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A live version of jazz great Coltrane's finest album emerges

John Coltrane's surprising reinterpretation, recorded 56 years ago, marked the urge to move towards more free-form formats

From the cover of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle’.
From the cover of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle’.

Not unlike many listeners who have tried to tiptoe into jazz from a musical experience that was deeply rooted in classic rock and rock ‘n’ roll of the 1960s and the 1970s, my introductory albums to the genre were Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I was in my late teens or early 20s.

Last month, the release of a phenomenal live version of A Love Supreme, a reinterpretation recorded in October 1965, transported me once again to those days. Davis’ 1959 album is a kind of easy way to groove into jazz. Ironic, because in his nearly 50-year career, Davis careened, mostly brilliantly, from style to style, reinventing himself so much that his influence on jazz as well as other genres has remained boundless. Kind Of Blue is an album of a different kind. Even if you are not familiar with jazz, it can convert you.

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It is the kind of album where the tunes become familiar quickly and soon you can recognise the track whenever it’s played. The tone is set from the very first bass line on the opening track, followed by the piano and the horn. It helps that it’s a band of geniuses: Davis is on the trumpet, of course, but there’s Cannonball Adderley on the alto sax, Coltrane on the tenor sax, Paul Chambers on double bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums, and Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano. No one tries to upstage the others. And it is a well-documented fact that Davis did not go for rehearsals before a recording. He would play harmonic sketches for his band members, who would improvise on them during the recording.

Kind Of Blue finds itself on many prestigious lists of all-time great albums; many critics even see it as perhaps the best jazz album of all time, though there may be another contender for that position—Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. A protégé of Davis, Coltrane, who is acknowledged as one of the finest jazz saxophonists, had a short but tumultuous career. He was part of Davis’ group but was once sacked by the great trumpeter, presumably because he turned up drunk and dishevelled for a gig.

Coltrane died prematurely at 40, in 1967. But in the last few years, he recorded albums that established him as one of the greatest sax players and band leaders in jazz. The acme of his career is A Love Supreme. Recorded in 1965, it had the classic Coltrane quartet, comprising Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums and percussion, and McCoy Tyner on piano. The album, revered by musicians and listeners alike, marks an epiphanic moment in Coltrane’s life when he gave up alcohol and drugs and embraced spiritualism.

It is a suite of four tunes. The first, Acknowledgement, features Coltrane chanting the phrase “A love supreme”, giving the album its name and setting the tone for a deeply immersive and healing composition that can transport the listener to a deeply spiritual state. While Kind Of Blue and A Love Supreme are both acknowledged as brilliant albums, the former is often cited as a definitive jazz album where Davis creates a form known as modal jazz: no chord changes, as in the earlier bop form of jazz, but a style where there is one tonal or harmonic centre from which each player improvises.

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It is a soothing album that has become over time—at least for me— something I can play even ambiently in the background. A Love Supreme is different. While it also belongs to the “modal jazz” category, it is profoundly hymnal. And it is a departure from earlier Coltrane works that were marked by a more aggressive, even violent, style of playing. Its four tracks have a single central tonality, the improvisations, especially by Coltrane’s saxophone (which always has an astonishing vocal quality), take the listeners on a very different sort of trip where harmony and melody evolve into a hint of some free jazz adventurism—enough to always draw in the listener.

Curiously, Coltrane did not often play the tunes on the album in live settings. There was one recording from Paris but not much else. Till last month, when A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle, a surprising reinterpretation recorded in Seattle, US, over half a century ago, came out.

It has, besides the classic quartet, a (then) 24-year-old Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax, Carlos Ward on alto sax, and an additional bassist, Donald Garrett. The original A Love Supreme was around 32 minutes long. The Live In Seattle version is a glorious 75 minutes, with eight tracks instead of four.

The real difference is in the music. The first track, Acknowledgement, stretches to 22 minutes (the original was under eight) and begins with two bass lines before building up into the familiar melody slowly, preceded by many tangential improvisations. And that holds good for the rest of the tunes too. The album marks Coltrane’s restless urge to break out of familiar terrain and move towards more free-form jazz formats, a fulcrum that sets the stage for his subsequent albums and performances. Unfortunately, there were not too many to come—he died two years later.

Listening to the Seattle recording can be a very welcome trip back to the spiritual poignancy of the original A Love Supreme, interpreted in a looser, and quite enjoyably improvised, manner.

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