The problem with “essential” or “definitive” albums is the exact thing that makes them “essential” and “definitive”.
An album labeled with those adjectives blew expectations when it was first released, but over time, those same expectations can get pretty inflated.
It’s tough to appreciate the significance of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s nine symphonies in his time when composers 200 years after have all attempted to write works of a similar scale and demeanor.
The critical writings regarding John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme are no less star-struck.
The testimonies of fellow famous musicans in the first few pages of Ashley Kahn’s book, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album come across like Protestant faith — you wonder what’s so great that you feel like you’re missing out.
More specific to this context: What value would a webzine publisher covering mostly Japanese indie rock find in John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme?
A little more context, if you will — I am not a jazz enthusiast. I’m barely an appreciator.
So writing a review about Coltrane’s eponymous album, with so much ink already spilled, is a compounded exercise in pointlessness.
But hey, it’s new to me …
First off, A Love Supreme is a jazz album.
It is not a hybrid work. It is not a combination of divergent traditions ushering in a new cultural perspective — like, say, the combination of metal and punk that culminated in Nirvana.
Nor is it a dilution of the jazz aesthetic with an external influence. John Cage has no bearing on A Love Supreme as he does in John Zorn’s game piece, nor does Willie Nelson as he does on Norah Jones.
A Love Supreme sounds like a jazz album. It smells like a jazz.
And on first listen, it doesn’t seem so remarkable to all the other jazz albums that have come in its wake.
But even if A Love Supreme sounds like just another jazz album, it still possesses a charisma, a charm — something it reveals on subsequent listens.
It may have to do with how the album came together. Coltrane sequestered himself in his attic for five days, and when he emerged, he announced he “had all the music”.
A Love Supreme has been called a suite, and its an apt description — the album’s cohesiveness, although intuitive in its feel, comes across more like classical music.
Coltrane may not have notated a single note on the album, but it feels like he had. And the very best jazz makes the improvised sound like fate.
There are a few subtleties that make A Love Supreme stand out. When Coltrane intones the relationship between the four-note theme of “Acknowledgement” and the title of the album, it’s like the clouds parting to reveal the sun.
And the timpani on “Psalm” gives the suite just a hint of its symphonic potential.
A Love Supreme is indeed a special album. The problematic superlatives in this case are well earned.
But don’t expect it to change your life the way it did, say, Carlos Santana’s. The album nonetheless makes a fine addition to music collections and libraries everywhere.