If I had to name a few of the greatest instrumental jazz records of all time, several artists would come to mind: Louis Armstrong, Ahmad Jamal, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis would be at the top of my list.
John Coltrane and his album, A Love Supreme, was music of an even higher order. It distinguishes itself from the rest by being not only a musical masterpiece but a spiritual testament as well. Recorded in late 1964, I still remember when I first heard this record on KBCA 105.1 FM. I was on my way to grad night, driving along the newly-opened 10 freeway in my sister’s boyfriend’s 356 Porsche. It was a truly sublime moment from my early years, and I’ve been listening to this record ever since.
Coltrane brought a spiritual dimension to jazz music. In doing so, he inspired generations of musicians: Pharoah Sanders, Doug and Jean Carn, Leon Thomas, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, the French band Magma and its leader, Christian Vander, Gil Scott-Heron, Azar Lawrence and the late Michael Brecker, to name a few. Most recently, the new 3-CD Kamasi Washington album, The Epic, bears witness to the timeless legacy that is A Love Supreme. For these musicians, it’s not just about Coltrane’s total mastery of the tenor saxophone, or his mastery of exotic modes and scales; it’s about psychic energy and exploration, a search for spiritual truth. It’s spiritual jazz or—maybe more appropriately—just spiritual music.
A newly-issued 2-disc set celebrating Coltrane’s great album is out. Titled Branford Marsalis Quartet Performing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme Live in Amsterdam, it’s Branford on tenor saxophone, accompanied by his long-standing quartet: Joey Calderazzo on piano; Eric Revis on bass; and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. This tribute was recorded live on March 30, 2003 at the Bimbuis Jazz Club in Amsterdam but wasn’t issued until just a few weeks ago on Okeh / Marsalis Music. To say “compelling” does not do the recording justice. It is a spellbinding performance, and the Dutch audience knows it. Rarely have I heard such audience ecstasy, probably not since the Ellington at Newport 1956 recording of Duke’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.”
As a major added bonus, this new album comes with a DVD, on which Branford Marsalis interviews the late Alice Coltrane about A Love Supreme. In one memorable instance, Alice recalls that prior to the recording session, Coltrane locked himself upstairs, isolated from the family for a week, practicing—but mostly meditating. Aside from bringing his meals upstairs, husband and wife didn’t see one another other for the entire week. Finally, she says, he “walked the stairs like Moses [descending] from the mountain,” declaring that he was done and that he had the music.
I remember Alice Coltrane telling me that after this lengthy meditation, Coltrane went to Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs, N.J. studio and cut the album in a single day, December 9, 1964.
Branford Marsalis Quartet Performing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme Live in Amsterdam is one of the best tributes to Coltrane’s genius. Once you hear the two opening movements of the live Marsalis set, I think you’ll agree. I prefer the gatefold LP Impulse A-77 version of the album, which has a beautiful meditation inside, with additional comments by authoritative producer, Michael Cuscuna. The accompanying DVD is especially insightful in understanding this masterpiece.