Telling the Story of A Love Supreme

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

This seems the perfect time of year for a book about the late jazz tenor saxophonist John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, the enduringly popular LP recording first issued in 1965. Coltrane's album, created by the musician-composer as "a gift to the Divine," invokes a universal love and spiritual consciousness close to the heart of a season sacred to several faiths.

It was a self-defined creed that informed the life and music of the artist himself, said Ashley Kahn, author of A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album (Viking). "It was not of the church," Kahn said of the personal faith of Coltrane, who died in 1967 at age 40, "not of any one church at all, but was really a sort of self-created spirituality, which drew from a lot of different traditions. And that universal-type approach is really what he's defining in this one magnificent moment, a monument to that personal philosophy: 'A love supreme.'"

This is the second profile of the making of a jazz classic by Kahn, a New Jersey journalist. The first, the well-received Kind of Blue (Da Capo, 2000), chronicled the classic 1959 Miles Davis disc (on which John Coltrane played as a member of Davis' sextet).

Kahn said that he did "a hell of a lot" of research for this new book: "I interviewed over 100 voices -- musicians, witnesses, producers, people who could just give background, as well as people from successive generations, to try and gauge the influence, the effect, the shadow, if you will, of A Love Supreme."

Coltrane's oldest surviving son, Ravi, and his widow, Alice, gave their blessings to the project, Kahn said: "I don't think I would have done this book without having their positive support." In addition, Kahn's A Love Supreme has a foreword by Elvin Jones, Coltrane's longtime drummer.

One of the greatest surprises to come out of his research, said Kahn, was "finding out just how consciously involved he was with the commercial side of his career." Kahn discovered that Coltrane gave equal concern to all aspects of his music and career. "He was not someone who saw the artistic as this thing over here, the spiritual over here, and then reaching people and marketing and when to bring out albums and what the albums should look like…. He saw all things as being on the same path. So, the idea of his contract, and what music he owed the label, and whether or not he would do a ballads album -- he was involved with all those decisions," Kahn said.

Though a significant seller, the importance of A Love Supreme transcends sales figures. "The measure I had to go by was more in the lines of: 'Can you hear it being quoted in other people's music, inside jazz and out?' The answer is yes -- whether at a Carlos Santana concert, in dance clubs in Europe on various techno and house singles, or right back in jazz tributes at Lincoln Center or in Branford Marsalis' latest cover version. That sort of reverence and idea of keeping this music alive is there, just as much as [with] Kind of Blue," said Kahn.

Kahn worked closely with Verve Music Group, the company owning rights to Coltrane's A Love Supreme. The Coltrane family made available alternate takes from the original album session, and a trip by Kahn to France uncovered an archival recording of Coltrane's only live performance of the work. Verve released a newly remastered double-CD version of A Love Supreme, including the alternate takes and the French concert, in conjunction with Kahn's book. The Verve package has jumped onto Billboard's hit-jazz charts.

Both book and CD were launched in mid-November at an event at Joe's Pub in New York City, where the Ravi Coltrane Quartet performed with special guest Alice Coltrane. The project has generated a good deal of interest. NPR's Morning Edition ran a seven-minute story about A Love Supreme. Newark's WGBO-FM has produced a two-hour Love Supreme special for satellite downloading.

Kahn is the editor of Rolling Stone: The '70s (Little, Brown, 1998) and formerly was involved in concert production and tour management. "I've seen it all, from behind a desk and inside the bus," he said. For him, Coltrane's A Love Supreme is the seminal work in a modern pop music tradition: "On an artistic/spiritual level, the way artists define themselves within a thematic-conceptual album -- Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On, John Lennon's Imagine -- music as a way of defining what your personal philosophy is, really begins with the soul-baring of A Love Supreme."

Coltrane's suite has become "a canonistic part of the jazz repertoire," said Kahn. "All you have to do is call your (concert) event 'A Love Supreme' -- whether it's at a festival or at a highbrow, soft-seat theatre -- and it's going to be a sold-out thing. Call it that, and people know what you mean, and, boom, they flock there." -- Tom Nolan