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John Coltrane. A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle

A previously unknown recording from a small Seattle club in 1965 documents one of the saxophonist’s signature works—spiritual, searching, unstoppable—as never heard before.

John Coltrane by Not A Scratch,This image was marked with a CC BY 2.0 license.

A quote attributed to jazz multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphytouches on the ephemeral nature of sound: “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air. You can never capture it again.” He was talking about live music in the moment, and, since Dolphy died in 1964, he was speaking to us from a very different world. In his day, unless a recording of a gig was arranged ahead of time, the music did indeed vanish after the instant in which it was heard. There’s an intrinsic “now-ness” to improvised music in particular—for touring jazz musicians, what’s created every night is distinctive, offering a novel experience available only to those there in the room. John Coltrane, who brought Dolphy into his band during one of his many astonishing bursts of creativity in the early 1960s, was writing and recording an enormous amount of music during that decade, along with his steady live gigs. And while the vast majority of what he produced on the bandstand is gone, it’s remarkable just how much if it survives. More than 50 years after his death, revelatory unheard music from Coltrane is still making its way into the world.

The latest example is a previously unissued version of Coltrane’s signature suite, “A Love Supreme,” recorded in Seattle in October 1965. In the past few years, numerous “lost albums” by Coltrane have come to light; that there are still-unheard sessions out there is not all that surprising, given how often he visited the recording studio during his time on the Impulse! label. But “A Love Supreme” isn’t an ordinary Coltrane composition, and uncovering a new rendition of it is no small thing. He wrote the piece in tribute to God, to thank the creator for Coltrane’s own religious awakening. The suite sits at the center of his recorded work and has become instantly identifiable shorthand for the expression of spirituality in jazz.

Coltrane was moving fast in 1965—A Love Supreme was released in January—and he was always on to the next thing. His own sound on his instruments was constantly changing, and his band was in a state of flux. So while A Love Supreme was an immediate hit and recognized as a jazz landmark, Coltrane was too busy with new music to linger over it for long. For decades, Coltrane’s only known recorded performance of the suite happened in Antibes, France, in July 1965; that set has been issued in various forms over the years, including on the 2013 collection A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters.

The Antibes version is excellent but this set is more compelling, both because of the personnel and how Coltrane extends the composition. On Antibes, the band adheres closely to the piece’s essential form, improvising and embellishing but retaining its shape. Here, the players are free to explore new territory when the spirit moves them. It’s striking just how low-key the whole occasion was. While the July run-through was recorded at the International Jazz Festival and has an announcer setting the scene, this night in Seattle came as just one stop on a long tour, with no advance billing and nothing written about the show after the performance. As famous as Coltrane was by then, on this evening he was playing to a 275-cap room, The Penthouse. Saxophonist and teacher Joe Brazil taped it through the club’s two-channel recording system, and he held on to the reels.

Through most of 1965, Coltrane was working with the “classic quartet” that laid down the album version of “A Love Supreme”—Coltrane on tenor sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums—but here the band is augmented with three additional musicians. Pharoah Sanders plays tenor, multi-instrumentalist Donald Garrett plays second bass, and Carlos Ward, a member of Brazil’s band, who played a set earlier the same day this was recorded, sat in on alto sax. Both Sanders and Coltrane are also credited with percussion. The addition of another bass and extra layer of percussion turns the larger band into a roaring polyrhythmic machine.

Compared to the two complete versions of “A Love Supreme” we know, this one is stretched out further and played with more intensity. It lasts for 75 minutes, more than twice the length of the studio recording, though some of that extra runtime is because of lengthy solos noted on the tracklist as “Interludes.” That said, the ensemble pieces are also significantly longer—the opening “Acknowledgement” represents the most drastic expansion, extending to 22 minutes from the studio version’s eight.

“A Love Supreme” is a hypnotic and enveloping piece, and the added length allows the listener to slip deeper into the music. Once you’ve heard the first few notes of Coltrane’s opening fanfare, it’s hard to resist the pull of the rest, no matter how long the record is. Varied in tone, mood, timbre, and tempo, it’s never less than thrilling. The lengthy interludes will be trying for some—there are three bass solos and another extended showcase for Jones—but they’re gripping in the context of the whole, mixing passages of heightened focus with moments of calm.

Despite the fact that it comes from a private recording, the sound quality is very good. The left microphone is quite close to Jones, and the drums are louder than anything else on the record. But if you’re wired to hear the quartet a certain way, that’s not a downside. Jones is playing at an absurdly high level, bringing every technique he’d developed during his years with Coltrane to bear. If you focus on just one part of what Jones is doing, it's hard to connect it to a specific pulse or fixed sense of time. But when his kick drum, hi-hat, snare, toms, ride, and crash are considered together, his grooves reveal themselves to be both deeply complex and also strikingly coherent. And here, his drum kit almost functions as the lead instrument.

Coltrane’s solo on “Acknowledgement” puts the piece in a radically different territory than any we’ve heard before—he’s overblowing with an energy far beyond that of the studio recording, and sometimes it sounds as though his horn might break apart. Coltrane's solos throughout are just as blistering as Sanders’, but he still lands on notes; there’s a clear logic to his choices that stops just short of abandon, while Sanders is always ready to cross that line. The younger player’s most prominent showcase comes on “Pt. II - Resolution,” on which he delivers a flurry of smeared tones and growls—he sounds possessed, tearing his way through the piece with little regard to what had come before. Sanders’ ecstatic sound points firmly to where Coltrane was headed—and, on some nights, where he already was—but it’s fascinating to hear it here, in the context of the refrains and chord progressions we know so well from the original record.

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Coltrane’s shrieking on the suite’s third part, “Pursuance,” is bone-chilling, and then a fleet and beautiful solo from Tyner follows, juxtaposing high-speed Bud Powell-like melody lines and hard, percussive chords with his left hand. After an almost 11-minute bass solo in two parts, the set ends with “Pt. IV - Psalm,” a slow and impressionistic lament on which Coltrane conveys through his horn the rhythm and phrasing of a poem he’d written about his religious epiphany. It’s alternately haunting and exhilarating. Jones brings the percussive thunder and Tyner plays harp-like tones on the piano, evoking the heavens. And then it ends. We hear clapping and then quiet. One bassist plucks away and you can hear a few voices chatting in the distance. Soon the musicians will pack up and move to the next town. What a journey this music has had, from almost entirely unknown to forgotten and unheard, and now, here for all of us. The only possible response is gratitude.