John Coltrane’s classic quartet—featuring pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones—hit a pinnacle of their expressive potential together in the recording session that took place on December 9, 1964. Given all that it contains, the album put to tape on that day can seem paradoxically compact: It’s not quite 33 minutes long, so how is it possible for there to be so much space for each soloist to shine? Enough time for Coltrane, as composer, to make the spiritual stakes of this four-movement suite so dramatically clear?
A Love Supreme’s unusual power remains as mysterious as its pleasures are durable. There are an impressive number of Coltranes that we can hear. His solos are full of passages that show off his sturdy tone as well as his fluid melodic variations, but, in a surprise move, he also sings the album’s title during the opening “Acknowledgement.” Occasionally, he ventures high-register notes on his tenor sax that seem to gasp with airy vulnerability. Jimmy Garrison’s bass creates a mood of risk as well as grace as he steadily navigates a series of fresh chords at the end of “Pursuance.” Pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones foster breakneck swing or deep reflection, given the needs of the moment.
In A Love Supreme’s liner notes, Coltrane describes the album as a “humble offering to HIM.” But this is no easygoing tribute; personal and social struggle informs it throughout. As Ashley Kahn observes in a recent reissue set essay, Coltrane’s drafted score for A Love Supreme references the closing chord of “Alabama,” his earlier tribute to the victims of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. A Love Supremecarries a similarly complex spirit, working at a celebration of life while also confronting the reality of terror. To make good on the effort, the album strikes an interfaith posture: Some of its blues cries come from the black church, and Coltrane’s chanted vocals suggest Eastern spiritual traditions. Just as the album demands much of its composer and his fellow players, it also encourages us to enlarge our own capacities. –Seth Colter Walls / Pitchfork.com