89.1 WEMU

50 Years Of Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme'

Dec 8, 2014

This week, we'll see the 50th anniversary of a sacred day for many music fans. On December 9, 1964, the John Coltrane quartet recorded the album "A Love Supreme." I call it a sacred day for music fans, not just jazz fans, because for people across musical boundaries and cultures, Santana, Bono, Joni Mitchell, Steve Rice, Bootsy Collins and Scott-Heron, hearing "A Love Supreme" was a revelation.

"A Love Supreme" is Coltrane's ultimate spiritual testament. The love supreme is God's love. When I first heard it, I didn't get it. Since I grew up after Coltrane was dead, I listened to the albums all out of order. He was my favorite artist - period. Knowing that "A Love Supreme" was Coltrane's big statement, I saved it. I loved the wild places Coltrane would take the saxophone.


RATH: So that opening to "A Love Supreme" kind of underwhelmed me.


RATH: But there's a hypnotic quality that gradually gets into your soul. And before you know what's happened, you're one of the converted. After the serene introduction, the bass introduces this simple theme.

RATH: Meant to scan with the words, "A Love Supreme," "A Love Supreme."

RATH: Much as Beethoven grows a great symphony out of the four notes, da da da dum (ph), these four notes, this little blues lick, will take us on an extraordinary journey.

RATH: Already, even though I couldn't hear it that first time, this music is getting weird. Hear that Latin thing that Elvin Jones is playing on the drums? I won't get into the musicological weeds, but by the time Coltrane starts blowing, there are already multiple rhythms going on simultaneously.

RATH: It should sound weird and off kilter. But it swings.

RATH: It's a little hard to hear the strangeness in 2014, the way it's hard to hear how utterly bizarre and ridiculous Beethoven sounded 200 years ago. And like Beethoven's revolutionary "Eroica" Symphony, this suite of four movements communicated a profound spiritual and philosophical message.

RATH: Coltrane refused to commit to a single religion. His idea of God couldn't be contained by any doctrine. But with his saxophone and his band, he could preach.

RATH: That hippies may have embraced Coltrane, but his path to God and love isn't for the fainthearted. Coltrane didn't live on Neptune. He was a black man who grew up in the South, had written a devastating ballad for four black girls blown up in their church by a Ku Klux Klan bomb, had conquered a heroin habit that almost destroyed him. People have channeled emotions into music before, but no one had ever played the blues like this.

RATH: And it's the same message we get from the blues. Even with the struggle and the suffering we sing because life is a blessing. As much as Coltrane made his saxophone cry for his suffering and the world's, in "A Love Supreme" he's telling us that the most important voice to raise is one of gratitude to the creator for the gift of life.

RATH: For those of you not so spiritually inclined, don't get hung up on the word creator. Whether you call it God or the universe, devout atheist Penn Jillette talked about his supreme gratitude for his existence, for winning the huge genetic lottery, as he put it. That's the gratitude Coltrane is expressing. Its universal and we can all feel it.