A Deep Dive into John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' by His Biographer, Lewis Porter (Pt. 1)

Jul 17, 2020

My book John Coltrane: His Life and Music begins with A Love Supreme. One day in 1978, I “heard” Coltrane reciting the poem in Part IV, “Psalm,” and it blew my mind. That was the day that I decided I had to write about Coltrane. 

Lewis Porter directing the concert band at Tufts University in the early 1980s.
Credit courtesy of the artist

At the time I was directing the jazz band at Tufts University, and just applying to doctoral programs in musicology at the urging of my mentor, the music chairperson, composer T.J. Anderson (who will be 92 in August). So I knew I wanted to do my dissertation on Coltrane. Up to that time I loved his music, but not as much as I loved Sonny Rollins, Lester Young (about whom I’d already written a master’s thesis under Dr. Anderson), Bud Powell, Paul Bley, Earl Hines and others.

But once you get into the world of Coltrane, it becomes all-encompassing. I started writing the chapter about A Love Supreme first, in the late summer of 1979. I had been accepted at Brandeis, and I was lucky that my advisor was Prof. Joshua Rifkin, renowned for his performances of Scott Joplin but also an expert on early jazz (he was called “Little Jelly” by Clarence Williams and Zutty Singleton!) — not to mention Bach, Schubert, etc. He became another key mentor for me and gave me valuable feedback as I pushed to finish that chapter in time to present it at a musicology conference in late September 1979.

The audience — music professors from all the major New England colleges — was enthusiastic, and I was urged to send it for consideration to the Journal of the American Musicological Society (JAMS). But I couldn’t believe that any of the scholarly journals, which at the time were overwhelmingly classical in orientation, would be interested. (Even ethnomusicology at the time was not open to jazz.) So I didn’t submit it, and kind of forgot about that idea. Meanwhile, I finished my coursework and wrote the rest of the dissertation in 1982 and 1983, at which time I graduated from Brandeis. But I thought of that invitation again in January 1985, and when I finally sent the article to JAMS, it was as though they’d been waiting for it. (I think they had been!) It was published that fall.

The chapter on A Love Supreme in my book is updated from that 1985 JAMS article. Most of the book is entirely new, so I always urge people not to seek out the dissertation; anything that was worth saving from it appears, in improved form, in the book.

Lewis Porter directing a graduate jazz seminar at Rutgers in the early 2000s.
Credit courtesy of the artist

Since then, I also assembled a great team of researchers who completed The John Coltrane Reference, a big day-by-day chronology and discography. (Updates to that volume can be found here.) And of course, my recent research on Coltrane and others has been published at WBGO under the banner of Deep Dive.

A Love Supreme marked the only time that Coltrane wrote album notes. Equally uncharacteristically, he selected the artwork for the album, inside and out (it was a fold-open album cover). He selected the cover photo (published in Impulse! ads in advance, and also used inside Crescent), and chose the drawing of himself for the insert. And he presented a poem!

This was his spiritual manifesto, his most personal statement, and it was clearly very important to him. He consciously designed it to be ”interfaith,” and avoided mention of Jesus or any religious figure other than God. I talked more about the spiritual aspect in my book, and for an NPR piece in 2000, on All Things Considered. (But when Coltrane said at a Japanese press conference, “I would like to be a saint,” he did not want to be taken literally, as some have done. More on that here.)

I was recently listening again to A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters, a 2015 set that includes all the alternate takes. This time I noticed a number of interesting things happening in the music.

I also thought about all the revealing details that have come out since my book was published in 1998, primarily in Ashley Kahn’s A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album — and in his later book, The House that Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. These details include Coltrane’s handwritten notes for the suite.

As a result of all this new material, it’s time for an update on A Love Supreme, focusing on musical details and foregrounding information not included in my book.

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First of all, it seems the suite almost didn’t get recorded. The late record producer George Avakian recounted in The House That Trane Built that in early June of 1964, he took a phone call from Coltrane. John said that he wanted to record “some long compositions,” but Impulse! producer Bob Thiele wanted him to continue with standards and shorter originals, as he’d been doing with the quartet and with guests Johnny Hartman and Duke Ellington. Significantly, this was just after Coltrane finished recording five long pieces for the album Crescent on June 1. (It was a few months after the sessions that yielded Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album, which I examined here upon its release in 2018.)

Probably, Coltrane and Thiele had had a discussion afterward as to the “non-commercial” nature of that material. So Coltrane asked Avakian if it might be possible to record his longer works for another label, as a one-off guest artist, with the permission of Impulse! And Avakian actually made some inquiries with other labels but was unable to come up with anything.

There is a lot of fantasy out there about how much control artists have had over their work. In the days of 78s, artists were not always consulted as to which take would be released. Coltrane himself did not always have input into the sequence of the tunes on an LP — and he was often happy to have a producer who would handle such things. For example, Coltrane Plays the Blues was not only not planned by Coltrane; he didn’t even know that Atlantic would assemble his unissued blues-based recordings and release them, three years after he left Atlantic for Impulse! Even Crescent, often cited by musicians as their favorite Coltrane album, was assembled by Thiele from two different recording sessions. To my ear, it’s made up of isolated tracks rather than comprising a coherent album, especially because the entire second side is a low-key feature for bass and piano (“Lonnie’s Lament”) and then drums (“Drum Thing”).

On the other hand, A Love Supreme was Coltrane’s most planned album ever. As I explained in my earlier writings, some of the key features of the suite include:

·      The opening fanfare in E leading to the bass riff/ostinato starting on the note F. The same riff is chanted by voices later in the first movement.

·      The notes of the bass riff are a “cell” that permeates all four movements of the piece.

·      At the end of “Acknowledgement,” Coltrane plays the chant theme in all 12 keys, but not in a clear sequence.

·      The last movement is a recitation of the poem, syllable by syllable.

Now, by using Coltrane’s written notes, and by comparing the outtakes with each other and with the released album, we can get a clear idea of what he planned out. It turns out to be all that we just listed, and more.

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Trane’s handwritten notes appear in Kahn’s books and in some of the album booklets. The sheet with the most information is reproduced here. Let’s look closely at this page.

At the very top, Coltrane writes the title of the piece and the instrumentation: tenor saxophone, one other horn, and rhythm section. (He misspells it “rythymn,” which I find endearing, humanizing.) This explains why he re-recorded the first movement with Archie Shepp, added on tenor sax as the “other horn.” For whatever reason, Coltrane always gravitated towards working with another saxophonist — Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders or Shepp — rather than the seemingly obvious choice of a trumpeter. The late Jimmy Heath once said to me, “We all thought he’d hire Booker Little or Freddie Hubbard. As much saxophone as he played, we thought the LAST thing he needed was another saxophone player!”

Then Coltrane specifies the rhythm section: piano, trap drums (an old phrase for drum set), two bass, two congas, and what looks like “Timbali,” by which I suppose he means Latin timbales! (Elvin plays tympani on the last movement, but it’s hard to imagine that Coltrane’s spelling refers to them.) So in addition to the second wind instrument, he also envisioned an expanded rhythm section. And on the second of two days of recording, he did add Art Davis as a second bassist. All in all, he had in mind a big sound.

Then he outlines what will happen musically. First there is what he calls the “horn opening” — he indicates the actual notes played in E and then says “Etc.” because he will improvise the rest. After a pause, the drums come in with the “primary rhythmic motif” (again rhythm is spelled his way), which is the rhythm of the bass vamp. Then he specifies bass and piano in E flat minor, and writes the famous “A Love Supreme Motif” in that key — from here on, we’ll call that the “main motif.” This means that originally, he was going to start in E and then go down a half step.

Instead, he decided to go up a half step to F, which makes it a more positive motion. (He clearly is not referring to the tenor saxophone keys, because he specifies bass and piano, which are in concert key, and because the saxophone key of Eb would mean a concert key of Db.) Then Coltrane writes “melody horn,” which suggests that he might play a specific melody as opposed to an open improvisation. More on this later.

On the next line, he specifies that the saxophone takes his solo in 4/4, accompanied by the quartet. Then he says, “into all drums multiple meters and motif played in all keys together.” It was Joshua Rifkin, one of my mentors, who pointed out to me back in 1979 that at the end of Coltrane’s solo, he was not merely transposing the main motif around, but making a point to go through all 12 keys. I speculated then that this was Coltrane’s way of showing that God is everywhere. Seeing that Coltrane consciously planned that out, by writing “in all keys,” makes me feel even more strongly that my interpretation is correct.

Then Coltrane writes, “Voices chanting motif in Ebmi ‘A Love Supreme’ two male.” Years ago, it was commonly assumed that the two voices were Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison. But it later became clear, just by listening closely, that both voices belong to Coltrane. We can now confirm that, as we hear him overdubbing his own voice on CD 2, tracks 1 and 2 of the 3-CD set.

Next he indicates “To Pause,” getting ready for the next movement. Under this he writes “Voices concert key” and shows the main motif written in F. Now, this is confusing! On this page, not everything is perfectly lined up, so I suppose it’s possible that he meant for the voices to end in F, followed by a pause before the next movement starts in Bb? Another possibility is that he was thinking of the tenor sax key — if everybody else was in Eb, the sax would have been in F (but not the voices).

In any case, it appears that at this point Coltrane did not intend for “Resolution” to be part of the suite. Saxophonist Frank Tiberi recorded Coltrane playing “Resolution” at Pep’s, a celebrated but long-gone Philadelphia club, on September 18, 1964.

So he had already composed the piece, but it was not yet part of the suite. Furthermore, “Resolution” was in Bb minor. By the time of the recordings in December, he had added “Resolution,” and had changed the keys around to make it work. If he had left it in Bb, then it would have been in the same key as “Pursuance.” But when he decided to move it to Eb, that would have meant that the entire first side of the LP would have been in Eb minor. His solution (out of a number of possibilities) was to move “Acknowledgement” to F, which as I said creates a more positive motion as well, from the introductory E up to F.

Coltrane describes Part II as follows:

Quartet

Horn melody

Blues form

Bb minor

Moving harmonies

Piano solo lead (as in “piano solo leads off”)

Then horn solo—

Melody

Ending

Clearly, this is what we know as Part III (which makes sense, since he was not yet considering “Resolution”). Although not mentioned in Coltrane’s notes, there’s a long drum solo to kick off this movement. (It may have been an impromptu decision in the studio.)

In the original plan, the long bass solo was the third movement. Coltrane writes, “Pause. Bass move (sic) into solo. III. Bass solo.” But on the recording it’s a transition between parts III and IV, not a movement in itself.

Coltrane further notes:

“Cmi (C minor) Musical recitation of prayer * by horn in Cmi.” The asterisk leads to this note below: “*Prayer entitled A Love Supreme.” To me this is astounding because it explicitly confirms what I wrote about so many years ago — that in “Psalm” he is “reciting,” syllable by syllable, the poem that he wrote for the album notes! We will talk about this in detail in the next installment.

Coltrane adds, “Horn ends on Thank you God” (on the recording it does not — to be discussed). And he crossed off this note: “Amen — these final notes by bass say Amen symbolically.” To the left of this, he crossed off “final notes by” but left intact the words “bass viol.” It makes sense that he deleted these, because on the recording it’s the sax, not the bass, that says “Amen.”

Among his remaining notes at the bottom of this page, Coltrane writes:

“All paths lead to God.” A line from the poem. “Last chord to sound like final chord of Alabama.” Indeed, both pieces use a C minor drone.

He also writes, “Bass accompaniment only.” But of course, the recording also has the piano and drums (also playing timpani). I suppose Coltrane may have been thinking of starting “Psalm” as a duo with the bass, and then adding the others, because he also writes this which clearly suggests that everybody is playing at the end:

“To Ending — Make ending — Attempt to reach transcendent level with orchestra — rising harmonies to a level of blissful stability at end.”

He does not mean “orchestra” in the classical sense — rather, that he wants a big, “orchestral” sound. That explains why, though it’s rarely noted, he overdubbed at the end. Yes, Coltrane was not such a purist as one might think, and he was not averse to overdubbing. He had overdubbed previously on the album with Johnny Hartman (to add some sax fills behind the singer) and would do so again on Living Space in June 1965 (to play the theme on both tenor and soprano sax at the same time).

In our next and final installment of Deep Dive with Lewis Porter, we’ll provide the lowdown on this overdubbing, discuss the alternate takes of “Acknowledgement,” and listen to the concert performance of A Love Supreme from France in the summer of 1965.

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.