By way of an explanation, or perhaps a caveat – I’m rubbish at jazz. I was pitched headlong into it by listening to Kind Of Blue, and not understanding it. I loved the piano solo on Blue in Green, and checked out more Bill Evans. When I heard the playing on Live at the Village Vanguard, my conceptions of how music ought to be were changed dramatically. I would discuss jazz with an American jazz trumpeter over whisky late into the night (what a sentence!) and he lent me a large chunk of his jazz collection, one CD of which was this, John Coltrane’s undoubted masterpiece.
I’d listened to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, I’d listened to Kind of Blue, I’d listened to a whole lot of Ellington, Basie, Loureau, Truffaz, Shorter, Hubbard, Corea, McLaughlin, Marsalis, Zorn… all the crazy, traditional, experimental, fusion cats, but nothing compares in sheer power, beauty and far reaching emotional sentiment to this. By all accounts, Coltrane was looking for something higher, some greater spiritual power, and his expressions of that search, that yearning, that realisation of what could be, took jazz to new places.
Coleman’s Free Jazz was recorded in 1960, Kind of Blue in ’59 – the leap from modal expression to almost complete freedom of improvisation in under a year had massive effects on Coltrane. Having retrospectively listened to his recordings with Monk at Carnegie Hall, I will put out on a limb, and say that Monk’s playing kind of influenced the way I hear Coltrane’s sax – those staccato, angular, spiky phrases, the way it just jumps around; sure, the modal stuff he was putting down with Miles, and the crazy free shit he was hearing from Coleman would have pushed him into new places, but I think it started with Monk.
On Acknowledgement, the first part of the suite, along with Elvin Jones, whose cymbal work continues to astound me, the opening is anything but spiky, but the thoughts are there – McCoy Tyner is a different, more gentle, more accompanying pianist than Monk (of course, Monk was the leader with Coltrane), but still, weaves in and around the lyrical, highly meolidc lines Coltrane plays. Unlike a lot of stuff from this period, there’s a whole bunch of recogniseable tunes here, the main theme being one of my favourite melodies. Moving upwards and along, the band build in groove and swing, with Coltrane soloing all the way until the breakdown, where the band chants “A Love Supreme” over and over. This is an iconic moment. The jazz, so far, has been brilliant, but, in some ways, well, you expect to sit down and listen to exceptional jazz from this quartet – but not to a chant of the suite’s very title, to the main theme!
Resolution, the second part, switches the focus to Tyner, whose solo is sublime, yet restrained. I can never really put my finger on what I like about Tyner’s playing, not being a pianist, or having the correct vocabulary, but it sounds like a waterfall – tinkling, tumbling, delicate piano lines – nothing portentious, dark and smoky like Bill Evans, or pounding, twisting, stride like Monk. Perhaps it’s just the mixing, but he seems to playing inside the rhythm section, not with them, or on top, or behind, or anywhere else. Like the Bill Evans trio, there is such a ridiculous amount of telepathy here, it’s a testament to the skill and experience, the difficulty and the wonder, of improvised jazz. The closing sax solo is more of a cry, a reaching upwards, than the statement and the preparation of Acknowledgement – the two names reflect the two pieces: the first, a recognition of eachother, of the goal, of the quest, so to speak, for spiritual uplift, and the second, a realisation, an enlightenment, of what has to be done to get there. The way the theme is brought back into play is, of course, seamless, but it feels so natural, that the break into the drum solo by Jones, following from a cymbal rustle, is just right.
That drum solo never feels extraneous, like every single rock drum solo ever recorded. This is truth, beauty, and relevant. Where Jones scores is in the feeling his solo evinces: the running, hurrying, almost sprinting feel of the search for enlightenment, fits well with the Pursuance title of part three. With the theme restated, the quartet launch into another set of solos, at a much faster pace. How this works, I don’t know, but it sounds like the band are asking questions, and exploring different spiritual pathways – perhaps it’s just the speed, evoking the feeling of a question, words falling out, ideas churning. The horn here, even though doing things a piano could never do, sounds a lot like Monk. on the Carnegie Hall recordings, the interaction between Monk and Coltrane was astounding, and here, it sounds like he’s channeling some of that angular energy, more than anywhere else in the piece so far. Ending in a subtle, understated bass solo, where Garrison swings and bubbles, presenting a far different picture than Scott LaFar’s cryptic, Eastern influenced, free musings, Pursuance is the longest of the four parts to the suite.
The finale, the appropriately titled Psalm, is an epic piece of emotional jazz. Slow, reflective, and most distinctinctly ungroovy at the start, it’s a strange antithesis of the opening, all light and hope. Psalms, written by King David, were songs, often dark in their subject matter, inspired by G-d, and by David’s acceptance of some kind of enlightenment, and this Psalm expresses Coltrane’s spiritual awakening. Meant to be the counterpart of the poem written in the liner notes, and the evocation of Coltrane’s soul, this saxophone solo is accompanied by tympani, as opposed to drums, as well as the expressionistic chords on the piano. Lyrical, beautiful, tortured and heart-rending, it actually sounds like the kind of New York jazz music from the thirties: you could imagine Gershwin writing a melody like this for clarinet, and every time I hear this, I see steam rising from a subway vent in the sidewalk, even though the Tube never does that through London’s pavements.
This record, this testament, is a monument to John Coltrane. His horn playing was on another plane – the way he could read a tune is best heard on his interpretation of My Favourite Things, the song from The Sound Of Music. However, as a composer, a bandleader, a human being, a soul – this record will keep his memory, and the memory of his playing, alive. No jazz album feels so naked, so raw, so free of artifice and cool as A Love Supreme. Four men, four instruments, four voices, one purpose, one amazing piece of music.