New for The Nation: “Which Version of A Love Supreme Reigns Supreme?”

Credit to Lewis Porter and Ashley Kahn: Anyone writing on this topic is indebted to their pioneering work, not just Porter’s biography of Coltrane and Kahn’s book on A Love Supreme, but also their superb liner notes to both the deluxe reissue of A Love Supreme and the new A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle.

The “score” in Coltrane’s own hand:

The payroll statement for the December 9, 1964 session at Van Gelder’s:

Bits and pieces that didn’t make the finished essay:

[From the essay: “Acknowledgement” is a groovy vamp, “Resolution” plaintive swing tune, “Pursuance” a burning fast minor blues, and “Psalm” a poem over a drone.] The euphonious key structure of the four pieces — F, E-flat, B-flat, and C — maps out the cellular information of much of the melodic material, 4/5ths of a pentatonic scale.

Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, Psalm

The opening fanfare is comprised mostly of E, F-sharp, and B, all notes “out of key” from the rest of the suite; a dramatic “neighbor note” (and also a partial pentatonic) implying the vast amount of chromatic elaboration Coltrane will employ to ornament his basic modal structures.


In addition to dry technical details, the work is grounded by a vibrant emotional rhythm: Love of life and of God. 


Omree Gal-Oz has created a score-scrolling video of A Love Supreme for YouTube. The final section, “Psalm,” where Coltrane performs his poem (at 26 minutes) is particularly exciting, for Gal-Oz makes the relationship of text to tone completely obvious.


It’s a bit unfair to bring up Plays Duke Ellington, for this LP might have simply been the record label’s idea: producer Bob Thiele had recently signed Ellington to Impulse! and probably this was an attempt at some kind of cross-pollination.  There’s a somewhat surprising amount of Coltrane/Ellington back and forth. Not only did McCoy track an album of Ellington covers, but Coltrane and Ellington made a classic album together; eventually Elvin’s first gig after Trane was with Duke.


A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle is “Volume Two” of Live in Seattle, first released as a 2-LP set in the ’70s, then expanded with more tracks on compact disc in the ‘90s.

All the music recorded that week has a similar shape, especially thanks to a new chaos demon in the form of Donald Garrett on second bass. Garrett and Garrison are totally in their own zone, it’s almost as if they aren’t even listening to anyone else. When Coltrane calls “Out of this World,” the bassists immediately strum low E together. Tyner gently plays an octave E-flat for a while, trying to get them to find the right key, before giving up and grimly settling into E-flat dorian to support Trane’s impassioned preach of the old Harold Arlen tune. All the while, the bassists don’t let up, they just stay in the land of “noise bass on the open strings.” It actually kind of works, but it’s also pretty damn nuts. It’s easy to understand why Tyner left shortly after.

Yeah: If you like extended avant-garde bass, the Seattle music has you covered, especially during A Love Supreme. Garrison and Garrett wander around together after the opening fanfare, offer no less than 12 minutes of solo and duet interludes in the middle, and keep playing after the suite is over.

There are plenty of other highlights, including fervent solos by Sanders and Ward. Still, nobody but Coltrane and Elvin Jones knows the music. Even Tyner forgets that “Pursuance” is a blues form and blows a fierce uptempo solo in the “one key” style of ‘65 — although to be fair, maybe the pianist thought that trying to delineate dominant to tonic with two basses working against him was just too hard a job. 

If I had to chose, I’d suggest that Live in Seattle is even more essential than A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, especially for the extraordinary blowing from Coltrane and Tyner on “Body and Soul” and “Out of This World.” Together, Coltrane and Tyner had reimagined the Great American Songbook in their own image, and this is the final document of that astounding journey.


The McCoy Tyner quote, “All black peoples of the earth always improvise their music. We never sit down and systemize everything” comes from the Joe Brazil site curated by Steve Griggs. Brazil recorded all the Seattle material; Griggs was the one to discover the Seattle Love Supreme tapes in the Brazil archive. Many thanks to Griggs for all this vital work! The Brazil site is a treasure trove, and the Seattle Love Supreme is a magnificent addition to the discography.

The release of A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle has been unanimously praised by critics. I praise it myself. We must validate Coltrane’s quest, noisy bassists and all.

(Footnote: I love my editor, Don Guttenplan, but almost had a heart attack when I saw his subhead, “Is the latest posthumous addition to his canon released today the Holy Grail—or the tainted fruit of a system that denied Coltrane’s collaborators royalties or credit?” I could never call anything by Coltrane tainted. He told me sternly, “Writers don’t get to dictate their headlines,” but I threw myself on his mercy and he took out “tainted.”)

For a time I toyed with trying to write about the conflict of old and new from a musician’s perspective, perhaps trying to honor those who didn’t like the freer music made after Ascension. In the end I’m letting it lay. Trane was right. Of course.

Not too many consecrated African-American musicians have criticized Trane in public, but Jimmy Heath hints at the opposing viewpoint in I Walked with Giants:

I was working at Slugs in the East Village with Art Farmer when Coltrane died on July 17, 1967. We played late sets, and I was very tired when I went to the funeral on July 21 at the old gothic-style Saint Peter’s Lutheran church at Fifty-fourth Street and Lexington Avenue, with the Reverend John Gensel as pastor. That building predated the Citicorp Center site where the church is currently located. I sat next to Sonny Stitt during the funeral. I had been asked to be the pallbearer, but I couldn’t handle it. I was in tears when I saw Trane in the coffin. His face didn’t look anything like him. It resembled a puffed doll. I noticed his hands, which were just as they had been, and then it hit me that it was John. His whole life flashed back on me, and I was overwhelmed with sorrow. I had been so close to him during all those years with Dizzy and the many practicing sessions. I remembered when he was in Philly practicing all day and hanging out.

People were at the funeral from all over the country and the world. It was a big event, and I realized that the humble beginnings he had come from where similar to my own — more even than I realized at the time. For him to have risen to such a point and to then to have been snuffed out made me think of the old expression “Life begins at forty.” Lying in the casket, he was forty and gone. He was out of here. It was overwhelming, and I couldn’t really handle it. Dizzy was sitting in back of me, and there were musicians in the balcony playing free jazz. Dizzy said, “If they play that stuff when I die, Lorraine [Dizzy’s wife] will come in here and shoot all of them.”

Heath is too discreet to mention the musicians performing, but they were big names, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, and their performances from that day can be heard online. I wrote about the Ayler medley in “Albert Ayler at 80.” Ornette’s “Holiday For A Graveyard” is also beautiful.

While working on this essay, I noticed for the first time that McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones did not perform at Coltrane’s funeral. Perhaps this surprising omission indicates just how big the rift really was.

Ads for the Seattle engagement (thanks to Impulse! promo dept.)