Listen to this track by towering spiritual saxophonist and jazz immortal John Coltrane. It’s “Psalm”, the last movement in his 1965 magnum opus A Love Supreme.
The track, along with the rest of the record was recorded with what is now known as his classic quartet; Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums. With the almost psychic connection between these musicians, the whole record gels gloriously, coming to be what it was intended to be; a statement of ultimate gratitude by its author.
But, before the music was laid down on an album that is now considered to be Coltrane’s artistic pinnacle, it required one thing before it could be born: solitude.
There are some pieces of music that are so indelible that its actually hard to imagine that at some point, someone had to sit down and create it. But, that’s what John Coltrane did, sequestering himself away in an upper room of his house in New York over the course of many days while his wife Alice Coltrane took on the household duties, and occasionally brought him food. This was something of a spiritual retreat for Coltrane, with the time spent in spiritual meditation and musical composition during a period when he was bouncing back from a life of drug abuse, alcoholism, and the demands of life on the road.
The music that eventually came out was a by-product of this time in isolation, and in the contemplation of gratitude at being able to conceive of it and deliver it as a professional musician with what he felt was a gift from god; his ability to play, and to define jazz saxophone for many of his contemporaries, heirs, and to us as music fans. To me, this is another dimension that makes it so special. Coltrane was aware of how powerful it was even as he was writing it, seeking to put it out in the world as his contribution to the happiness of others. That’s pretty great.
But, it would only be truly great if it could be executed correctly. It’s the subtleties of the performances (my personal favourite being Elvin Jones’ incredible drums and percussion through out), recorded during a single session in December of 1964, completing the connection that makes it one of the greatest works in jazz, and in music in general.
Coltrane just kind of let it happen on the day without too much discussion about the concept, with each musician’s playing becoming a part of the whole. But, with this last movement in the four-part suite, Coltrane had a very specific approach in mind. He literally spoke through his saxophone. The phrasing was based on the syllables of a tone poem he’d written, laid out in front of him as he played. So, the piece is well-named; it really is an actual psalm as interpreted instrumentally by its author.
The rest is musical history where A Love Supreme is concerned. As a jazz release, it performed remarkably well both critically and commercially, building in stature over the years and influencing many, jazz musicians and musicians of other stylistic stripes as well. It’s power is only made more potent when one considers that the seeds of it had less to do with ambition, and more to do with simple gratitude from its author at being able to deliver it.
John Coltrane died in 1967. But, you can learn more about how he created A Love Supreme here, where Coltrane quartet member McCoy Tyner comments on the conditions in which this remarkable music was recorded.