John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is nothing other than compelling. It is a force, it is a revelation, it inhabits its own life. The famously described “sheets of sound” has stood against the tests of time as a musical masterpiece rooted deep in a faith in God. In the album notes, Coltrane writes, “In the year of 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening, which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.”
The year of 1957 brought two changes to the direction Coltrane was heading in – it was the year that his battle with heroin addiction came to a climax, and it was the year that he was kicked out of Mile Davis’ band for succumbing to that very battle. Davis fired him after a show in late April. Coltrane would find himself coming out on top, kicking his addiction and embarking on his own thrilling musical journey. What followed was a 30-minute soul-searching recording that changed the world of jazz, as well as our world as we know it. In the words of the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “It may be his noblest and purest work, his best work in the moral sense, the one that conveys his finest and highest musical purpose.”
The album is divided into a four-part suite: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalms.” There is a formula here that stems directly from Coltrane’s faith, as many consider it to be a testament to the word of God. Coltrane was reserved about the album’s personal significance, and never said as much to his bandmates as well. However, the little he did say would suggest that while Coltrane was raised Christian, he recognized all religions to have their own truth – all deeply embedded in a love supreme.
The thirty-minute studio session that spawned A Love Supreme seems as enigmatic as the recording itself. “I remember they cut the lights down kind of,” says McCoy Tyner in NPR’s The Story of a Love Supreme, who played piano as a member of Coltrane’s band. It’s a move that would shroud the room in the same intimacy as a club, the birthplace of Coltrane’s writing process. It is the club stage where the band would first find their groove through live rehearsal. Tyner says that Coltrane gave little verbal direction – in fact, there was little spoken throughout the recording process, giving way to a freewheeling openness that allowed the four members – drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Jimmy Garrison, as well as Coltrane and Tyner – to connect in an organic way, letting their chemistry build a four-part suite around a shared concrete idea. “You see, one thing about that music is that it showed you that we had reached a level where you could move the music around. John had a very wonderful way of being flexible with the music, flexing it, stretching it. You know, we reflected that kind of thing. He gave us the freedom to do that. We thought of something, ‘Oh, then we’ll play it,’ you know? And he said, ‘Yeah, I have a feeling’—you know? And all that freedom just came together when we did that record,” Tyner says.
A Love Supreme is a spiritual search. It has become more than a record in a way that it still carries with it all that is the life of John Coltrane, in a purely autobiographical and confessional way. The studio recording of A Love Supreme is one of wonder, of upmost transcendentalism, of visionary genius. There’s few times one turns on the record and isn’t faced with the shrinking realization of their own mortality. As Coltrane continues on the album notes, “As time and events moved on, I entered into a phase which is contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path. But thankfully now, through the merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been fully reinformed of his omnipotence. It is truly a love supreme.”