A handful of record albums from the second half of the 20th century has taken on a cultural significance that far exceeds the initial commercial impact of any of them. Journalist Ashley Khan did a magnificent job of turning Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" album into a book-length subject two years ago. Khan's follow-up project, about John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" album, is if anything an even greater achievement.
Davis was a relatively obvious subject, the one avant garde jazz musician of his era to court the kind of celebrity status that creates pop icons. Davis was widely known as a personality as much as a musician and "Kind of Blue," which has become a staple of high-end coffee shop background music over the years, had immediate brand appeal to a mass audience.
Although it's arguable that saxophonist John Coltrane's influence on jazz was as great as that of Davis (after all, Coltrane was part of the "Kind of Blue" sessions as well), he is far less known outside of jazz circles, and "A Love Supreme," a challenging album for the average non-jazz listener's ear, has no imprint on the pop culture consciousness to match "Kind of Blue."
Yet it is very likely to be seen as a more important album in the long run. Indeed, "A Love Supreme" is one of the most important albums of the 20th century, a fulcrum on which the direction of 1960s experimental jazz, Coltrane's own career, black consciousness and the very history of religion turned. Khan does a brilliant job of telling us why and how these things happened.
"A Love Supreme" may well be destined to be viewed as one of the most important pieces of religious music ever composed, yet it was not commissioned by any church hierarchy or written to promote any particular sect or specific belief. Coltrane's spiritual quest is an entirely personal matter, influenced by his interest in Eastern religious philosophy but the product of his life experience as a black American jazz musician. It is a unique work, and its spiritual power resonates mightily over the years.
"A Love Supreme" distilled the decade's theme of universal love and spiritual consciousness," Khan writes, "... resonating above all other elements is the impassioned sound: a cohesive balance of composition and improvisation, of form and energy, like no other title in Coltrane's prodigious catalog."
Khan worked closely with the late Coltrane's wife Alice and son Ravi, as well as musicians who played with him, to draw a biographical picture of the jazz master beginning in 1960 and running through his death in 1967 with the 1964 recording of "A Love Supreme" as the centerpiece. Khan's research included analysis of studio tapes and outtakes from the original "A Love Supreme" session, Dec. 9, 1964; a live version of the work with a sextet including saxophonist Archie Shepp and bassist Art Davis from Dec. 10, 1965; and the only live performance of the entire album, from a 1965 concert in Antibes, France. Khan also unearthed unpublished interviews with Coltrane.
The Antibes concert is included in a newly reissued, two-CD version of "A Love Supreme" on Verve records, timed for release to coincide with the book.
The book also features Alice Coltrane's eyewitness account of the period three months before the recording when Coltrane composed the music, and a take-by-take, solo-by-solo primer on the album, with input and insight both from Coltrane's sidemen and from popular saxophonists like Dave Liebman, Joshua Redman and Ravi Coltrane.
Khan has also put together a Web site, which includes newly discovered images, video and exclusive material from the book, at: alovesupremethebook.com on the Internet.
"Many people have heard the music and are familiar with Coltrane's life-loving message," said Kahn. "In researching and writing the book, I discovered that the global reach of this one album defined a veritable community of musical and spiritual depth. Now that community has its own virtual meeting point."
Artfully designed and easy to navigate, alovesupremethebook.com features 12 interactive pages filled with information, historical anecdotes, personal testimonials and links leading to other sites relating to Coltrane, "A Love Supreme," jazz and jazz literature.
Highlights include an extremely rare video of Coltrane performing "A Love Supreme" live in France in 1965; pop-up testimonials from a number of music-makers regarding Coltrane's signature album, including U2's Bono, Ravi Shankar, Patti Smith, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead; images of the recording session, the live performance, records of musicians' session fees and the book proposal that initiated the entire project.