A Deep Dive into John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' by His Biographer, Lewis Porter (Pt. 3)
In fact, I thought we’d only need two, but whenever I take a Deep Dive, I always come up with “pearls” I hadn’t anticipated. So here I am with further observations that are mostly not in my book John Coltrane: His Life and Music.
Early references to A Love Supreme sometimes mention a second version of the entire suite with Archie Shepp and Art Davis. However, Coltrane’s liner notes thank Davis and Shepp for recording “a track” that wasn’t released, and as we now know, that track was “Acknowledgement.” It’s possible that Shepp himself added to the confusion, because, according to fellow Coltrane scholar David Wild, he said in a published interview (sometime prior to 1979) that he’d recorded “the suite” on Dec. 10, 1964, the day after the quartet version.
On the other hand, we saw in Part 1 that Coltrane envisioned having “one other horn,” and this is written at the top of his main note page, not specified for “Acknowledgement” only. Also, at the start of the first take of “Acknowledgement” with Shepp, producer Bob Thiele says “90246” (the record company’s reference number, called a master or matrix number) and then “Part One, Take One.”
Normally the producer or engineer would simply say “90246, Take One.” But for Thiele and engineer Rudy Van Gelder, it was policy when a piece was part of a suite to give each side of the LP its own number, not necessarily every piece. For example, on Coltrane’s later suite Meditations, side 1 and side 2 each has just one number, even though there are several pieces on each side. (It was part of the producer’s job to keep track of timings, so as to know when enough music had been recorded for one side of an LP.)
The day before, Thiele had begun by assigning a number to each piece, 90243 for “Acknowledgement” and 90244 for “Resolution.” But apparently, he then gathered from Coltrane that this was all part of one suite, and that “Pursuance” and “Psalm” were going to occupy Side 2 of the album. And he put them under one number, 90245.
So for all we know, Thiele saying “Part One” on Dec. 10 might be an indication that, had things gone well, Coltrane would have gone on to record “Resolution” with Shepp and Davis. If so, Thiele would have announced that as “90246, Part Two, Take One.” And from there they could have proceeded to “Pursuance” and “Psalm.”
If I’m right, then why didn’t that happen? Well, by this time the quartet was an indelibly unified whole; adding two new people opened up so many variables that it was impossible in just one recording session to achieve the same level of coherence. After performing six takes just to get something usable on “Acknowledgement,” it must have been clear to Coltrane or Thiele (or both) that to re-record the whole suite with Shepp and Davis would require several more sessions, and possibly some rehearsals.
In fact, Shepp acknowledged that he could have used more preparation. He admitted many years later, in an interview with Consequence of Sound, that if there were any sheet music, it would have been helpful for him to have seen it: “I wish now that I had enough nerve to look at the music. I didn’t look at any music or have any idea about what he intended to do.”
Nevertheless. Shepp acquits himself well, his growling, speech-inflected style making an effective contrast with Coltrane’s. And they interact well. For example, Trane plays a little figure with an octave and trills at 1:30 on Take 1, and he uses that as a kind of signature throughout these takes. Just a few seconds later, Shepp picks it up, and the two of them go back and forth with this throughout the remainder of the recording session.
Now, what about Coltrane’s own playing on “Acknowledgement”? Did he have anything prepared for himself? If so, it was surely not written but memorized. A few years earlier, talking about “My Favorite Things” with journalist Ralph Gleason, he observed: “I’ve got several landmarks there that I know I’m going to get to, so I try to play something in between there that’s different.” (That interview, from 1961, can be found in the recent collection Conversations in Jazz.)
What follows is a targeted listening guide to the suite, track by track, with a wealth of additional context. The music, including alternate takes, is available on A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters, which Impulse! / UMe issued in 2016 on vinyl and CD. (It can also be accessed on streaming services.)
In the case of “Acknowledgement,” it’s clear from Coltrane’s notes and from the actual recordings that he has certain landmarks in mind — landmarks that he almost certainly never communicated to his bandmates. I say “almost certainly” first because Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner both said he didn’t give them any instructions as to what to play other than the minimum necessary, such as the key, the tempo, the groove, the form, and the basic arrangement. And second, because they really didn’t need to know what Coltrane had in mind for his solo — he could trust them to hear it and to support what he played.
The first landmark is the way Coltrane begins his solo. It’s clear that while there is no exact initial theme to “Acknowledgement,” the beginning of the sax solo is similar every time, on the Master Take and on the four complete takes from the second day. Dee Dee Bridgewater acknowledges this (no pun intended) by wordlessly singing the beginning of his Master Take solo on Lakeisha Benjamin’s album The Two Coltranes.
Listen again to the opening phrases of Coltrane’s solo on the official release of “Acknowledgement.” Now, let’s compare that with what Coltrane played on the second day: On Take 1 with Shepp, Coltrane begins right around 1:00 as though he’s already on the second phrase of his solo — somewhat similar to the second phrase of the Master take.
On Take 2, Coltrane begins with the octave-trill motif, then plays something very similar to what he plays on the Master. On Take 4 (as noted in my previous installment, 3 and 5 are false starts), he trills again, and then, somewhat similar to the first take, plays as though he started on the second phrase of the Master. Finally on 6, he starts right off with a solo very similar to that on the Master (some of the same notes, though with different rhythms), while Shepp plays the octave-trill motif behind him. In short, we may conclude that the opening of his solo is one of his “landmarks,” something for which he had a general plan in mind.
Now, on the takes with Shepp, Coltrane solos first, briefly, as described above. Then Shepp solos, then Coltrane comes back in with a longer solo. At the end of that solo, on these takes and on the Master take, the next “landmark” is his transposing the Main Motif ostinato into various keys.
I mentioned in Part One that Joshua Rifkin noticed Coltrane went through all 12 keys, though not in a clear pattern, and not without repeating some keys. Following is the sequence that he plays on the Master:
After the home key of F, he uses a number of fourth or fifth relations: He plays it in G, followed by one in D. A-flat is followed by D-flat, E-flat by A-flat by D-flat, B-natural by E-natural and back to B-natural. Then, during the next six measures, he plays it on the ascending pattern of D, E, F-sharp, G, A-flat, and finally he plays in unison with the bass in F. It’s significant that he begins with F, G and D — those are the keys that he sketched out on page 3 of his notes, followed by his note to move through all 12 keys. We studied that page in Part Two.
Now, does Coltrane follow this same scheme on the takes with Shepp? Not at all. It seems that, having written the note to himself to go through all keys, he left it to his memory to work that out in practice. On the first take, his solo ends at 5:30 very similarly to the Master. Then he transposes the Main Motif to C, F, C, F, Bb, D, etc. –not the same sequence as on the Master. But then he comes back to it at 6:06 and this time he is more methodical, and I believe he hits all the keys. On the second take, by 2:24 he is already transposing the motif. He returns to transposing the motif briefly at 7:34. On Take 4, he’s transposing at 5:35. So we can conclude that taking the Main Motif and moving it through different keys is another “landmark,” but that he didn’t worry about doing it in a specific sequence.
The last version of “Acknowledgement” with Shepp, Take 6, is a very strong performance. Coltrane was right when he predicted just before the take that they’d need just one more to get it. He takes a powerful solo at 4:14. At first, Shepp plays the octave-trill idea behind him, but then he drops out and cedes the space to John — who introduces some great material at around 5:00 that doesn’t appear in any of the other takes. Elvin is right there with him, playing with tremendous energy. At 7:12, Coltrane starts moving the ostinato into all keys, and he keeps at it for a long time. He finally brings the trills back at the end.
But there is a major landmark after the transposing of the Main Motif that is missing on all the takes with Shepp, something that made a strong impression on listeners back when the album was released in 1965: the chanting of the words “A Love Supreme.” In our first installment, I mentioned that the chanting is by Coltrane.
Barry Kernfeld notes on his website (see Part Two) that on the tape he auditioned, there were three takes of this overdub, with Rudy saying “One” at the beginning of the third one — making the sequence confusing. In any case, it sounds to me that it is the same recording of Coltrane’s voice each time, and that he, Thiele and Van Gelder, probably after the other musicians have left, are experimenting to find the best place to overdub John’s chanting. So this is yet another instance of overdubbing on this album.
On CD 2 track 1, the voice comes in immediately when the sax ends. On Track 2 (above), which is the one where Rudy says “One,” there is a slight pause, during which Tyner plays a dramatic chord between Coltrane’s last sax note and his first chant. That’s the way it appears on the album — except that, having determined where the vocal track should be added, Van Gelder added it twice (perhaps at Coltrane’s request), and employed some reverb, so that the voice is reinforced, and one hears two Coltranes chanting. Maybe Rudy says “One” as a way of indicating that this would be their preferred version. After all, they were not going to use the previous versions, and they were not new recordings, just different edits of where the chant would begin.
Also, as you may have noticed, one hears quietly what sounds like Coltrane alone, not overdubbed, softly chanting “Supreme” or at least “-preme” off mike, or with the mike turned low, before the first full chant comes in with overdubbed strength. I guess, as Ashley Kahn surmises in his book about A Love Supreme, this was an error that they decided was a good thing, so they decided to leave it in.
Let’s not forget, too, that there is yet one more version of “Acknowledgement” on the 3-CD set of A Love Supreme. It’s from a jazz festival in southern France on July 26, 1965. There is a high-quality radio recording, as well as a partial film.
We now know that Trane performed the entire suite on four or five occasions, most of which were not recorded. The French concert appears to have been the first performance since the studio recording was made, because the band doesn’t seem to remember it very well. It is likely that they hadn’t played it since December. After the introductory fanfare, Garrison plays three random notes, so Coltrane plays the Main Motif until Garrison joins in. Once Elvin and McCoy have joined, Coltrane can begin his solo, somewhat similarly to the Master version. And again, after he winds down his solo, he starts transposing the Main Motif at 5:07. He doesn’t try chanting here, in front of this large outdoor audience, but he uses his saxophone playing to lead Garrison and Tyner through the descent from F to Eb.
Moving on to the second movement of the suite, “Resolution,” the released version was Take 7. On the 3-CD set we can hear Take 4, a full alternate take, and Take 6, a brief “breakdown” take (one that broke down and ended after only a few moments). A few seconds of conversation at the beginning and end of Take 6 are not included, but Kahn heard them and reports on them in his book. As Kahn describes, Takes 1, 2 and 3 each broke down after just a few seconds, and 5 was only a few seconds longer than those. On the complete Take 4, there is some sparkling piano from Tyner, after which Coltrane’s saxophone solo includes some incredible 16th notes, clearly articulated.
There’s yet another overdub at approximately 6:48 of the issued version, the Master Take of “Resolution.” This was pointed out to me by the late saxophonist, composer and producer Bob Belden. At the end of “Resolution,” the long high note that begins the last eight-bar statement overlaps the following note, apparently because it was dubbed in by Coltrane to replace a note that didn’t speak properly.
Now, let’s turn the LP over and proceed to Side 2: Tape master 90245. Remember, just because “Pursuance” and “Psalm” share one master number, it does not mean that they were recorded in one take without splicing.
Unfortunately, because Impulse master tapes were literally thrown out at one time (see this Deep Dive on Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album), and because in this case the family does not have a backup tape, there are no alternate takes of “Pursuance” and “Psalm,” and there is no record of how many takes were made of each.
In any case, there is a perfect opportunity to splice at the end of the bass solo. But it’s also possible that they played straight through, because in the pause after Garrison’s last note, there is one pounding sound before the first chord of “Psalm.” If they were splicing together different takes, it seems they would have taken out this noise — but who knows? After all, they left in Coltrane’s quiet “Supreme,” which they could have edited out. It sounds to me like Coltrane is giving the cue to play the dramatic downbeat of “Psalm” with his foot. (We know from European radio broadcasts and film footage that he liked to conduct by stomping, rather than counting “1,2,3,4.”)
Side 2 of the LP begins with a drum solo, leading into the fast Bb minor blues of “Pursuance,” after which Jones winds down with a short drum statement that paves the way for Garrison’s long bass solo. This is the quartet at its best, and the blues is in their comfort zone.
The version of “Pursuance” from the concert in France is on an equally high level. As on the Master version, it begins with a drum solo, longer here than in the studio, after which the other three band members play the theme. During the intervening months Tyner has developed a kind of dissonant chord pattern — not the plain fourths that he’s so famous for — which he plays behind Coltrane’s tumultuous solo.
I’m disappointed that there’s no solo here by Tyner, but Coltrane and Jones reach such a boiling point that the pianist simply drops out after about 4:40. Then Garrison drops out from about 5:14. For the next five minutes, Coltrane and Jones engage in one of those legendary duets that people who saw them in performance still talk about. The intensity is nearly unbearable — and in fact it was unbearable for much of the French audience, who didn’t know the album. (It wasn’t released in France until 1966.) Some apparently requested that Coltrane choose more familiar repertoire for his set the following day.
The duet seems to be freely improvised, but the 12-bar form of the blues is maintained in the minds of both musicians, and when the theme returns at 10:04, everybody is together right at the beginning of a blues chorus. (Similarly, when Trane and Elvin duet on live versions of “Impressions,” the 32-bar structure is maintained, no matter how wild and abstract the playing becomes.) At the end of “Pursuance,” Jones is so excited and inspired that he can’t and doesn’t stop — so there is a full-length drum solo, much longer than on the Master, before the bass solo.
After the moody, spellbinding bass solo, we arrive at “Psalm.” As recently as Nov. 2018, the magazine Oxford American suggested that since 1978, I have “speculated that in ‘Psalm’ Coltrane used his saxophone to articulate the words of the poem.” I think it’s fair to say that I am known for requiring very high standards of evidence. And even by my standards, the reading of the poem in “Psalm” is not speculation — it’s certainty, supported by tons of evidence. To cite only a few items:
1. The poem, starting with the title “A Love Supreme,” matches up with the sax melody, one syllable per note. (Try reading it aloud, or watch the video linked below.)
2. The sax solo has the same number of syllables as the poem, up to the word “Amen” (which is given three syllables).
3. Every time the poem says “Thank you God,” Coltrane plays the “Thank you God” motif. (Let’s face it — this couldn’t happen by chance.)
4. One of the iterations of “Thank you God” appears later on the recording than it does on the liner notes. But the fact that you can hear this is proof of how clearly one can hear the words in his playing.
4. Coltrane said it himself, although rather cryptically, in his liner note: “The fourth and last part is a musical narration of the theme, ‘A Love Supreme’ which is written in the context.” The mistake that people made here is to assume that he meant a musical theme. As we’ve all learned in school, literature has themes too, and in this case the supreme love for God is indeed the theme of the album, and the poem where Coltrane expressed that is indeed written in the context, the album notes.
5. As I noted in Part 1, we now have his sketches, where not only are the words written out, but he also writes that the last part is a “musical recitation of prayer by horn…prayer entitled A Love Supreme,” and that the “Horn ends on Thank you God.” This is pretty specific evidence!
Interestingly, neither Tyner nor Jones knew that Coltrane was reciting his poem. Elvin was clearly surprised when I told him. And when a French jazz journalist asked, “Do you think the text and the poem that you wrote aid in understanding the music?” Coltrane did not take the opportunity to tell the world (at least the French-reading world). Instead, he replied (in my translation): “Not necessarily. I simply wanted to express what I felt; I had to write it.” It may seem surprising that John didn’t say “Of course! You’d better study my poem!” But all this is in accord with his low-key manner, not wanting to impose on anybody else. Besides, he may have felt that he had already explained it in the album notes, not realizing that just about nobody “got” what he meant by a “musical narration of the theme.”
As mentioned, there are a few small differences between the poem as printed in the album and as “read” by Coltrane on the saxophone. I noticed those many years ago and wrote them in pencil on my personal copy of the LP, along with a few other notes.
Also, Coltrane’s own notes said, “Horn ends on Thank you God.” On the recording it does not — it ends on “Amen,” expressed in three notes. It’s the only word that has added syllables. (After the words end there is a little flourish, and the overdubbing that we discussed.)
What accounts for these differences? First of all, let’s note that the performance on the album most closely matches his final handwritten version of the poem (reproduced in the 3-CD set as well as in Kahn’s book). We looked in Part 2 at previous drafts of the poem, and this appears to be the final one. But even here, there are a few instances where Coltrane clearly plays “Thank you God” that do not appear in the written version.
You can follow the performance with his written poem here (after an intro, “Psalm” begins at 0:30).
So what’s going on here? First of all, even though people have said Coltrane must have had the poem in front of him, I don’t think we can assume that. Nobody has ever mentioned seeing him use a music stand at this session, and photographer Chuck Stewart was not present (he attended the second day). Having worked on the poem for perhaps a few months, it’s certainly possible that Coltrane could have memorized it, and if so, it’s equally possible that he misremembered, or spontaneously changed, just a few phrases. Given Trane’s laid-back attitude about such things, it is also no surprise that he didn’t try to edit the poem to exactly match the recording, before submitting it to be printed in the notes.
It’s also in keeping with his approach that on the live version of “Psalm” from France in 1965, he didn’t try to match what he did in the studio “word for word.” Right from the start, he plays freely, using the studio version simply as an outline. For example, after 0:14 he repeats the notes at the end of “It all has to do with it.” At about a minute in, he is already up in the high register. And from around 1:30 on, he plays a rapid, free improvisation, referring only briefly here and there to the style of the studio recitation — for example, from 5:45 until 6:35. But let’s not lose sight of the main event: this is powerful, moving music.
At the very end, he plays “Amen,” then at 7:40 plays the high C heard on the album, with the same strained tone. This confirms, if we needed confirmation, that it was he who overdubbed the second saxophone at the end of the studio version.
I was the first to discuss with music notation the way Coltrane reads the poem on his saxophone, in my 1979 talk that became an article, discussed in Part 1. However, I do not claim to be the first person who ever noticed this. Twice when I gave a talk, an older person in the audience said, “I noticed that too,” and I believe them. Also, Dutch critic Bert Vuijsje mentioned it in a review of the album in 1965! Our own Gary Giddins also showed me an article he wrote in 1974, where he referred to it.
I’m not the first to compare Coltrane’s playing on “Psalm” to the style of a Black preacher — for example, in the way that he “raises his voice,” at appropriate moments in the text, to an intense high pitch. (A recent guest installment of Deep Dive, by my colleague David Tegnell, explores this idea at length.) But what was Coltrane “shouting” about? What were, in fact, his religious and spiritual beliefs? These days, that is one of the most common questions that people ask me.
First of all, since Coltrane died tragically at age 40, we never had the chance to ask him everything that we wanted to, and he never had the chance to tell us. There is not much to add to the few pages that I wrote on this issue in my book, and I won’t summarize those here.
But if a part of me wants to say that we’ll never fully know what Coltrane believed, another part wants to say, maybe we know everything there is to know. We know from several sources that he had a voracious intellectual appetite and read widely on all kinds of philosophical and religious subjects. We know, because he said so to interviewer August Blume, that when he first learned about Islam in the ‘40s, he considered, but immediately rejected, the idea that one religion was right and that all others were wrong. He came to the conclusion, as he told Nat Hentoff for the notes to Meditations, that “I believe in all religions.”
It was absolutely crucial to Coltrane that, to the best of his ability, nothing in the poem “A Love Supreme” could be construed as favoring one particular religion. That’s why there is no reference to Jesus, nor to Muhammad. And I believe that if his poem were to be studied closely, one would find some influences from his readings about world religions. For example, this line seems to reflect the teachings of Buddhism, although I haven’t traced it to any particular book:
Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions--time--all related... all made from one... all made in one.
The idea of “oneness” also appears in the Zohar, the text of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah), some of which was translated into English at least as far back as 1963. Coltrane was interested in that text as well. And the words “gracious and merciful” in the poem, and “All praise be to God,” the first line of his introductory notes, are reminiscent of passages in the Quran, which he surely knew — his first wife Naima was of course a Muslim, as were her close friend Aisha and others in their circle. (Naima’s birth name was Juanita Austin, and he sometimes called her “Neet.”)
Some Buddhist texts talk about vibrations, as do Rosicrucian texts (at least as far back as 1931), which he learned about from Sonny Rollins. So it’s significant that we find these lines in his poem:
One thought can produce millions of vibrations… Thoughts—deeds—vibrations..
Given Coltrane’s interest in all religions and philosophies, those who try to associate him with one particular religious practice are missing the point. I’ve seen it said that he was raised Baptist, but that’s not so — his family were AME Zion (he said simply “Methodist”). And while it’s true that both of his grandfathers were preachers, AME Zion was what they preached. (He was close with his mother’s father but never spoke of his father’s father and probably didn’t know him well, if at all.) Coltrane’s cousin Mary, just one year younger and raised in the same household, told me about the services they attended: “It was good music, but not all that shouting and what not. It was more conservative.”
As for the claim, currently traveling by word of mouth, that he really wanted to name his album “Allah Supreme,” that makes no sense in light of his beliefs. It’s significant that even though his wife and many friends were Muslim, including Tyner, he himself never became a Muslim. He stayed firm in his preference for a universalist approach to religion.
Finally, for those of us who wish there was even more documentation of Coltrane playing A Love Supreme, let me end with a bit of hope, and some brand-new information:
As I mentioned, there is some film of his performance of A Love Supreme from France. But it's only about 12 minutes long: the first movement is complete, and the film ends in the middle of Tyner’s solo on “Resolution.” That footage, and footage from the following day, has been released on DVD by the Jazz Icons series.
It has always been assumed that the rest of the film has not survived — or perhaps that only 12 minutes was ever filmed. But it turns out that neither is exactly true. I have been informed by Pascal Rozat, of the French TV and radio archives (National Audiovisual Institute; INA.fr), that the usual practice was to film the entire set (during those days, it was usually on 16mm film), but only to broadcast a “highlight.”
The 12-minute highlight was broadcast in 1966 (not “live”), along with excerpts of other performers from the festival. The broadcast portions of the Antibes Festival were archived systematically, but the complete films were not. However, some of those complete films may still be in storage, and on rare occasion, a staff member comes across a treasure. As recently as Sept. 2019, a Miles Davis performance from 1957 was discovered in a wrongly-labeled container. So there is still some hope for the entire film of the French performance of A Love Supreme!
We also know now that a tape exists of Coltrane playing the entire suite with Pharoah Sanders in the band, in Oct. 1965 in Seattle, which is very exciting news! Sanders will be 80 shortly — he was born Farrell Sanders on Oct. 13, 1940 — so it’s fitting that we discuss his work for just a bit here. Like Archie, he is a powerful saxophonist who reveres Coltrane and managed to fit into his sound world without losing his own identity. But unlike Shepp, it seems that Sanders dramatically limited himself in order to do that.
The “common wisdom” about Sanders is that he was a totally free player, but that after Coltrane died he really got it together and learned to play standards. Oh, really? Then please listen to this recording called “Bethera” from Sept. 1964, about a year before he ever worked regularly with Coltrane.
Is it just me, or does he play beautifully in this straight-ahead context? I love his tone, and his ideas, the fast run at 2:00 — and what amazes me is that he sounds more like Trane did in 1964 than anyone I can think of. Coltrane’s influence was already immense, but most players at that point were still studying what he’d done a few years earlier.
So why is there not one example of Sanders playing this way with Coltrane? I haven’t had a chance to ask this of him (even though I did hang with him once backstage), but I’m guessing that the last thing John needed in his band was “another Coltrane,” and that there was an understanding — maybe explicitly talked about, or maybe understood without ever being discussed — that Sanders’ free style, which was very different from Coltrane’s, was what was called for.
His free playing is documented on other of his early recordings, including with Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman, so it’s a kind of playing with which he was deeply involved. After Coltrane died and Sanders led his own bands, he could do whatever he wanted, from playing “out” to playing standards, which he has done wonderfully for so many years. Ben Bierman has written an excellent article on Sanders’ work since Coltrane. I’ll simply add: who but Sanders can play a ballad so lovingly in the tradition of Coltrane’s Ballads?
I’ve already written my next Deep Dive, and it just might blow your mind. I believe I have “cracked the code” of “Alabama” — and in the process, discovered that a few other Coltrane pieces have “hidden texts.” Stay well; I’ll see you then.
Lewis Porter is the author of acclaimed books on John Coltrane, Lester Young and jazz history, and has taught at institutions including Rutgers and The New School. He’s also a pianist whose latest album — Transcendent, a collaboration with guitarist Ray Suhy — is out on Sunnyside Records.