I submit to you the proposition that a sufficiently masterful composition can survive in not just any key, but any context, any time, any sensibility, or any instrumentation. To allow you to evaluate this proposition, I submit to you John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” The saxophonist’s half-hour suite, an artistic freedom-embracing hymn to the higher power Coltrane saw as having imbued him with not just life but a formidable skill on his instrument, came as an eponymous album from Impulse! Records in 1965. (Listen here.) Having won innumerable accolades in the near-half-century since, it now seems to have a permanent place on everyone’s list of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. About such a pillar of a work, only one question can remain: how would it sound on the bagpipes?
Here to satiate your curiosity comes Rufus Harley, the first jazz musician ever to take up the Scottish great Highland bagpipe as his main, er, horn. At the top of the post, you can hear him play a bit of “A Love Supreme” live on that signature instrument. He would also work other well-known pieces into his act, such as “Amazing Grace,” a song most commonly played in funerals. And indeed, it took a funeral to turn Harley on to the bagpipe’s untapped potential. “Moved by the pipes of the Black Watch Scottish Marching Band who were playing for the funeral of slain President John F. Kennedy in November, 1963,” says his bio at Hip Wax, he lined up “a $120 set of pipes from a pawn shop and help from musician-teacher Dennis Sandole,” and “the world’s only jazz bagpipist was on his way” — to places like the CBS game show I’ve Got a Secret, three years later, an appearance you can watch just above. You can learn more about Harley’s remarkable life and surprisingly funky career on Jazz City TV’s The Original Rufus Harley Story below.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.