What a rare, live 'A Love Supreme' reveals about John Coltrane
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What a rare, live 'A Love Supreme' reveals about John Coltrane
John Coltrane circa 1965. Recordings from a 1965 John Coltrane live set languished in the Seattle bandleader Joe Brazil’s basement for years. Chuck Stewart/Fireball Entertainment Group via The New York Times.

by Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK, NY.- When John Coltrane released “A Love Supreme” in early 1965, fans recognized it as a masterwork practically on first listen. Best-of-the-year accolades rolled in. It became the biggest commercial hit of his career and possibly the most timeless piece of worship music in the American canon.

“A Love Supreme” was a realized ideal: Its four-part suite perfectly melded spiritual transcendence and physical exertion, powerful composition and openhearted improvising. And as soon as it was released, Coltrane was ready to leap ahead far further.

He started expanding the classic quartet that had recorded the album until the group reached a breaking point. He brought in other, often younger musicians and guided them into furious improvisations, drawing upon spiritual traditions from across the Global South. And he rarely returned to “A Love Supreme.”

Until this week, only one known live recording of it had been released, from a performance in Antibes, France, in mid-1965. But Friday, Impulse! Records will put out a long-buried private recording, “A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle,” captured in October of that year at the Penthouse jazz club.

It’s a landmark discovery. Over the course of the extended 75 minutes of the suite, we experience more sides of Coltrane than on some major albums in his catalog.

Coltrane would later look back on this brief moment in his career with a special fondness and some longing. His classic quartet — one of the most revered groups in the history of jazz — was still intact, but he had taken to attacking its equilibrium, infusing it constantly with fresh blood.

“I was trying to do something,” Coltrane told critic Frank Kofsky in late 1966, by which point drummer Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner had ditched the group. “I figured I could do two things: I could have a band that played like the way we used to play, and a band that was going in the direction that the one I have now is going. I could combine these two, you know, with these two concepts going. And it could have been done.”

Actually, it was done, for a limited stretch of 1965 — more or less from the assassination of Malcolm X, in February, to the first major escalation of U.S. warfare in Vietnam, in November. Touring the West Coast that fall, Coltrane spent a week at the Penthouse in Seattle, with his quartet augmented by a second bassist, Donald Rafael Garrett, and a second tenor saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders, both of whom had joined the band during its prior tour stop, in San Francisco. (Coltrane had just invited Sanders in as a permanent member, which he would remain until Coltrane’s death in 1967, from cancer, at age 40.)

Another album from Coltrane’s run that week, titled “Live in Seattle,” came out a few years after his death. Recorded that Thursday night, Sep. 30, it features epic-scale renditions of his originals, and jazz standards turned over. While he recorded prolifically during this period, it was until this week the only live club date from 1965 released as an album.

On Saturday, Oct. 2, Coltrane invited young alto saxophonist Carlos Ward, who had been part of the local matinee band at the Penthouse, to join his group as a seventh member that evening. The daytime band had been led by Joe Brazil, a saxophonist and prominent bandleader on the Seattle jazz scene, who died in 2008. An inveterate reel-to-reel tape user, Brazil recorded his own performance that day, and Coltrane’s that night, on the club’s house system.

The recordings were high-enough quality for an audio team to successfully restore them, and the final product’s sound is relatively clear, with only the two basses sometimes winding up muffled.

The tapes languished in Brazil’s basement for years. It wasn’t until Steve Griggs, another area saxophonist, gained permission from Brazil’s widow, Virginia, to sort through his collection that the “A Love Supreme” reel surfaced.

Griggs set about bringing his uncle’s old Akai reel-to-reel player back to working order. “Finally when I did get it working and I could listen to the tapes, I started looking through the Coltrane material, and there was this one tape that said, ‘Coltrane … A Love’ on the box,” Griggs remembered in an interview.

He had stepped into Joe and Virginia Brazil’s basement hoping to find clues into Coltrane’s historic week in Seattle, thinking he might write something about it. He got more than he’d imagined possible. “This recording has kind of exceeded my wildest dreams of making that scene come alive on paper,” he said.

The first notes of the suite he heard were from “Psalm,” its last movement, the tenderest part: a praise poem, addressed directly to God, that Coltrane had set to music and played through his saxophone. The poem itself is printed in the original album’s liner notes.

In Seattle, he chops up and reorders the melody, lingering on and repeating certain phrases (like he did in France on the other live recording). With Coltrane the lone saxophone on this track, it’s a respite after more than an hour of soaring and crashing, hard-blown notes over Jones’ polyrhythmic waves. Griggs didn’t know about all that until he flipped the tape and played it back from the beginning.

In concert, Coltrane was known for pushing himself and his horn to the physical limits. It is part of what drew him to Sanders, whose role in the group was largely to provide atonal cries and expressionist sounds (what today would be called extended technique but his critics often called noise).

Coltrane’s studio albums, including “A Love Supreme,” had included more digestible helpings of spitfire improvising, held to the ballast of his quartet. That would change with “Ascension,” a howling large-ensemble session that Coltrane recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studios in summer 1965, shortly before leaving for the West Coast tour, and that Impulse! would release the following year.

“Ascension” marked the beginning of Coltrane’s final period. Having written jazz’s major composition with “A Love Supreme,” he now fled from musical prescription.

But on “A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle,” he pushes in both directions. It’s clear from the recording that these musicians hadn’t rehearsed the suite, and some didn’t know it by heart. He gives verbal cues here and there, and at times he has to use the magnetism of his horn to yank the group back to center. He does this on the up-tempo minor swing of “Resolution” and “Pursuance,” blowing the melodies in strong, controlled gusts, in sync with the multilevel machinery of Jones’ swing feel.

Pianist and Coltrane scholar Lewis Porter, who contributed to the new album’s liner notes, marveled at Coltrane’s ability to balance an expert’s rigor with a beginner’s mind. “How do you square the world’s most amazing saxophonist — who’s always practicing, partly out of fanaticism, but partly just to get better — with a guy that says, ‘Let’s all get together and play “A Love Supreme,” even if you don’t know how it goes?’” Porter said in an interview.

He noted that Coltrane had credited Miles Davis with convincing him that rehearsals stifle creativity, rather than draw it out. To a sometimes extreme degree, Porter said, Coltrane “took Miles’ message to heart.”

Saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, 24, is high on the list of young jazz innovators today and like Coltrane sees both composing and improvising as something akin to a form of worship. Growing up in Philadelphia, where Coltrane spent his formative years, Wilkins came to know the sacred music of “A Love Supreme” via jam sessions, where musicians would call “Resolution” and “Pursuance” along with Broadway standards, injecting a reverent current into the space.

“There was a general common knowledge onstage that we were reaching for something high,” Wilkins said. “This wasn’t a personal thing; you could feel it on the bandstand. You weren’t done soloing till you felt we had, not even peaked, but reached a transcendent level.”

Listening to the newly unearthed recording, Wilkins said that in Coltrane’s push toward a freer aesthetic, he heard a group of musicians reaching escape velocity. “I wonder if they were thinking of the audience in these moments,” he said, considering the nearly 300 paying guests who were gathered at the Penthouse that night.

“I don’t think they were,” Wilkins said. “I think they completely escaped surveillance.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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