There are few musicians in jazz history as beloved as John Coltrane, the saxophonist, and composer who died much too young at 40 years old. And among Coltrane’s many contributions to jazz and music history, none of his records and recordings are held in as high esteem as A Love Supreme.
A Love Supreme was recorded in a single session on December 9, 1964, at Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey, then it was released in January 1965. It’s one of Coltrane’s bestselling albums, widely considered by music critics as a masterpiece, and one of the most essential records in post-war jazz history.
I’ve always loved this album, its rich sounds, and its spiritual significance. It was a deeply personal album for Coltrane, who struggled with heroin addiction, acknowledged having had a spiritual awakening, and then encapsulated his fascinating views on world religion into the album. But what has interested me most about A Love Supreme is the influence it has had on psychedelic rock and music in general, particularly in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
A Taste of Things to Come
Coltrane was not in a good place in the years leading up to A Love Supreme. He lost one of the best jobs in jazz music in the spring of 1957 because of heroin and alcohol addiction. Coltrane was playing sax and touring with the legendary Miles Davis at the time but had become so unreliable and strung out that Miles fired him after a live show in April 1957. Coltrane vowed to get clean soon after the incident, and he’d later write in the 1964 liner notes to A Love Supreme, “In the year of 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening, which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.”
Coltrane rejoined Miles in 1958, playing with jazz icons like Cannonball Adderley, Red Garland, and Thelonious Monk. He stayed with Miles until April 1960, playing during Milestones and Kind of Blue sessions and live records like Miles & Monk at Newport and Jazz at the Plaza.
Coltrane’s career took off in the ensuing years as he recorded esteemed albums like My Favorite Things and Giant Steps, experimenting with improvised melodies and harmonies he’d become known for. The title track for Giant Steps is considered by many to have one of the most challenging chord progressions in any jazz composition ever recorded. By 1961, Coltrane’s contract with Atlantic was bought by Impulse! Records and he began recording most of his albums at engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
The experimentation that would vastly influence psychedelic music was being formed during this time. Coltrane and his bandmates were getting a taste of Indian ragas, modal jazz, and free jazz, influenced by musicians like John Gilmore, a longtime saxophonist with Sun Ra. Coltrane was reportedly ecstatic after hearing a Gilmore performance, saying, “He’s got it! Gilmore’s got the concept!”
Critics and fans didn’t always get it, though. In France, Coltrane was booed during his final tour with Miles, and in 1961, Downbeat magazine called his wild, improvisational playing “anti-jazz.” Also known as free jazz, some musicians, including Miles Davis, didn’t like it too much. But Coltrane trudged along with his new concepts, determined to make his performances “a whole expression of one’s being.”
A Culmination of Coltrane’s Experiments
This brings us to about the time of A Love Supreme in December 1964. It was a culmination of Coltrane’s experiments, a four-part suite, and a powerful ode to his faith in God. Coltrane composed the album in his home in Dix Hills in Long Island, New York, and would only play it live three times afterward. The record only has four tracks or phases, if you will: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalms.” The album begins with the bang of a gong and cymbal washes on “Acknowledgement,” then Coltrane begins a solo where he plays variations on a four-note motif and repeats the notes 36 times.
The motif on “Acknowledgement” becomes a vocal chant of “a love supreme,” sung by Coltrane through overdubs. The rest of the record contains many themes and motifs like this, and critics have analyzed it ever since. According to NPR, A Love Supreme has even spawned something of a religious sect, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco. Reverend Franzo Wayne King is the pastor, and the congregation mixes African Orthodox liturgy with Coltrane’s quotes, writings, and music.
Coltrane’s Influence on Early Psych Rock
So, what does all this have to do with psychedelic music? A lot, actually.
Coltrane tragically died at 40 years old, just three years after recording A Love Supreme in 1967. Many have speculated he died of hepatitis, probably from his heroin use earlier in life. Following A Love Supreme, Coltrane further experimented with his innovative free and avant-garde jazz style, recording albums like Ascension and Meditations. There’s also speculation that Coltrane began dropping acid in 1965, which informed his cosmic worldviews.
Whatever was inspiring Coltrane, his free jazz experiments influenced many early psychedelic rock acts and artists. In 1966, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band drew from the gospel of Coltrane and issued a 13-minute-long experimental track called “East-West.” Apparently, Jim Morrison and The Doors based the middle section of “Light My Fire” on Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” The Byrds’ iconic “Eight Miles High” also had Coltrane influences. Guitarist Roger McGuinn played a solo opening inspired by Coltrane’s “India.”
The free and avant-garde jazz of Coltrane and musicians like Sun Ra could be found in many places in early psych-rock. James Gurley of Big Brother & the Holding Company reportedly said, “I thought if you could play guitar like John Coltrane played the sax, it would be really far out. That’s what I was trying to do – of course, nobody understood it, especially me.”
A Love Supremes’ influence was felt far and wide. Rock critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt explained that the record was “adored by American hippies from The Byrds and Carlos Santana on down, and served as the theme music to (rock critic) Lester Bangs’ wake.” Carlos Santana and fellow guitarist John McLaughlin have said the album is one of their biggest early influences, and they recorded Love Devotion Surrender in 1973 as a tribute.
Genre Crossing and Blending
A Love Supreme has frequently been listed as one of the greatest albums of all time, ranking No. 47 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 greatest all-time albums. Whether you think the record is divine or pretentious, it’s hard to overlook its influence on music history, especially psychedelic music.
After Coltrane’s death, Sun Ra would continue to push the free jazz, post-bop, and avant-garde jazz movement. Forever a nonconformist, Sun Ra became one of the first jazz musicians to explore electronic instrumentation, pushing the boundaries further with progressive and unconventional instrumentation. Sun Ra was a poet drawn to the experimentation that psych music would become known for, and he was incredibly prolific and a believer in his own unique cosmic philosophy.
One of the things I love most about music is the crossing and blending between genres and how musicians and scenes bleed into each other. Miles Davis would eventually do his own experimentations, releasing his iconic electric and jazz-rock masterpiece, Bitches Brew, in 1970, a revolutionary record that stirred controversy in the jazz community but has been influential to countless musicians.
The Enduring Influence of A Love Supreme
I’m not sure how many musicians today, especially psych-rockers, go back and spin the records of Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis’ electric freak-outs. But every time you hear dashes of creative experimentation, cosmic consciousness in lyrics, and improvisational guitar solos, I’d argue some of this has been influenced by albums like A Love Supreme, even if the artists themselves don’t know.
Coltrane’s celestial and unconventional sax-playing on A Love Supreme and his dabbling with free jazz is one of many instances where musical genres melded together. Psych rockers like The Byrds dug Coltrane and Sun Ra, picking up some tips here and there about how to approach their own music. The result was the ever-colorful palate of genre-bending music today, from the kaleidoscopic effects of Tame Impala to the melting pot of artists like King Gizzard & the Wizard Lizard.
So, search for A Love Supreme by Coltrane during your next listening session, kick back, and be entranced by a ‘60s-era classic. You won’t regret it.