John Coltrane: Supreme Love, Live in Seattle
LP | CD | DL
Release October 22, 2021
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A Love Supreme was John Coltrane’s magnum opus. Now, after being in hiding for over fifty years, comes a live recording of this four-part sequel in its entirety. It is a founding document in the history of music. Gordon Rutherford’s reviews of Louder Than War.
“We are all human beings. Our spirituality can be expressed in any way and anywhere; you can get religion in a bar or jazz club as much as you can in a church. Supreme Love is always a spiritual experience, wherever you hear it. – Elvin Jones, 2002.
There is a moment – a fraction of a second – in John Coltrane’s 1965 magnum opus A Love Supreme, which bills itself as the most remarkable moment in music history. This happens twenty seconds after the start of the second track, Resolution, and it literally takes your breath away. Nothing else before or since has this immediacy, this devastating impact that Coltrane’s saxophone has at this precise moment. Of course, A Love Supreme would probably still be one of the best half-dozen albums to ever record if that moment hadn’t been conceived. But it sure helps.
A Love Supreme is virtually unprecedented work and obviously any album of that status that just happens to be captured live in its entirety would be remarkable. But that’s a whole new level, thanks to the most incredible story about this recording. Despite his fame, Coltrane has rarely publicly performed the four-part sequel that includes A Love Supreme. The only recorded public performance, released almost twenty years ago now, was captured at the Juan-les-Pins festival in July 1965. Until now, that is to say. Because a Seattle-based saxophonist and educator named Joe Brazil had just the jazz equivalent of Koh-i-noor. On October 2, 1965, a Saturday night at The Penthouse nightclub in Seattle, the Brazilian group opened for Coltrane and his group. As they often did, Brazil recorded their own set on the club’s Ampex reel. Tonight, due to the identity of the headliner, Brazil has decided to continue the tape. What he captured was an ensemble that made up A Love Supreme in its entirety, extended by solos and interludes. Incredibly, this watershed moment was only seen by around three hundred people.
In the following years, Brazil would play privately, very occasionally, the tapes for very lucky friends and students. Sadly, he passed away in 2008, after which his widow, Virginia, asked saxophonist and family friend Steve Griggs to sort and digitize Joe’s extensive collection of tapes. The Coltrane set has been discovered. Now available, and rightly so, on Impulse Records, the label behind the original, is the recording of this show. It’s almost miraculous that we get to listen to A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle. Equally miraculous, given the circumstances, is the sound quality of this recording, which is extraordinarily good.
Many key characteristics of the original A Love Supreme are captured in this performance, however, it is not a faithful recreation. Instead, there is so much more going on here. This is normal in such an improvisational environment; generally, each show is slightly different each night. But this performance is bigger, more expansive, more chaotic than the studio cut of the album, which is understandable given the line-up changes. Coltrane’s classical quartet, McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums), together since 1961, are all in attendance. But that basic sound is greatly enhanced by the addition of a second bassist, Donald Rafael Garrett, Carlos Ward on alto saxophone and a young Pharoah Sanders (Mercury Prize nominee last month) on tenor saxophone. That’s a lot of fresh ingredients to throw in the stew. No wonder it tastes different.
Aficionados of the original studio version will have the first thirty seconds of the album etched in their heads forever. The recognition opens with a crashing gong and Coltrane intro, followed by this iconic four-note pattern courtesy of Jimmy Garrison’s bass that lays the foundation for the entire track. It is special. Things don’t turn out that way on Live In Seattle. Instead, we’re treated to the sound of the band heating up, entering their groove for the roughly seventy-five minutes ahead of us. It’s disjointed, but it’s a nice slice of authentic realism that transports you to the Penthouse on this Saturday evening in October. Magical realism, if you will. Little by little, it starts to fall into place. The role of the two bassists is immediately clear as one chooses (likely Garrison given what’s to come) while the other (Garrett) tilts. The bass bow brings another dimension. A cowbell, probably played by Coltrane, sets the pace for Jones. And then, when everyone is ready, a little over two minutes later, Garrison begins his riff. These four emblematic notes. The show is on and we are immediately struck by the realization that the overall sound is bigger, more urgent, more visceral. More raw. In a way, it’s exciting, but I’ve always been in love with the purity of the studio version, which makes it difficult for me to devote myself entirely and eternally to it.
At the top of this article, I wrote about “this moment” as the resolution takes flight. When I got the tape for Live In Seattle, it was the first place I went and, like Acknowledgment, it’s different. It is preceded by the Interlude 1, which is mostly made up of Garrison and Garrett bass training together, one higher up in the neck. This sets the stage for this flagship Coltrane moment which, while still brilliant, somehow doesn’t match the impact of the studio version. To compensate, however, Coltrane and Sanders fight their way across the track. It’s dizzying, dazzling electrification.
An urgent execution of Pursuance follows. The tempo of this version seems to be double that of the studio version and it really feels like the band is now feeding off the energy of others and the audience in this little club. Sanders, the young brand gives himself the lead and the solos with ferocity. Jones seems determined to push the tempo even further as McCoy hits the keys in spectacular fashion. Psalm begins with this moving and unmistakable horn from Coltrane. Of the four parts of this performance, it is the Psalm that remains closest to its spiritual origin. As it draws to a close, one by one, the band members give up until a bass gets lost. “Is this the end? One of the musicians asks. “It is better that it is”, laughs Coltrane. His words mark the completion of this remarkable concert.
Those who know the original studio version will naturally make comparisons between the two versions. Inevitably, people will have their favorites. Personally, while I love Live In Seattle, I prefer the studio version, simply because Coltrane saw A Love Supreme not just as another album, but as a gift to God. Coltrane described it as “a humble offering to Him”. Double check the Elvin Jones quote at the top of this piece. “Supreme Love is always a spiritual experience.” There is something special about it, something which infallibly draws the listener to his spiritual center. The spaciousness and crystal clearness of the studio version lends itself a little more to this aspiration than the live recordings (both Live In Seattle and Juan-les-Pins). But here we are comparing works of art. It’s like balancing Picasso’s Guernica with Delacroix’s Liberty Leading The People. Because one is better on the eye does not make the other substandard.
A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle would be a worthy addition to anyone’s collection. First of all, it’s an iconic piece of music history captured, thankfully, forever and it’s worth owning the album for that alone. Musically speaking, those who own and love the original will revel in this extended live version. Despite this, there will be people who explore the works of John Coltrane for the first time. To them, I would wholeheartedly recommend hearing A Love Supreme for the first time as its creator intended, that is, on the original studio version. It’s quite a revelation.
Finally, a word for Impulse Records and American music historian Ashley Kahn. The design and the quality of the packaging of this album are simply breathtaking. Kudos to London-based Intro for his exceptional creative direction and design. The liner notes were composed by Kahn and they are also quite gorgeous. Such minute detail. Such love. It’s worth investing in the album just for Kahn’s cover notes and I’m not ashamed to say I found them incredibly helpful in writing this track. A good album deserves excellent packaging and it keeps its promises.
Pulse records can be found here. They are also on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
All the words of Gordon Rutherford. Other Gordon writings can be found in his archives.
Gordon is also on Twitter as @ R11Gordon and has a website here.