A Love Supreme

God Breathes Through John Coltrane

Copyright © 1998 by David Reitzes


John Coltrane's Meditations (Impulse! 1966) begins with a sound utterly unique in the history of recorded music - a sound of living, of breathing, of lungs expanding and contracting. With a mere pair of tenor saxophones, Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders have created an organism that rages and calms, speaks and sings, laughs and cries, roars and sighs - a newborn child fighting for life. At this moment, the two are less musicians than forces of nature; they are planets aligning for one crucial instant as natural law is suspended. At their urging, something lives and dies, but its ghost will linger for the next forty minutes as a suite unfolds, celebrating traumatic, joyous life, and its multifaceted relationship to its creator.

As a younger musician, Coltrane had been obsessed primarily with harmony. In an oft-quoted statement concerning Miles Davis' great late-'50s sextet, Coltrane explained, "Miles' music gave me an opportunity to see both sides of the question. It was simple and direct enough to superimpose chords - to stack them up - if you wanted, and if you wanted to play melodically, you could. I had mixed emotions about it."

Davis explained it this way: "What [Coltrane] does . . . is to play five notes of a chord, and then keep changing it around, trying to see how many ways it can sound. It's like explaining something five different ways."

"Where's the melody?" had been the rallying cry among detractors of earlier jazz, but Coltrane's explorations were an affront to even the cognoscenti. Reviewing Africa/Brass (Impulse! 1961) for Down Beat, Martin Williams wrote, "Coltrane has . . . [made] everything into a handful of chords . . . and then run them in every conceivable way, offering what is in effect an extended cadenza to a piece that never gets played."

Criticisms such as this miss the point. Gary Giddins once wrote, "Jazz is at bottom a conflict between the will to freedom and the desire for discipline." To paraphrase Giddins, the melodic line is the assertion of the soloist's independence. A tune's chords are the framework for his improvised statement. Without the harmony, there is no ground upon which to stand, and without the melody, the harmony has no purpose.

I would take Giddins a step further: Jazz is at heart a conflict between the primacy of the individual and the need for community.

Coltrane took it further still. By playing harmony as the melody, by subsuming harmony within the melody, he effectively blurred the distinction. It was an unthinkable act of dizzying symbolic significance - untethering the moorings of identity, obliterating the line between the self and the whole.

This was not an issue for Coltrane.

"One thought can produce millions of vibrations," he wrote in his liner notes for A Love Supreme (Impulse! 1965), "and they all go back to God." Such is the essence of Coltrane's playing. The message - the word, if you will - that inspires every sound he makes is not that of the individual, nor that of the community, but "God is all."

When Coltrane heard Pharoah Sanders, he glimpsed yet another plane, one that made his own style - as advanced as it was - seem two-dimensional in comparison. Just as he'd once advised pianist McCoy Tyner to play the whole piano, not merely its middle register, he realized that he was not playing his total instrument.

Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (Impulse! 1966) provides the sharpest delineation on record of the differences between the two players. On "Naima," Coltrane displays many of the familiar qualities of his early '60s playing, the tone less lustrous than his more famous work, but only occasionally diverging into vibrato or slight overtones. When Sanders enters, it is with the sound of an animal crying. It ebbs somewhat, dissolves into a more conventional singing tone, only to dart into tea-kettle whistles and dissonant brays. His performance is moving, penetrating, shattering. The younger man makes Coltrane - one of the most forward-thinking individuals in his field - sound conservative in comparison.

Vanguard Again's main attraction, a 20-minute version of "My Favorite Things," reasserts Coltrane's mastery, with Rashied Ali's free-floating rhythms allowing Trane's soprano sax to soar unfettered by the song's original waltz-time. It seems ironic that the tune most identified with John Coltrane - one of the deepest souls in music history - was composed by Rodgers and Hammerstein as a rose-tinted paean to blind optimism.

Yet the irony vanishes upon listening to any of Coltrane's numerous recorded performances, each of which is imbued with relentlessly probing intensity. The artist seems to utterly exhaust the tune's musical possibilities each time he plays it, only to discover something new the next time. This particular evening at the Vanguard was no exception, and when Coltrane interrupts Sanders' passionate solo to engage in a furious exchange, each man's lines twist and intertwine, fragmenting into white-hot shards of sound.

The full extent of Sanders' influence is impossible to gauge, as Coltrane was only beginning to absorb and assimilate it at the time of his death in June 1967. In his last recordings, Expression (Impulse! 1967) and the recently unearthed Stellar Regions (Impulse! 1995), Trane's playing has unmistakeably ascended another level, with his tenor boasting a newfound sweep and grandeur. He was clearly on a new path, yet still as restless and searching as ever.

"No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God," Coltrane states in his A Love Supreme liner notes. "God breathes through us so completely . . . so gently we hardly feel it . . . yet, it is our everything."


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