Conventional wisdom—and many people’s understanding of jazz history—asserts that John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme echoes through that oft-tenebrous tunnel of critical evaluation as the saxophonist’s masterpiece.
Recorded in a single session with his indomitable Quartet on December 9, 1964, it makes sense that A Love Supreme is a variety of Christmas disc, an offering from a place on high on earth—that is, the mind and soul of the true artist—to a power beyond. It’s numinous, but not preachy, and simultaneously as secular as cutting through an alley to get to the bar faster.
The turnaround from studio to factory to shelves was swift. By January of the new year—which proved to be Trane’s fieriest annum—A Love Supreme was in record stores. Coltrane had been many places jazz musicians had not previously. He was the spirit guide who also excelled at walking alongside—or so it seemed—in daily life, his playing intensely somatic, as physically denotable as actual touch.
But something about A Love Supreme felt different. That it was the apex, the high-water mark. But we must be careful not to confuse a high-water mark as an end, or a crowning, with an artist who sees but a door—and a new way—instead. A challenge to extend and advance—even, dare I say, improve upon the likes of a recording many will tout as a medium’s finest. But that was the Coltrane way: out with the new, in with the new new.
The Quartet itself was starting to crack as a going venture circa Christmastime 1964; not because this was a band running out of things to say, but rather for Coltrane’s imperishable credo that he was finding new ways to speak. A Love Supreme has an underpinning of a group performing at its own funeral—or, if not the actual service, a brand of rehearsal service, testifying, in their own musical words, to what made them so special, and how in a larger context—with a masterpiece such as this—they’d never be going anywhere. Though, in a different regard, their time had, indeed, come. It’s only art that lives forever—not bands.
Often when we say, “this is [enter greater superlative] than that,” one thinks the former work has been run down in some fashion, or “haters gonna hate.” There’s no running down of A Love Supreme—its sublimity is unimpeachable, as much a law of the universe as boiled water turning into gas. But what I would suggest is that John Coltrane never made an artistic statement of greater, rawer, realer, rip-your-face-off-and-pull-out-who-you-really-are art than with his infamous Ascension date from June 28, 1965. Jazz hadn’t sounded so merciless, considering the tonal ferocity, and yet, paradoxically, laden with that self-same quality that is the balm for all human suffering; mercy sprung from the well of compassion, understanding, and intimate communal byplay.
We could say that A Love Supreme is akin to Coltrane’s version of a painting from Picasso’s Blue Period, whereas, Ascension is the foray into synthetic cubism in auditory form, a dance of fractals and ghost-shapes whose exact identities elude us at first, but come clearer in time. The music of the latter harrows. Puts us on edge. It can appear as though it is asking us to participate in the making of its own identity by listening in a certain way that reaches out for the notes themselves as the music lays its hands on us. There is nothing like it in jazz, nor is there anyone else who could have made it save this artist who’d long before embarked on a journey that had taken him to A Love Supreme, and now he was continuing to search, because a searcher is what he ultimately was more than anything else.
Many jazz records, of course, are made at a single session. The band comes in, the members likely having studied some head charts in advance, warm-ups and rehearsals are taken, the board is turned on, and takes are tried, realized to satisfaction, and released.
Coltrane, though, was the master of the epic session that tilts history—the date that, when we look back on it later, we’re incredulous something so seismic could have occurred in the space of a human afternoon. The diurnal has gone epochal. The Quartet is cleaving in spring of 1965, but in that fracturing, room is created for the ingress of other forces—that is, players to augment a protean core and restock ingenuity with ingenious new blood. Coltrane didn’t sit around and wait for inspiration to hit. The superior artists never do. They go out and find what they wish to make, and then make it by taking it.
The Quartet had a last gathering of the core tribe in May 1965 when they fleshed out The John Coltrane Quartet Plays—the title as pointed, summarizing statement of truth—whose initial sessions dated back to February. The album is akin to a deep breath before the deeper plunge, with “Nature Boy” in attendance as a cooling factor, and “Song of Praise” as post-A Love Supreme glory-giving. And then, it is time to take some heads off. To lunge and leap by, ironically, going up.
Coltrane could do no critical wrong after A Love Supreme, so leave it to him to create Ascension. Trane was a Dantean artist. As with the Italian poet’s Divine Comedy, the jazz master understood the importance and immediacy of procession and progress. His finest works are self-contained, finished, but they also feel like they’re in flux, forever unfolding in real time. The best writers, for instance, compel their characters to make decisions, and the reader chooses along with them. Coltrane’s visionary music functions the same way—listeners feel as if they’re complicit in the vital decisions of life, and a life well-lived. Or one that could be.