The opening notes of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme always give me chills. And whenever I hear the instrumental prologue to Stephen Sondheim's Follies I have the same reaction. In my mind, the two openings are inextricably linked; both Coltrane and Sondheim use the harmonic language that they had long ago mastered to convey a sense of impending greatness, to signify that something colossal is about to happen: like an enormous gate that's about to be opened, a curtain slowly parting. Both words are epic tales of cosmic forces in motion: Follies is about the cataclysmic clash of showbiz titans, while A Love Supreme is possibly even more ambitious: it's a highly personal passion play of sin and salvation, a tale of conversion as dramatic as that of St. Paul or St. Peter, Coltrane's answer to St. Augustine's Confessions. It could be called The Last Temptation of Coltrane.
For Coltrane, there could be no distinction between the musical and the religious, and the lightning bolt of divine inspiration that led to the creation of A Love Supreme was simultaneously both. In his notes to this 1965 album, Coltrane talks of having had a "spiritual awakening" about eight years earlier: he dramatically experienced the presence of God in a powerful way. It was an epiphany that empowered him to renounce narcotics and alcohol, and inspired him to compose what would be his most celebrated work, the four- part suite A Love Supreme. Coltrane also wrote a poem to accompany the work, which was included in the original gatefold album packaging.
Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme with his Classic Quartet (pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones) in December 1964, and it was released two months later. In what could be also be described as a miracle of biblical proportions, A Love Supreme represented virtually the only time an album of hardcore modern jazz instrumental music became a widespread popular success: the younger generation appreciated its devotional message as well as the unforgettable theme of the first movement, "Acknowledgement."
Coltrane performed the work again, live at Juan-les-Pins, France, in July 1965, and that would be the last time it was heard in his short lifetime. It was not a work he was compelled to play repeatedly, perhaps because it wasn't only like opening a gate, but also a Pandora's box. When he let those sounds loose upon an unsuspecting world for the first time, listeners and musicians alike were amazed at the varieties of jazz that he managed to encompass in a single work. Coltrane had begun his career 20 years earlier, playing bebop: his first big-time gig was with Dizzy Gillespie's Orchestra in 1949: then, working alongside Miles Davis in the late 1950s, Coltrane helped the trumpeter pioneer a sound that later generations would call modal jazz. It was with his own bands in the 1960s that Coltrane became a major mover and shaker in the form collectively called free (or avant- garde) jazz: surely his 1961 "Chasin' the Trane" was as free as any jazz could ever be. What was most notable about A Love Supreme when it was new was the way it utilized all those approaches. There are moments throughout the four-part suite that can be described as bebop, modal, or free jazz.
And yet, in the 50 years since then, A Love Supreme has been put to uses going well beyond those varieties of modern jazz. Coltrane himself conceived of the work for quartet, but he also experimented with playing parts of it as a sextet (the addition of a second tenor saxophonist and bassist to the Classic Quartet). Since then, David Murray has re-arranged "Acknowledgement" for an eight-piece ensemble, with an opening that's as formidably free as Coltrane at his most avant-garde. Will Downing transformed the main theme into R&B, and the Turtle Island String Quartet adapted it into classical chamber music. Numerous singers have offered lyrical interpretations, none more effectively than Kurt Elling, whose robust baritone captures the full force of Coltrane's tenor saxophone and whose hymn-like lyrics to the second movement, "Resolution," channel Coltrane's spiritual devotion into verbal form.
In the long history of A Love Supreme after the composer's tragically early death (in 1967 at the age of 40), Wynton Marsalis's big-band arrangement for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra hardly seems radical. Just the opposite: the decision to encompass Coltrane's musical and theological masterpiece into the big-band format seems like a highly natural and organic progression. In this remarkable adaptation, Mr. Marsalis reveals that as revolutionary as A Love Supreme sounded in 1965: and remains to this very day: it comes clearly out of the jazz tradition. Mr. Marsalis has taken the essential core of Coltrane's themes and shown how they work in the harmonic language of Coltrane's great compositional forebears, men like Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gerald Wilson, Benny Carter, and Gil Evans.
"The point of what Coltrane was doing with A Love Supreme was finding out how much he could do with a very small amount of material. So the challenge of writing for a big band is to figure out how all of that comes together, and how to build upon its fundamental ideas." As Mr. Marsalis tells us, "The first thing is that he has a cyclical form, which begins in the universal church and ends in the church of Negro spirituals." It was Coltrane's genius that he got such a remarkable range of sounds: and conveyed such a powerful narrative: with just his tenor and a three-piece rhythm section. Mr. Marsalis's achievement, conversely, is that he is able to marshal the forces of 18 musicians and still keep the work intimate and personal. His version, no less than Coltrane's, is about one man's direct relationship with God.
When most people talk about playing A Love Supreme, they usually mean the four-note theme in the first movement, which Coltrane both plays and chants repeatedly, in the manner of what Hindus and Buddhists would call a mantra; that repetition builds to a moving climax at the end of "Acknowledgement." Yet for me, the most moving section, even more so than that incredible opening, is the conclusion of the fourth and final part. For roughly 30 minutes, Coltrane has taken us on a spiritual journey, a literal quest to find God. Then, in the last few seconds, he finds Him. The tenor statements in the last few moments of A Love Supreme are especially ecstatic, and, if you listen very closely at the end, you can hear a second tenor saxophone playing at the same time. We are told that Coltrane achieved this through overdubbing, but I for one refuse to believe it: we must be hearing the voice of God Himself, responding to Coltrane in his own language.
Will Friedwald writes about jazz and nightlife for the Wall Street Journal. He also is the author of eight books on music and popular culture, including the award-winning A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, Sinatra: The Song Is You, Stardust Melodies, Tony Bennett: The Good Life, and Jazz Singing.