After 50 years, John Coltrane’s A Love Surpreme remains a highlight of genius for the jazz saxophonist and composer, whose remarkable output left an indelible mark on music. At a taut 33 minutes, the suite has left an indelible mark on music with everyone from U2‘s Bono to Carlos Santana having cited the album as an influence.
The then-38-year-old Coltrane spent two days alongside McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones in 1964 recording at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and now — for the first time — every note of that session is available to listeners. A new box set called A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters includes all takes, including two goes that featured saxophonist Archie Shepp and a second bassist, Art Davis.
“Whenever I had the chance to play with John, it was, for me, a very special moment,” Shepp told Billboard from Paris, where he now lives. “Every time I met him I asked him to give me a lesson! I was always inspired and perhaps a little intimidated. I knew that he was breaking new ground and I felt very fortunate to have been chosen to be where I was.”
The dueling saxophones add a whole new dimension to the suite’s iconic first section, “Acknowledgement,” with Shepp’s throaty tone cutting through the band’s hypnotic refrain as Coltrane soared above.
“It’s still mysterious in ways,” said Ravi Coltrane, one of John’s three sons and an accomplished saxophonist and composer himself. “Like, how did this guy come up with this stuff? How did the synergy of these four players get to this point? It’s one of the great, beautiful, mysterious creations in 20th century music.”
As much as A Love Supreme’s success results from Coltrane’s singular virtuosity, the album is also fundamentally an exercise in spiritual music: “a primer to a vocabulary of ascension,” in the words of scholar Ashley Kahn, who wrote the reissue’s liner notes.
“I think some people don’t understand that Coltrane was really a very religious man,” Shepp added of the saxophonist, who studied everything from Islam to Hinduism to Christianity with almost equal intensity — an omnivorousness that comes through particularly well in his most iconic record.
Another striking aspect of A Love Supreme, even as it receives archival reissues and canonizing awards (it’s in the Smithsonian), is how contemporary it sounds, even 50 years later.
“If we were to put on a Pat Boone record that was recorded the same year as A Love Supreme,” the younger Coltrane said, “to our ear and our sensibilities and our aesthetics and taste, it would sound like it was maybe 100 years old.” A Love Supreme, though “still has that same veering and peeking into the future type of sound, which is very uncommon [even today].”
“A Love Supreme is 50 years old,” he continued. “But if you have not heard it before — you didn’t know it existed before yesterday — than it’s essentially brand new.”