On December 9, 1964 --- as I write, forty years ago to the day --- tenor saxophonist John Coltrane gathered his band in a darkened studio in New Jersey to record an album that has come to be regarded as one of the greatest achievements in jazz.
No, make that: 20th century American music.
Or go further, as many do, and say “A Love Supreme” belongs in the rarest zone of art, that place where personal history and technical skill and spiritual mastery merge --- and magic happens. Genius lives there. And saints. And Coltrane's ambition in the last few years of his too-short life, was, as he said, "to become a saint."
Well, count “A Love Supreme” one of his qualifying miracles.
The music is not jazz as it was played at that time --- even as Coltrane and his group were playing jazz at that time. It's music that came out of Coltrane's years of drug addiction, his recovery, his gratitude to God. Over the past four decades, the music has stunned listeners of every persuasion; many have come to feel that it's less music directed to God than music that's coming from God to his faithful messengers --- Coltrane, McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums).
“'A Love Supreme' was a testament -- John's testament to a higher power,” Tyner would say later. “His spiritual inclinations were very strong, which means he believed in something that is more powerful than any of us but is still in all of us. When we made that recording, it was as if we were saying, 'We're here now, we're going to play, we're going to praise You.'"
That praise took one evening. It came in the form of a four-part suite that Coltrane sketchily discussed with his band members that night. They didn't need much conversation --- they'd been playing together for years, they were as intelligent as they were talented, they listened and cared. No players were better able to keep up with Coltrane as he traced a spiritual quest through the music --- starting with a mystical mantra, moving into a ferocious and passionate cry, and coming to completion with music unheard-of and unimagined by most musicians and players, music that took the saxophonist to a place so special he and the group would play “A Love Supreme” in public only once.
The ambition is dazzling. Mozart needed an orchestra and a choir for his “Requiem.” Coltrane's effort is four guys and a single voice ---at one point, Coltrane chants, the only time he ever did that on a recording.
You don't have to be a jazz lover to appreciate this. Nor do you have to be a Seeker. You just have to be open and attentive and willing to give 32 minutes to all the musical variations on that four-syllable title. And you have to accept that one of our greatest artists will take his gorgeous, warm tone way beyond “My Favorite Things” --- and get you home safe and at peace.
Small fact: McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison each received $142 for this recording. Coltrane got $244, plus royalties. A love supreme, indeed.