John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” Played With Bagpipes: The Artistry of Rufus Harley

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Coltrane’s Hand­writ­ten Out­line for His Mas­ter­piece A Love Supreme

John Coltrane Per­forms A Love Supreme and Oth­er Clas­sics in Antibes (July 1965)

Watch John Coltrane and His Great Quin­tet Play ‘My Favorite Things’ (1961)

The World Accord­ing to John Coltrane: His Life & Music Revealed in Heart­felt 1990 Doc­u­men­tary

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.

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