John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” is a prayer—a pan-religious offering to God sent by a man who has been through the ringer of drug abuse, infidelity, and fame, a man who would die only three years later of liver cancer at the age of 40. The album hovers with Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” in the rarefied air of jazz albums that have fundamentally shifted the pop culture Zeitgeist.
The 1964 piece, a 33-minute, 4-part suite unified by a spiritual communication with the beyond, was the proto-concept album several years before concept albums were even being discussed—would there have been a “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” without Coltrane’s vision of an album with a thesis? If the enthusiastic standing-room only crowd that came to see Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music Ingrid Monson’s colloquium on the piece on Sept. 3 was any indication, the influence of Coltrane’s magnum opus continues to awe half a century after the saxophonist’s death.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, introduced the colloquium, the center’s first in a series that will continue once a week throughout the year. Gates gave an introduction to the crowd assembled in the Barker Center’s Thompson Room. “Ingrid Monson occupies the first chair endowed in honor of a jazz musician in the history of the world’s academies…. We searched far and wide and we found the very best person…who happened to have blonde hair, blue eyes, and be from Minnesota,” Gates said, eliciting loud chuckles from the crowd, which included Harvard faculty, elderly Coltrane fans, and students at the college, who could be heard comparing Coltrane to his great nephew, the electronic musician Flying Lotus.
From the beginning of the program, each speaker seemed conscious of the racial and political legacy of Coltrane and jazz music of the 1960s. In addition to Gates’s playful race commentary, he discussed the importance of the record to the black community in the late ’60s at Yale, where he was an undergrad. “There were three albums that everybody had to have: ‘Kind of Blue,’ ‘A Love Supreme,’ and, not Herbie Hancock, but, uh…,” Gates said, before a number of audience members, revealing their expertise, yelled out “Herbie Mann!” the slightly less iconic jazz flautist.
As soon as Monson came to the podium, after a heartfelt introduction by Vijay Iyer, a world-renowned jazz pianist and bandleader whom Monson helped to secure a professorship at Harvard earlier this year, it was clear that Coltrane’s musical and philosophical vision were the focal points of the day. “All praise be to God, to whom all praise is due,” Monson began, reading from the letter that Coltrane included in the gate-folded LP. At that, any broad political discussion faded away and a journey into the intricacies of the album began.
Before any listening took place, Monson gave the room perspective on its recording. The entirety of the playing took place on one night. Coltrane, bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones, and pianist McCoy Tyner took to producer Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio. Monson clicked to a slide that showed Coltrane’s plan for the work—a single ledger-lined piece of paper detailing every modal shift, solo, and tempo in the piece. “These were the guidelines given to a group that he had been playing intensively with for three years with absolutely masterful results,” Monson said. “They knew they would mostly just follow Coltrane and each other.”
Monson played the opening cymbal reverberations of “Acknowledgement,” the first of Coltrane’s four movements. As Coltrane’s saxophone swirled majestically above the drums, Monson clued her audience to what was coming next. “We hear this bass ostinato—it fits to the words “A Love Supreme,” she said. Suddenly, the four-note progression became a low-registered mumbling, a human voice in an instrument’s body.
Over the next 40 minutes, Monson repeated her initial exercise, giving voice, either through music theory or through words Coltrane intended the instruments to evoke, to the rest of the album—the rising mantra of “Acknowledgement,” the bass-heavy tumultuousness of “Resolution,” the spare “Pursuance,” and the plaintive sustained saxophone of “Psalm.” Often, Monson played a section three times, pointing out Jones’s tempo change on the drums or Tyner’s impossibly quick transpositions. In “Psalm,” she revealed a dynamic reading of Coltrane’s playing: “‘Psalm’ is a recitation in music of the poem that is included on the album cover,” she said. “The band did not know he was using the text because he had memorized it.” As the piece played, she shined a laser pointer on the words that corresponded with Coltrane’s solo. Even as the music swirled into abstraction, Coltrane continued to play the prayer. Eventually Q&A and the subsequent dispersal would occur, but, for the moment, it was time to meditate.
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