“A Love Supreme”

John Coltrane’s brilliant jazz album of that name was released fifty years ago this month. S. Brent Plate reflects on its spiritual qualities:

What is it about Coltrane, and in particular A Love Supreme, that gets some of us going spiritually? Coltrane was after truth, as one biographer put it, and not necessarily “pleasant listening.” I am attracted to this idea, that truth is difficult and can not easily be possessed. The corollary here is that there is no truth in Musak, and not much in the pop charts. In classical terms “truth” and “beauty” are not interchangeable.

Perhaps more importantly, truth is heard. It is an activity of the ears. And these are not necessarily the sounds of words being spoken, but a sensual experience that operate above and beyond the conceptual, intellectual realm. Truth is in the sensual arts, not rational philosophy.

True, Coltrane wrote some unapologetically religious words for the liner notes of A Love Supreme, giving “all praise to God,” and thanking God for his “spiritual awakening” of 1957 which, as we know from his biography, had also to do with his quitting heroin and alcohol. (Even so, the abuses had already been enough that he died of liver failure at age 40.) But who can resist putting the liner notes down quickly and sitting and listening: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm,” making up the four parts of the musical journey.

Hisham Aidi, however, finds the album reflects an interest in Islam:

The conventional view is that by 1964, Coltrane had moved away from his Methodist upbringing, adopting a “pan-religious” outlook with a particular interest in Eastern mysticism. In spite of that, “A Love Supreme” is still described as laden with Biblical symbolism: the title “Psalm”, and the rising cadences, reminiscent of black preachers’ style, are offered as evidence that Coltrane was still rooted in Christianity. But ask one of the jazzmen or Muslim elders who knew Coltrane, and you get a different answer.

The saxophonist Yusef Lateef, who died at the age of 93 earlier this year, worked closely with Coltrane between 1963 and 1966. In his autobiography , “A Gentle Giant”, Lateef says: “The prayer that John wrote in ‘A Love Supreme’ repeats the phrase ‘All praise belongs to God no matter what’ several times. This phrase has the semantics of the al-Fatiha, which is the first chapter or sura of the Holy Quran. The Arabic transliteration is ‘al-Humdulilah…’ Since all faithful Muslims say the al-Fatiha five times a day or more, it is reasonable to assume that John heard this phrase from [his Muslim wife] Sister Naima many times.”

Lateef is referring to the poem Coltrane wrote and included in the liner notes of the album. Coltrane wrote: “No matter what … It is with God. He is gracious and merciful” and ends with “All praise to God…” What Lateef and others have noted is that “gracious and merciful” is a translation of “rahman raheem”, the opening lines of the Fatiha. Moreover, say the elders, when Coltrane begins chanting the album’s title for half a minute it sounds like a Sufi breathily repeating “Allah supreme”.