Oct 28 2012
When talking about favorites in music, it’s best not to speak in absolutes. The listener changes over time. The music does, too. Everything changes. But when I ignore the mine field of absolutes and state that John Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme is my favorite Jazz album of all-time, it’s about as close to a certainty as I’ll ever get when it comes to this kind of thing.
I guess I just feel like shooting the breeze about it today. I don’t expect this column will be very focused, but whatever. It’s Sunday and Autumn outside and I feel like daydreaming.
God, there are so many reasons I love this album. Just from a music standpoint, the opening track of the four-part suite “Acknowledgement,” with that dramatic crash of tam-tam, followed by some cymbal washes, a phrase on bass, and then Coltrane’s opening salvo, it’s such a powerful statement that exudes spirituality and enticement for what’s to come. And then Coltrane’s potent mix of languid phrasing and fiery electricity, the album just takes off from there.
And the meaning I attribute to the album’s epic cycle of identity, conflict, pass through, and resolved contentment, it speaks to my own experiences in life just as, I’m sure, it spoke to Coltrane’s in his own way… And that transferability of individual personal meaning is one of the very best qualities of creative endeavors, as is the perfect malleability of the art to the unique vision we each possess.
I remember listening to this album in my car as I drove over the Rocky Mountains, feeling free and unencumbered by any of the problems that had been weighing upon me before I hit the road. I remember listening to this album on my iPod while walking along the Chicago lakefront, a park, colored leaves, and cars buzzing down Lake Shore Drive to my right, the choppy deep green waves of Lake Michigan to my left, the Drake Hotel, Hancock Tower, and Chicago skyline straight ahead, and seagulls soaring overhead while crossing a slate gray Midwest autumn sky. I remember apartment windows in many cities and A Love Supreme playing as I looked out a window at the town I was calling my home.
Just as this music is timeless, my experiences and memories are imbued with that same timeless quality when this album comes pouring out of my speakers, and I feel as young or old as I did at the time I recall listening to this album last. It’s a visceral experience the way a particular album can take me back in time (and, perhaps, forward in time, too), and A Love Supreme is especially useful in the art of time traveling.
For Coltrane, this was a spiritual album. I’m sure it was. In many ways, it’s a spiritual thing for me, too. And as I mention above, a wonderful quality of art is its malleability to the human experience, so whatever message or meaning of spirituality A Love Supreme was for John Coltrane, for me, it’s about transcending a static view of life, a mundane interface with time, and, instead, being cognizant of the series of miracles required just for me to possess the gift of being here, alive, and experience time as a holistic entity and not just a series of tiny victories and obliterating regrets.
It’s a powerful album, and it has a powerful effect on me. The best art does this, and this is as it should be.
So, anyways, thinking about this album as I was, I got curious and poked around the internet to search out some renditions of A Love Supreme recorded by modern jazz musicians, and thought I’d share them with you.
What I like about this version: I wouldn’t have imagined how A Love Supreme sounded via a guitar-organ trio, but ASA Trio took care of that problem for me. There’s a nice airy groove to the tune. It has plenty of the excitable energy of the original, but presents the composition with a free-floating hop and bounce, sort of releasing me from the spiritual heaviness. I like how ASA sort of separates out an aspect of Coltrane’s song and presents it in an entirely different light, without straying far at all from the original. There’s no mistaking this song for anything but Coltrane’s classic album, which makes the differentiation all the more admirable. Cool stuff.
Your album personnel: Agnar Már Magnússon (organ), Andrés Thor (guitar), and Scott McLemore (drums).
What I like about this version: It plays it close to the original, but voiced with a modern voice by a new generation of jazz artists. Nat Birchall, the man in the tenor sax position on this tune, has often had his sound (and his albums) compared to the sound of Coltrane. He has that mix of power and lyricism that embodied much of Coltrane’s playing. Matthew Halsall, a frequent collaborator of Birchall’s, brings his trumpet to the mix, an element not present on the Coltrane original. Not only does it make for an intriguing ingredient, this intrigue is enhanced by Halsall’s modal style (which often gets him compared to Miles Davis) and how he tries to fit it into Coltrane’s opening transition into the free jazz sound.
What I like about this version. It’s pared way down, which allows me to focus on the original composition’s sonic qualities. While Coltrane could be surprisingly lyrical during moments of sheer force of will, there has always been an especial appeal in the way his sheets of sound wash over me… almost cleansing. Newsome’s version doesn’t have the same effect, instead emulating Coltrane’s sonic traits as focused blasts of notes, like blasts of tight air funnels, a percussive force that’s also calming in their way. Neat stuff. Found on his new release The Art of the Soprano Vol. 1.
Your song personnel: Sam Newsome (soprano sax).
Wadada Leo Smith
What I like about this version: Pared down, serene, and inspired. From Smith’s album Kulture Jazz, he gets right to the heart of this song. The part that delights me most about this performance is that it’s not any way that I ever heard the song before in my own head or heart, but hearing this version makes me sit up and think, yes, subconsciously, I’ve connected with it this way before. Smith’s version feels very personal to me, as if I had come up with it myself and just never realized it. I think it’s beautiful when an artist can inspire that kind of connection with a listener.
Your song personnel: Wadada Leo Smith (bamboo llute, flugelhorn, harmonica, koto, maracas Mbira, percussion, trumpet, vocals).
And this last track is by somebody who goes by the name of “Lift” on his Soundcloud page. He doesn’t give a name, only describes his music as “Guitar noodling from Armenia.”
He covers some other jazz tunes, too. And while I do find his rendition likable in its way, mostly I just love that he sat down and decided to play the song and hit the record button and share it with others on Soundcloud. I think that action speaks to the same thing that inspired me to make this post, about how much Coltrane’s A Love Supreme affects people, and the transitive nature of art, how one creation inspires more, ever outward.
Have a great Sunday.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks to Josh Maxey for pointing out that, coincidentally, A Love Supreme was recorded on December 9th, the same day that Bird is the Worm first opened for business.]