A friend once told me that listening to A Love Supreme was like going to church, even if you are not religious. I’ll admit that, as a non-spiritual person, the studio version of John Coltrane’s masterpiece has taken me places over the 30 years since I first heard it. With only one other live performance officially released, A Love Supreme has remained mysterious and enigmatic over the decades with its relative scarcity adding to its appeal.
When the word came down that a new live version was going to be officially put out this Fall, anticipation built. I tend not to be a completist, so in many cases I do not go out of my way to obtain the many reissues, alternative takes, and bonus material that slowly drips from my favored artists of days long ago. With A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, I made an exception and put it on as a “what the heck” listen.
In this set from October 1965, Coltrane’s classic quartet (including McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones) are joined by Pharoah Sanders and Carlos Ward on second and third saxes, as well as Donald Garrett on second bass. The piece is a dramatically expanded version of the studio recordings, clocking in at over twice the length, with four interludes separating its four movements.
And it is a wild ride. The septet provides a turbulent take on the material, which includes the signature melodies and patterns as well as lengthy improvisations. The latter are more outside than in, with several members employing extended techniques, wailing, and long solos. Jones, in particular, is even more impressive than usual, playing busily enough to make one wonder if there is not a second drummer as well. One of the interludes is a lengthy drum solo that stops just short of going over the top.
While not exactly free, the reading is experimental, almost weird, and quite exhilarating. Coltrane is telegraphing the evolution that he would undertake in the last two years of his life, with disjointed sheets of notes and plaintive wails. Admittedly, some of the spirituality is dampened by the sheer energy of this mix (with the closer, Psalm, being an exception). Pulling back on Coltrane’s vanguard tendencies to some extent is Tyner, whose piano playing lands more squarely in the “jazz” camp while remaining edgy.
So yes, this release does live up to the anticipation and hype. While recommended for any fan of A Love Supreme, it is essential for those who appreciate Coltrane’s final period. I’m glad that I said “what the heck.”