Ask Carlos Santana, Bootsy Collins, or Patti Smith — to name three of the countless famous converts. Ask, for that matter, any random agnostic with a good record collection. The truest answer to the question ”Who is John Coltrane?,” the most divine response to ”What is jazz?,” and, this side of Bach, music’s most convincing affirmative reply to ”Does God exist?” is A Love Supreme. Nearly 33 minutes of religious and harmonic discovery, it finds the John Coltrane Quartet drawing on blues rumbles and avant-garde honks, Eastern religion and Platonic ideals, its leader’s monastic chants and ecstatic tenor sax — all to chart the rebirth of his soul.
And now, a second coming. Verve’s deluxe edition of the 1965 classic features a newly mastered and glitch-free suite and sweetens the deal with a bonus disc of rarities: the only live performance of the piece (rich and rangy at the 1965 Antibes Jazz Festival), an alternative take and breakdown of the second movement, and two cuts revealing what the liner notes justly call ”the most famous un-issued sessions in jazz” — sextet versions that convert the first movement into a rapturous party.
The author of those notes, Ashley Kahn, exhaustively documented the making of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue between hardcovers in 2000 and does much the same for A Love Supreme in an eponymous book coreleased with the reissue. Excepting the occasional splash of hype, Kahn describes the music with marvelous lucidity. (To his ear, at the start of the first movement, the ring of Elvin Jones’ gong ”begins to decay” to give way to Coltrane’s warm fanfare, ”a benediction, a spiritual welcome.”) But his greatest triumph is to put the album in full context. It’s page 83 before we get to Dec. 9, 1964, and an after-dark recording session in Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio. By that point, Kahn’s already led us through Coltrane’s North Carolina childhood as the grandson of two Methodist ministers; apprenticeships with R&B groups, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis; and a vicious heroin habit kicked with Coltrane’s spiritual awakening.
A Love Supreme is the sound of that experience, a celestial din of trembling and gratitude, the eros of Jimmy Garrison’s bluesy bass inseparable from the agape of McCoy Ty-ner’s chiming piano. There are spots in which Coltrane, replicating the struggle of an aching soul, blows with such intensity that you fear he will break either the instrument or the whole concept of tonality, whichever goes first. His hot wind through the sax is a reminder that spirit means breath. His words in an accompanying poem are the only ones that can do the music justice: ”Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you, God. Amen.” ALBUM: A BOOK: B+