Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Celebrating 'A Love Supreme'

“During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.”

John Coltrane

Photo: Chuck Stewart

So wrote John Coltrane in the liner notes to A Love Supreme, the rapturous 1964 masterpiece whose intensity and transcendent power continues to speak to people around the world and inspire musicians and artists of all kinds. Five decades after the towering saxophonist recorded the devotional four-part suite at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio with his classic quartet – pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison – the music Coltrane called “a humble offering to Him” is still a shattering and stirring thing to experience.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary in December of this epochal and enduring recording (released by Impulse! in February of ’65), SFJAZZ has programmed a week’s worth of special events sponsored by the Bernard Osher Foundation and curated by Ravi Coltrane, son of the late jazz giant and himself a superior saxophonist with a probing improvisational style of his own.

He’ll perform in four different settings in which all or parts of A Love Supreme will form the core of each concert. Coltrane leads a group with the great tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano on December 11, and his own quartet December 12 on a bill with the Turtle Island Quartet, the sensational improvising string ensemble that won a 2007 Grammy for its rich A Love Supreme recording. Coltrane performs again with various special guests the following night, and the next afternoon with the SFJAZZ High School-All Stars. He’ll also appear at a symposium December 10 with writer Ashley Kahn, author of the revealing 2002 book A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Recording, and other speakers.

On December 14, the creative saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, whose combustible music integrates free jazz, funk, soul and world music, performs with his explosive Five Elements band, exploring A Love Supreme his way.

A mostly improvised piece that ran 32 minutes on the original recording – Coltrane performed it live only once, in Antibes, France in ’65, two years before his death at 40 of liver cancer – the piece builds on a simple four-note motif: “a love supreme.” The saxophonist chants it verbally, multiple times, at the conclusion of the opening movement, “Acknowledgement,” which begins with the shimmering sound of a Chinese gong.

“It's the signal of something different. You don't hear that instrument anywhere else on any other John Coltrane recording,” notes Ravi in Kahn’s book. “A Love Supreme,” he says, is “not a tune on a record, it’s an offering to God.”

Joshua Redman absorbed this powerful music years before he began playing saxophone, stirred by its sheer passion and force. “I think that is the case for most people when they hear that record, whether they ever hear another lick of jazz or not,” Redman told an interviewer. “They may not have any understanding of what’s happening musically, the incredibly deep and complex musical issues that Coltrane is tackling, but the conviction and the intensity and the passion and the sincerity – the honesty – you feel these qualities, and that’s what makes it so compelling, what makes it one of the greatest jazz albums of all time.”

Early next year, two major artists closely associated with Coltrane will perform at SFJAZZ. The volcanic tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who came of age in Coltrane’s roiling free-jazz bands of the mid-1960s, performs in Miner Auditorium January 8-11. His spirited music encompasses late Coltrane, Moroccan grooves and the rocking R&B he played as a kid in Little Rock.

Then on January 18, Tyner, whose crashing chords and hypnotic solos were essential ingredients in Coltrane’s music from the modal period of My Favorite Things through A Love Supreme, returns with his prime trio. Joining him for a series of duets, solos and numbers with the trio will be two admiring fellow pianists: the brilliant Geri Allen and the elegant master Kenny Barron. Fifty years after leaving Coltrane to pursue his own path, Tyner still makes enduring, vital music.

Jesse Hamlin

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