Avant Garde, a Force for Good: at the peak of his popularity, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper (Ashley Kahn, Arthur, 2003)

Avant Garde, a Force for Good

At the peak of his popularity, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper.

by Ashley Kahn

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March, 2003)

Excerpted from A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album by Ashley Kahn. Copyright (c) Ashley Kahn, 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc. 


Perhaps it was a four-year itch.

Not that John Coltrane planned his career turns with any exactitude, but the timeline of his most creative period does imply a certain regularity: one year bursting with diverse activity and unsettled exploration—1957, 1961—followed by three of relatively focused progress. By that schedule, 1965 promised another creative eruption.

On cue—while the sound of A Love Supreme threaded its way into the cultural tapestry—Coltrane again accelerated his experimental drive in contexts large and small, in the process testing the bonds that held his core group together. Before the year was out, the reign of the Classic Quartet would come to a close, and Coltrane would front a new band and a new sound.

The signs of his future direction were already present in the Love Supreme sessions. Coltrane’s measured key-hopping on “Acknowledgement” presaged a harmonic approach in his playing bordering on—and soon embracing—a passionate atonality. His penchant for chanting would resurface on recordings like “Om”; his love of poetry on the album cover of Kulu Se Mama. His explicitly hymnlike titles became an unbroken theme among the many tracks recorded in 1965—”Dear Lord,” “Welcome,” “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”—and their meditative sonority a looser reflection of that on A Love Supreme.

A Love Supreme also left its trace in the extended, suitelike compositions Coltrane brought into the studio throughout 1965. He even chose the title “Suite” for a five-part work with sectional names again suggesting spiritual focus–“Prayer and Meditation: Day,” “Peace and After,” “Affirmation.” The album Meditations (and the later release First Meditations, among the final sessions with the Classic Quartet) furthered Coltrane’s trend to multisectioned constructions presented in continuous performance. Meditations also elicited questions as to whether he was consciously following in his own footsteps. Coltrane’s response leaned more to the spiritual than the musical, as he saw his current efforts as points along the same continuum:

“Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect, [Meditations] is an extension of A Love Supreme, since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal of meditating on this through music, however, remains the same. And that is to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives.”

As Alice [Coltrane] noted, “From A Love Supreme onward, we were seeing a progression toward higher spiritual realization, higher spiritual development.”

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