to the saxophonist’s hard-bop work of the ’50s, focusing on chord changes rather than the modal structure he increasingly came to favor.

The final two sections of “A Love Supreme,” titled “Pursuance” and “Psalm,” were recorded together as a single take and appear as a single track on some reissues of the CD. The extended piece starts with a Jones solo, as he provides a demonstration of “the master percussionist’s polyrhythmic approach,” Kahn wrote.

Jones was already known for a ‘busy’ style before any cross-cultural sounds exerted their influence, and his distinctive translation of African and Caribbean polyrhythms onto the traditional jazz trap kit involved a democratic use of all its elements.

“Pursuance” proceeds in a relatively straightforward manner, with Tyner providing a freewheeling touch by flailing away on a series of inventive piano clusters. Coltrane adds a majestic solo drawing on his “sheets of sound” use of harmonics before returning to the section’s main theme.

Again, a Garrison bass solo provides a transition between sections, leading up to a Jones roll on the tympani for the suite’s dramatic conclusion.

“Psalm” is a stark mood piece built on rubato, a disregard for strict tempo. The backing musicians provide a loose foundation over which Coltrane basically recites a poem through his saxophone. As Kahn wrote:

Like a libretto, the words to “Psalm” (eventually titled “A Love Supreme” and printed on the inside of the album cover) define the lyrical flow of the music; one can follow syllable by syllable. Each line crests and resolves, implying punctuation.

And so the John Coltrane Quartet emerged from that Wednesday night session with a full album’s worth of music, although some extra musicians, bassist Art Davis and saxophonist Archie Shepp, joined in for a second session the following night. None of those recordings appeared on the finish product.

“A Love Supreme” was released in February 1965 to critical acclaim and commercial viability: It sold some half a million copies in the next five years, Coltrane’s best effort in that regard by a wide margin.

The quartet played the entire suite in concert just once, a July 26, 1965, performance at the Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, France, that was professionally recorded and is available as part of Impulse!’s “deluxe edition” CD. The live version is more dissonant than the studio effort, as Coltrane’s music had veered considerably in that direction during the seven-month interim.

As a matter of fact, Coltrane had booked a June session at Van Gelder’s studio to record “Ascension,” a 40-minute composition featuring numerous guest musicians improvising in turn. And for the last two years of his life – he died July 17, 1967 – Coltrane explored increasingly unconventional realms; check out his four-CD “Live in Japan” set (consisting of just six songs!) for a representative sampling of what he was delivering.

In that context, “A Love Supreme” serves as the bridge between Coltrane’s relatively subdued and wildly experimental periods. And as such, it has turned out to be his most enduring contribution to the world of music.

That goes for Rudy Van Gelder, too.

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