Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Virtuoso with Virtue Final Installment

The release of A Love Supreme in 1964 changed the face of jazz forever. The four part epic introduced a much more spiritual side to the genre, one that took reference from the slave spirituals that represented the rough beginnings of the music, but also the eastern philosophies that became prevalent in the music of players like Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme arose out of probably the darkest part of his life and how he overcame it. All if the analysis of the album is done by listeners because, sadly, Coltrane is never recorded speaking about the album or its significance. That being said, I will analyze parts one, two, and four, and try to interpret them as best I can.


            Part one of the suite is titled, “Acknowledgement.” The track opens with the low rumble of a gong hit, immediately followed by a mellow, yet soaring saxophone lick from Coltrane. The piano joins in with Coltrane and the cymbals as it begins to fade. Eventually the band dies away to nothing but the cymbals gently rolling and out of the ringing, the bass enters. The idea that the bass enters with is actually the melody for the entire piece. It is the interval of a minor third followed by a perfect from the same root pitch. After the band joins in on the modal afro-cuban groove, Coltrane arrives with what seems to be a second melody but it quickly melts away into a very tonally adventurous sax solo that takes up most of the piece. The solo grows in intensity for about four minutes and then there is a gradual drop. Coltrane abandons the screaming and harsh vibrancy of the solo and instead begins to play the bass melody from the beginning. After he plays it in the home key, Coltrane plays the same melodic theme in all twelve keys. Then in one of the most interesting sections of the album we here Coltrane’s actual voice dubbed over the track, he recites a chant which provides some insight into the piece. It is revealed that the bass melody actually is the words “A love supreme.” After Coltrane recites his chant a few times, the band gently fades away to nothing but the bass playing a slightly altered version of the melodic theme.
            Obviously this piece of music has a lot of meaning. The concept of this piece is one that no one had seen from Coltrane before and there is a lot to take in. The first thing to think about is the name of the piece, “Acknowledgement.” If this piece is representative of acknowledgement than the opening gong hit and sax lick are the original epiphany. The opening of this piece of music is representative of Coltrane’s first realization that there is some form of ultimate power. Out of all the darkness of his drug ridden past, this opening seems to represent, his first time realizing the greatness of God. After the opening fanfare, the next thing we here is the bass come in with the melody. This melody is probably the most important part of the piece because we later learn that the words to the melody are the title of the entire suite. What is interesting about the melody is the fact that it is almost constantly represented in one shape or form through out the entire piece and most of the time it’s in the bass line. That being said, I believe that by doing this Coltrane is saying that, “A Love Supreme,” is the consistent foundation for the acknowledgement of God’s light. This takes us to the section in which Coltrane plays the melody in all twelve keys. To me it is clear that in this section, Coltrane is trying to show that God’s love, or “A Love Supreme” exists everywhere and within everything. The piece ends with the band gently dying away to bass playing the original motif and this is representative of the idea that after we have run our course God’s Love will exist undisturbed.


            Part 2, “Resolution,” opens, yet again with bass but this time not a melody, but a harmonized tribal sounding riff. Out of that comes Coltrane and the rest of band with a much more conventional melody than that of “Acknowledgement.” The form of the melody is closest to what could be called an ABA, with the B being an improvised section. After Coltrane’s interpretation of the very unique head, the song drifts into a piano solo from McCoy Tyner, which is more straightforward than Coltrane’s solo on part one but still relies heavily on the tonal shifting strategies of Coltrane. Following the climax of the solo, Tyner seems to let the intensity relax and fade into Coltrane’s solo. Coltrane plays a solo which is very much his own but it also seems to reference back to the previous piano solo, in a way that really showcases the connection between the musicians. After Coltrane’s solo, in a very idiomatic fashion, the melody is restated and the band plays the last two bars of the melody as a tag before landing on a short lived fermata.

            Movement number two of the four part suite is definitely the most straightforward and I believe this is very intentional. The piece opens with the bass solo that ends the first movement, this is representative of the idea that the “Resolution” that Coltrane is trying to show, is only there because of the revelation that the first movement represents. The next important aspect of this movement is the melody. The melody is definitely not conventional, but the layout of the entire piece is very conventional, for listeners who are accustomed to jazz, this movement can seem like the only resolution in a work of art that turned jazz on its head. Even the ending is much more resolute than that of the opening, “Acknowledgment,” whose finale bass solo carries over into the second movement. For me this movement represents the time when Coltrane realized that, for him, faith was the ultimate resolution and that the knowledge that a love supreme exists all around is the pinnacle of existence.

            The final movement of A Love Supreme, “Psalm” is by far the most strikingly adventurous and unique. It’s a seven minute long poem, but instead of speaking Coltrane recites the poem through his saxophone. He weaves a melody that matches the pace and syllables of the poem in a way that is reminiscent of a southern preacher. While he plays, the bass, piano, and timpani, provide a swirling foundation of sound for Coltrane to interact with. As he grows in intensity the band responds exactly as you would expect, almost like the crowd in a hot church on Sunday. Even though there is no true melody, Coltrane keeps listeners interested with his highly emotional phrasing and wildly varying tone. As he climbs higher into the register the notes crack and falter but the intensity is raw and so powerful that its fitting. The piece does not follow a specific form and neither does the intensity, like an orator, Coltrane does not build to one specific spot, but rather he builds to many and the listener experiences the ups and downs of his voice. The last note of the piece is a fermata with timpani and piano, and it is the only time on the record when Coltrane adds a second sax line.

            “Psalm” is representative of the whole album. The emotion behind Coltrane’s playing is like nothing before. As previously stated, the piece is actually a poem written by Coltrane himself, which basically outlines all of his religious views. I have included the poem here, it’s at the bottom of the liner notes.

Here is the audio to the movement along with the corresponding lyrics.


            Obviously this piece is very personal to Coltrane and the lyrics show that. But the one thing that stands out to me the most is the choice of a second saxophone line on the final note of the piece. To me this represents the idea that through this process of discovery, Coltrane has found something greater than himself. The choice of including that line is representative of the idea that he is not alone and A Love Supreme exists in its purest form all around him.

Word Count: 2526


Installment 1:


1 comment:

  1. "Coltrane has found something greater than himself" - true of all creative people, musicians included? Or is there something distinctively different about musical transcendence? What would Plato say?

    "what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?"https://theoryofmusic.eu/2008/08/04/music-in-platos-republic/