Album review

John Coltrane – ‘A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle’

John ColtraneA Love Supreme: Live in Seattle
(Impulse! Album review by John Bungey)

Well, when time travel is invented, this gig at the Penthouse, Seattle, in 1965 will be near the top of my bucket list. The soulful blues and meditative devotion of the studio album recorded the year before have evolved into something wilder and more frenetic. Taped with two microphones on stage by a friend of Coltrane, this recording is an enthralling find.

For long it was widely thought that the only full live performance of the revered suite took place in France in the summer of 1965. Live at Antibes captured the quartet stretching the tunes out but keeping pretty close to the script. The hairier moments of an unfamiliar opus nonetheless jarred with some listeners apparently and VIPs who had come to hear My Favourite Things were seen scurrying for the exit midway (yup, some audience members are destined to end up on the wrong side of history).

This Seattle performance heads much further out and more than doubles the work’s length. By late 1965 Coltrane’s search for spiritual transcendence through music was accelerating. The hitherto unknown tape was found in the archive of a local saxophonist, Joe Brazil. Themes are pretty much present and correct but tempos are faster and looser and for stretches the 22-minute opener is hard to recognise as Acknowledgement. The free playing and collectivist approach prefigure Coltrane going for broke, scouring the sonic stratosphere in his final years. The classic quartet of Coltrane, Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass and pianist McCoy Tyner is augmented by Pharoah Sanders on saxophone and Donald Garrett as second bass. Carlos Ward, then an up and coming young sax player, adds a free-wheeling solo to Resolution.

The sound quality of the tape is good, though occasionally Coltrane strays off mike; Jones’s polyrhythms are to the fore, adding to the sense of urgency. A series of interludes – either the basses duetting or drums – break up the suite, allowing the audience to catch its breath. Elvin Jones used to say that Coltrane’s quartet “played for our lives” and the evidence is here. A high-velocity Pursuance, with Tyner stealing the show, rates among the greatest moments from a Coltrane group. The set ends with Psalm, closest yet to the studio version, heading through fervour towards calm, arco bass and the rustle of prayer bells.

While for many fans A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s masterpiece, for a good many too this was as far as they could stay with him on the journey. The passing of the classic quartet, the deeply personal quest and (to me) the hectoring tone of the final albums were too much. On this set you can hear Coltrane is heading towards unknown territory but there are still enough landmarks to keep your bearings. There’s a balance between focus and frenzy. This recording may be more than half a century old but here’s a Coltrane record (again) reminding us that, at its best, jazz has an expressive power that few other music genres can match. 

LINK: John Coltrane website

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