A Love Supreme

I don’t know about you, but I’m a stubborn listener. If you have as much music as I have, you sometimes buy a recording because someone you trust or many other people have recommended it … and, upon listening to it for the first time, you actually wonder about some people’s sanity. You sit in front of your speakers, dumbfounded, trying to figure out why anyone on this planet would rave about this particular recording. You hate the singer’s voice, you think whatever is pouring from your speakers sounds like industrial noise pollution or, worse, it just doesn’t touch you at all. Nada. Zip. No emotional response.

This happens to me again and again and my reaction is usually the simplest of all: I file the recording away for later perusal. Usually, recordings I just dislike upon first hearing them get about half a year of shelf life before they see the light of day again.

That’s the point at which the stubborn part kicks in. I usually don’t give up on recordings, especially if it seems clear to me that I’m the dumb one, not seeing the beauty, excellence or artistry in a recording that many thousands of listeners have developed a special relationship with. So, a recording might disappear for 6 months over and over again, until something clicks. Of course, there have been recordings I simply gave up on and will not pull out again until I’m above 60, hoping I might have gathered enough musical knowledge to “get it”, but those are few. Very few, actually.

So, yesterday was one of those moments. After a very nice experience and although I was dead tired late in the evening, I pulled out a recording that had gotten so many 6-month waiting periods that I was afraid the CD might have rotted away in the meantime. I got myself a cool drink (I still had a whole load of lime juice to put to use, so I made myself a very tall, ice-cold Cuba Libre), and from the pile of shelved recordings I pulled out John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” just because it was its turn again.

Now, I know that many of you would throw virtual tomatoes at me if they could, simply because by just mentioning it in this post I relegated one of history’s most important recordings to those recordings I myself had huge difficulties with, but try to root around your head a bit and see if you didn’t have the same problems at one point or another.

A central problem I’ve had with this recording is that – don’t laugh – the saxophone plays a central role. “Duh”, you might say, and “yep” I might answer, for I’ve had huge problems with saxophones all my life. Mind you, I love the smooth sounds of Paul Desmond and Stan Getz, Lester Young is on constant rotation around here, Ben Webster’s recordings are a must-have in my mind, I love a lot of the stuff Bennie Wallace did and does, and so on, but when things get a bit too “modern” or “risky” for me, the saxophone tends to sound too shrill to my ears. As I’m also not a fan of “modern jazz” or “free jazz”, whatever you yourself might understand those to be, John Coltrane’s smoother stuff has always fascinated me, but some of his more daring recordings turned me off completely – and there’s plenty of those to go around for several years of listening time.

So, I sat there, with lights dimmed, on the floor between my speakers, sweating my butt off because of the summer heat wave moving back and forth through my apartment (yeah, I know, you shouldn’t drink Rum when it’s that darn hot), listening to John Coltrane.

On full blast.

Recorded on December 9, 1964 at the Van Gelder studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, “A Love Supreme” is considered to be one of the greatest jazz albums of all time but, as I said before, it never really did anything for me. Nothing. I think I’ve listened to the entire album 10 or more times, but it didn’t move me the slightest until last night. And this is where this post becomes difficult: I can’t really explain why. It’s just that from one moment to the next, two minutes into the second part of the four-piece suite, entitled “Resolution”, all those cogwheels in my sometimes twisted musical mind turned just one notch into the right direction, aligned and clicked into place … and “A Love Supreme” had its first successful run in my small musical world.

I still can’t pinpoint it. Isolated, some of the music in here could still drive me nuts, but the whole recording grabbed me on an emotional level, maybe also just because I was in the right mood for it, listening with an open heart rather than open ears. There are wonderful melodic passages contrasted with intense emotional outbursts. The best way I can put this is that John Coltrane was actually “saying” something or “speaking” to the listener rather than just “playing” (actually, the fourth movement of the suite, “Psalm,” is a poem Coltrane recites through his saxophone, so what I just wrote does make sense to me).

“A Love Supreme” is still a controversial recording today, at least if any of the jazz boards I frequent are any indication. Some peple love to hate it and call it completely overrated, and others praise it to no end. As usual, the truth lies inbetween, as they say, but I certainly do agree that this is a piece of music history one needs to grow into, that one needs lots of listening experience for. I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think it’s too daring to assume that there are very few people on this planet who fell in love with “A Love Supreme” from the outset. Maybe there are, but for me that’s hard to imagine.

I’m not going to go into any more detail here because there is a seemingly endless stream of material written about this recording, but my point is also not to get you to like “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane. My point is that I think if you do like music as much as I do, you have to also give music a chance to work its magic on you. You need to invest time into listening and you shouldn’t banish recordings right away that just don’t do it for you. Hell, you might have a larger number of treasures floating around your collection that you just haven’t heard at the right moment and/or with the right mindset. Or, as in my case, maybe you were just too young to get it.

So, in summation, just be a stubborn listener because if you are, new horizons just might open up for you … even if it takes a couple of years.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. actually, I think there are entire tribes whose first contact with jazz was through A Love Supreme.

    And I for one loved it from the outset. Easy-po-peasy.


  2. Hey, that calls for an anthropological field study. 😉

    How much prior “jazz experience”, for wont of a better expression, did you bring to that first encounter with “A Love Supreme”?


  3. There have been several pieces or composers that I didn’t “get” until actually playing their music.  Being able to get at it from the inside and take it apart helps, I’m sure, but I bet a lot of it may be due simply to the repeated listening that happens when you’re preparing a piece, and you don’t have the choice to put it away and not listen to it.


  4. I came to that album after being on a Jimi Hendrix kick and it is, to this day, one of my favorite pieces of music. I’m really glad it caught up with you.

    I hear you on taking time thing. Funny though, sometimes it works in reverse for me – I’ll love an album like crazy and after hearing it once too many times I can almost never listen to it again. But never with John (I’m obviously in love).

    Dolphy’s Out to Lunch is amazing as well…


  5. Jishnu,

    I know what you mean about the “once too many” problem. I’ve experienced that with many albums. Only very few stay in constant rotation and “survive” although I will pick them up and give them another chance or two down the road. It has happened that I fell in love with an album all over again after having put it on the backburner for several years.

    The Wesseltoft one I wrote about the other day is one of those that has survived and stayed next to my CD player all those years.

    The Dolphy I have and like.

    Thnaks for stopping by!


  6. That’s an interesting point you make in your post. I worked in radio for several years spinning jazz and blues. I would have to listen to tons of records for my show. Often I would come across an album that just didn’t hit it off right with me. I’d do the same as you. Put it down or shelve it and then return to it. More often than not, letting these albums “stew” has been the solution. Maybe it was maturity, a bad day or some other X factor that didn’t allow me to connect to it. Conversely, I’ve had the reverse. An album that I really dug just doesn’t do much for me anymore. “Music… she’s ‘a like ‘a the moon… she comes and ‘a she goes…”


  7. Along side In a silent way, A love supreme is one of my all time favourites. It is heavily religious as was Coltrane, and indeed the movments in the piece and their titles echo that. There is a sense of death and rebirth in that album that far exceeds experiences I’ve had with classical music, the earth tones of the instruments and the styles take out the pomp and ceremony and leave you sitting on the dirty corner street of the world, simple, absolved and exhausted but pure bliss.


  8. hey ! i think now you are ready to hear john coltrane’s ascension or om or the late expression, all masterpieces 😉

    i like very much your point of view.


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