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, took things to new heights. 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, his mastery of exotic modes and scales; it is about psychic energy and exploration, a search for spiritual truth. It’s truly 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 recounts 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.
Off-mic, I remember from my 1987 interview with Alice that there had been little to no rehearsal when Coltrane’s band assembled in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for the recording session on December 9, 1964. The musicians were so well-prepared that they finished recording that day.
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.