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22 December 2017

John Harris on A Love Supreme by John Coltrane: “This was heady, elemental stuff”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By John Harris

It must have been early 1987. BBC2 had just broadcast a documentary about Jack Kerouac, which I had taped on to a VHS. By the following week, I had got hold of On the Road and joyously sped through it. But before that, I repeatedly played the part of the film dedicated to Kerouac’s musical tastes, and his elegy to Charlie Parker: “Charlie Parker looked like Buddha… And his expression on his face/Was as calm, beautiful and profound/As the image of the Buddha/Represented in the East, the lidded eyes/The expression that says: ‘All is well.’”

With my sixth-form friend Neil, I decided that now was the time to go beyond indie-rock and hip hop and sample the higher pleasures of jazz. This involved two places: a cut-price vinyl outlet in the backstreets of Manchester where I got two Parker records for £3 a piece; and the library in my hometown of Cheshire, where one album now screamed out to be borrowed. Probably via the NME, I already had some vague notion of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme – released in January 1965, and arguably the composer and sax player’s greatest achievement – as a totem of cool, but now it felt obligatory. It was 25p for two weeks, plus a quid on a TDK C90 tape: a no-brainer, as we didn’t say back then.

Then came another epiphany. This was the most transcendent music I had ever heard. Coltrane’s sleeve notes, which refer to a “spiritual awakening” he experienced in 1957 (“This album is a humble offering to Him…”) must have helped put me in the right mood, but what I divined in the music came to mind with no prompts. This opening mixture of the album’s central four-note motif and McCoy Tyner’s questing piano chords seemed to evoke the night, and rain; the sax part that awakened the track titled “Resolution” after 20 seconds sounded like a sudden dawn; in between, the passage in which Coltrane intoned the title as a mantra was full of a power I couldn’t even begin to articulate. This was heady, elemental stuff.

At Neil’s house, where we spent whole Saturdays immersed in music and eating Lancashire cheese toasties, it worked the same magic; at night, when I would play it on the Binatone cassette player next to my bed, it entranced me even more.

It still does. I feel it as keenly at 47 as I did when I was 17. When the world seems to be reducible to trivia, nastiness and a lack of hope, A Love Supreme gets as close to attesting to a higher power as any record ever has, and seems to offer an eternal assurance: that, on some elevated plane accessible only when the right music plays, all is well. 

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special