Great Fucking Albums #16: A Love Supreme

A while back, I was arguing with someone on an unrelated topic and the person suggested that jazz was intended to be an intellectual (read: “hard to understand”) genre of music. This is, to me, complete bullshit. If we are to believe Jelly Roll Morton’s assertion that he invented jazz (and why shouldn’t we trust a dude named Jelly Roll?), jazz wasn’t created to be deliberately obtuse; it was created to get Jelly Roll Morton laid. Even if we set aside the question of who “invented” jazz, the greats of so-called “experimental” jazz were not trying to solve musical math problems. They were masters of their instruments striving for ever more transcendent musical expression. It wasn’t their heads or even their hearts they were trying to follow – it was whatever they thought of as their souls. John Coltrane once said, “…when I go from a calm moment to a moment of extreme tension, the only factors that push me are emotional factors, to the exclusion of all musical considerations.” That’s not intellectual at all. In fact, one of the great masters of jazz just told you that, in some ways, it’s not even musical.

Which suits me just fine as a segue to discuss what is, in my mind, the greatest jazz record ever: John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. There are plenty of people who would bestow Best Jazz Record Ever status upon Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, and I can see the argument – Coltrane played on that record too. A Love Supreme was conceived by Coltrane as a way of thanking his God for giving him “the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” Coltrane certainly did make others happy through music and if your god can’t dig A Love Supreme, you need to find a new god.

Timid listeners might lump A Love Supreme in with “experimental” jazz and never listen to it, but it was recorded with Coltrane’s “classic” quartet – himself on sax (duh), McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. Though it certainly isn’t as listener-friendly as Kind of Blue, it has melodic themes and elements of straight up bop that should reward even the most fearful ears. A Love Supreme probably shouldn’t be your first exposure to Coltrane, but it’s nowhere near Interstellar Space in the weird department.

The musical argument for A Love Supreme as a Great Fucking Album pretty much makes itself. No one before or since could play the saxophone like John Coltrane and Tyner, Garrison, and Jones were all amazing musicians in their own right. Garrison pulls off a magnificent combination of runs and strummed chords at the end of “Pursuance” – it’s the kind of playing that makes me long for a video game called Jazz Bass Hero and subtitled Yngwie Malmsteen is A Total Pussy (will I ever relent in my belief that Yngwie Malmsteen is an overrated, sun-dried turd of a guitarist? Never!). And if John Coltrane was the cream of the saxophone crop, Elvin Jones was jazz’s most badass drummer (look him up – he played with Mingus and Miles and then spent six years in Coltrane’s quartet. Your favorite drummer’s resume probably doesn’t look that good). Jones gets some heavy spotlight time on “Pursuance” but his drumming throughout A Love Supreme is revelatory.

A Love Supreme is an overtly religious record, which might bother me more if it was full of cheesy religious lyrics. But it’s not. What it is full of is music that strives to translate the depth of one man’s reverence into art. It comes as close to being truly transcendent as anything I’ve ever heard. But set that aside if you want; you certainly don’t have to believe in god to know quality music when you hear it. I know what the critics have said about A Love Supreme (by now, everyone does – the album came out in 1965), but I wouldn’t put it on my list of Great Fucking Albums if there wasn’t something personal in it for me and that is this: I am a better person when I listen to A Love Supreme. Don’t believe me? I’ll give you an example. When I’m stuck in really shitty traffic, especially when I’m leaving one job and going straight to another one and am stressed about being late (my bosses, it should be noted, are pretty kind about traffic delays, but I fucking hate being late. Most of the time, I am a habitually early person and mere “right-on-time” punctuality is aggravating to me), I can go one of two musical ways to keep myself from hulking out on the freeway and flinging Hummers and Escalades at each other until all of Los Angeles is consumed in the fires of my fury. One way is punk music; it can be very cathartic and it gets the poisons out pretty quickly. But the other way is jazz, especially A Love Supreme. I can be in the worst traffic in the world and if I put this album on, I calm down. I focus on the music – four men recording a masterpiece in one session – and my anger is replaced by awe. A Love Supreme, for me, does what all great art should do – it takes me away from the meaningless bullshit of the immediate moment and transports me to a place where I’m contemplating something that is not adequately described in words. It doesn’t make me fall in love with a god the way that John Coltrane did (though I’m not knocking that at all – if the world had more religious people like John Coltrane and fewer like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, we’d be in much better shape), but it does lift my spirit.

In “Psalm,” the final part of the suite that makes up A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s sax part is modeled on the cadence of his poem, “A Love Supreme”; the lyrics are helpfully included in the liner notes. Toward the end of that poem, in all capital letters, three words appear: “ELATION – ELEGANCE – EXALTATION.” Keep in mind that these words are played during “Psalm” but they are never spoken. They don’t have to be; A Love Supreme is imbued with those three concepts from start to finish and you don’t have to go to church to understand that.

Elvin Jones said, “If you want to know who John Coltrane was, you have to know A Love Supreme.” I won’t try to understand the man from just this one record, but I feel confident enough to suggest that John Coltrane was a man who understood that faith is more inspiring when it leads to creativity instead of judgment, love instead of hate, and gratitude instead of a sense of entitlement. And if that’s too idealistic for you, than let me close by saying that I am even more confident in asserting, with A Love Supreme as the sole piece of evidence, that John Coltrane was one of the rarest, greatest musical talents of all time and this album captures him at the considerable height of his powers.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Great Fucking Albums #16: A Love Supreme

  1. Pingback: Gimme Fiction « Bollocks!

  2. Pingback: Catchy Yes, But Trendy No « Bollocks!

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