Of the Supreme

It’s easy to understand the desire to write a book about an album many listeners consider one of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded. As music fans, we want to know more about the artists and projects that are close to our hearts. We need to understand how a piece of art was created, how the artist’s vision traveled from abstract thought to realization.

Many jazz fans agree that John Coltrane’s 1965 release, A Love Supreme, ranks among the greatest achievements in jazz and is perhaps one of the greatest musical achievements of all time. It is an album that marries brilliant performances by McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones with Coltrane’s own brilliant musicianship and singular spiritual and artistic vision. As such, it’s an album that reaches for true spiritual transcendence and, at many levels, actually achieves this lofty goal.

Ashley Kahn’s new book A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album strives to elucidate the artistic process that produced this work, and the book almost succeeds. Its problems lie not in Kahn’s writing but in the extremely limited source material available. Most jazz albums of the mid-1960s were recorded very quickly, but the recording of Coltrane’s album was fast even by those standards; the album was tracked live in the studio to two-track tape. All the mixing was done during the live performances. In all, the recording process was accomplished in a single evening. As Kahn notes, few outtakes remain, and very little studio chatter was recorded, so, ultimately, the master tapes offer little to work with.

What Kahn does offer is a superb listening ability and a moment-by-moment description of the recorded music, which helps one gain a greater appreciation for Coltrane’s achievement. Kahn does his best to pad the limitations inherent in a single night’s session tapes by offering a careful description of the following evening’s session (an evening that augmented the “classic quartet” with an additional bass and horn player) and of a live performance of the whole A Love Supreme suite at the Antibes Jazz Festival in July of 1965. The moment-by-moment musical descriptions are well written but, again, are limited by the source material available.

This is made more problematic by the recent double-CD reissue of A Love Supreme, the second CD of which includes the second night’s recording-session work and the live material from Antibes. Essentially, this renders Kahn’s material on the “unreleased” material moot or, at the very least, reduces it to more moment-by-moment musical descriptions of what the listener is hearing.

These can be useful, but only to a point.

In the end, the reader is left with a simple idea: that the album John Coltrane recorded in December of 1964 is crucial. But that does not necessary provide enough fodder for an entire book. One hopes that the author might tackle an album with a recording history that’s a bit more protracted next time. That way, his abilities to piece together a skeleton from a few loose bones might provide something worth looking at: a complete vision of a complex recording event rather than an overstuffed account of a single night’s brilliance. As it stands, Ashley Kahn has given us a set of great liner notes, but not a particularly great book.