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A Holy Grail experience: listening to John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle'

John Coltrane at The Penthouse
Chuck Stewart
courtesy Universal Music Group
John Coltrane, photographed performing at The Penthouse during a run of performances in Seattle, Wash. in 1965. A recording of one, long lost, is now being released as 'A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle.'

The arrival of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle is unquestionably the most surprising archival release of 2021. Recorded at the end of a prolific stand at Seattle’s Penthouse club in the fall of 1965, these tapes sat unissued and unheard for more than 50 years — outside of a few close associates of saxophonist Joe Brazil, who taped the performance of the suite.

At the time of the engagement, the classic John Coltrane Quartet had blossomed to a septet aided by new arrival Pharoah Sanders and a couple of guests, Donald Raphael Garrett on a second bass and Carlos Ward on alto saxophone. These men push A Love Supreme to its outer limits, with each musician’s sonic discoveries sounding as revelatory for them as they were for that audience. This fiery, unrestrained music will likely be just as electrifying for current listeners.

A Love Supreme Live in Seattle

As soon as we learned about this release, we both had questions. How would this version of the suite compare with the only other known live version, recorded in Antibes, France earlier that year — or, for that matter, with the master 1964 studio version? Would the Seattle recording, which signals for some the beginning of the end for Coltrane’s accessibility, be a new gateway to understanding the avant-garde? Should this recording even be commercially available?

We listened together to A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle on Coltrane’s 95th birthday, only moments before recording this episode. In the tradition of the music heard on this amazing recording, the conversation shares a kindred spirit of discovery, awe, and even some irresolution. Time will be the best judge of the album’s impact and scope, but there’s no question that this lands among the most amazing archival discoveries of the past 50 years.

Jazz United is produced for WBGO Studios by Trevor Smith.

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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.