Coltrane’s legendary ‘A Love Supreme’ enters fifth decade

The legendary jazz musician Stan Getz once said, “If you like an instrument that sings, play the saxophone.” It is, indeed, a unique instrument — a strange hybrid of a trumpet and clarinet, it’s got a sensual shape and a golden tone to match. And on a winter afternoon in New Jersey, in the year 1964, John Coltrane created a song like no other saxophone had sung before.

The beginning of “A Love Supreme” is not even a jazz instrument, traditionally — it’s a gong, immediately followed by a swift saxophone riff. It is a serene and ethereal beginning. Then the otherworldly nature drops away, and the bass takes over with a simple four-note theme. Later, Coltrane takes over with a chant: “a love su-preme, a love su-preme,” set to that same blues theme. The track is called “Acknowledgement,” and that’s what it feels like — a nod to the music, and, as Coltrane had in mind, an acknowledgement of God.

“A Love Supreme” also marks a deep transition for Coltrane himself. It was the switch from bebop and hard bop to free form jazz, and the beginning of a religious resurgence of sorts. The album is named for the supreme love of God — though Coltrane doesn’t specify what religion’s God he means. After “A Love Supreme,” his songs and albums began to take on spiritual overtones: “Ascension,” “Meditations,” “Prayer and Meditation Suite,” “Om.” The last song of “A Love Supreme” is called “Psalm.” It is accompanied by a poem written by Coltrane celebrating the wonder and mystery of God.

Eric Funk, MSU music professor and a jazz musician, emphasized, “pay attention to how Coltrane’s playing … captures the poem he wrote for the liner notes.” Coltrane called it a “musical narration.” It is rare to clearly hear a voice present in an instrument, but that is what happens in “Psalm.” You sit, engrossed in the looping, twisting melody and suddenly you realize you can’t hear a saxophone anymore. It is a human voice, made all the more eloquent by being inhuman.

“A Love Supreme” is not what could be termed “easy listening.” At times it is harsh, eerie and frenetic. The instruments seem to be doing different things — the drums beat out violent rhythms, the bass rumbles furiously, the piano lays down dissonant chords and Coltrane soars above it all, seemingly in his own private world. And yet, miraculously, everything meshes. You are left with sweat on your brow and tears in your eyes. Casual jazz fans will likely shrink from the walls of raw sound that the album gives you. But if you sit and listen, you find that the music is incredible. Even in the dark and brooding sections, there are moments of clarity and utter beauty — a single, pure high note above a rolling drum, or a beautiful meeting of piano and saxophone. It is as if Coltrane is asking us to engage with him in a religious ritual.

This is part of the magic of Coltrane — the power to cross boundaries and time. Funk remembers seeing Carlos Santana in San Rafael. “He was wearing a black baseball hat with ‘A Love Supreme’ in red cursive across the front. It wasn’t lost on me,” he said. It is honest music, pure and simple.

“A Love Supreme” has not lost its presence, even 50 years after its original release. Listening in my crowded dorm room, I was back in a New Jersey studio in December, somehow a passenger to history. From the next room came the sound of a saxophone — for a moment, it sounded like a poem.