What can I add to the chorus of voices in praise of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Recorded in December of 1964 and released fifty years ago this month, the album has gone on to achieve cult status—literally inspiring a church founded in Coltrane’s name—as one of the finest works of jazz or any other form of music. It cemented Coltrane’s name in the pantheon of great composers, and re-invented religious music for a secular age. Composed as a hymn of praise and gratitude, “the bizarre suite of four movements,” wrote NPR’s Arun Rath last year, “communicated a profound spiritual and philosophical message.” That message is articulated explicitly by Coltrane in the album’s liner notes as “a humble offering to Him,” the deity he experienced in a 1957 “spiritual awakening” that “lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.”
These phrases speak the language of recovery, and Coltrane found God through a program of recovery from heroin addiction. Like so many who have embraced faith after addiction, Coltrane’s devotion was ardent, but neither dogmatic nor judgmental. He “refused to commit to a single religion,” writes Rath, “His idea of God couldn’t be contained by any doctrine. But with his saxophone, and with his band, he could preach.” That he did, religiously, no pun intended. Before the recording of A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s classic quartet—including drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner, and bassist Jimmy Garrison—toured the U.S. for four years. As the BBC documentary above informs us, “The group’s appetite for performance was ferocious.” They played “two gigs a day, six nights a week, taking only short breaks in the studio to record material for more than fifteen increasingly critically acclaimed albums.”
By the time the group recorded A Love Supreme, they had developed “an amazing unspoken communication.” Tyner recalled the album as “a culmination and natural extension of chemistry honed through years of playing together live.” (Despite all that, they would only perform the suite of songs live once, in Antibes, France, resulting in a live album and some fragmentary film of the event.) Narrated by Jez Nelson, the 2004 radio documentary (up top) presents interviews with Tyner, Jones, modernist composer Steve Reich, Coltrane’s wife Alice, and others, in-between passages of Coltrane’s music, including his major breakout hit recording of “My Favorite Things.”
Among the many tributes to the album’s inspiring, transcendent genius, Coltrane scholar Ashley Kahn offers a very down-to-earth assessment of A Love Supreme’s importance: “[Coltrane] was not a prodigy. He was someone who worked very, very, very hard at his craft, and he showed us, and he shows musicians still, that it is possible.” Whether we attribute Coltrane’s achievements to divine inspiration, incredibly hard work, or some combination of the two, the proof of his devotion stands the test of fifty years, and fifty years from now, I suspect we’ll say much the same.