Fifty Years and Counting: Why John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ Is Still a Musical Revelation

(Published at KQED on Dec. 9, 2014:

Even the album’s cover photo is unforgettable – and a bit jarring. Is John Coltrane angry? In pain? Contemplative? A Love Supreme is one of the most recognizable, most successful and most influential jazz albums in history. Recorded in 1964, it’s Coltrane at his best, a milestone piece of art that set a new standard for jazz language, and is to music what Joyce’s Ulysses is to literature or Scorcese’s Taxi Driver is to film.

In four parts that last 33 minutes, Coltrane’s album ascends scales with verve and intensity, moving from intimate note-making and soulful introspection to, as in the third part called “Pursuance,” all-out explosions of fury and finality. Coltrane devoted the album to God, but A Love Supreme can be understood by any listener, from any culture, as a journey of discovery. The highs are there in abundance, but so too are the stops and starts and transitions – the mesmerizing transitions – that lead to the journey’s end. Salvation doesn’t come without struggle. Beauty is found in dissonant notes. Generations of music-lovers and musicians, including Carlos Santana and U2’s Bono, have embraced A Love Supreme as divine music.

From Wednesday to Sunday (December 10-14), SFJAZZ is celebrating the 50thanniversary of Coltrane’s album with six major events that pay homage to Coltrane’s vision and its continuing influence on the world of jazz. Coltrane’s saxophone-playing son Ravi, named after the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, is featured in the first five events, starting with a Wednesday symposium (Dec. 10, 7:30pm) at the SFJAZZ Center that also features Ashley Kahn, author of the must-read 2002 book, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album. When I interviewed Ravi Shankar in 2002, he remembered meeting Coltrane in the 1960s and finding “turmoil” in Coltrane’s music. The turmoil, Shankar said, was disturbing.

But in re-listening to A Love Supreme for Kahn’s book, Shankar rethought this view and told Kahn he found the album “beautiful, especially the climax in the third movement (“Pursuance”), then the resolution of the whole last piece (“Psalm”).”

“Psalm” does, indeed, resolve A Love Supreme, with drummer Elvin Jonespianist McCoy Tyner, and bassist Jimmy Garrison all joining Coltrane’s saxophone in a sustained and gripping convergence that lasts seven minutes. The intensity of A Love Supreme can be challenging for first-time listeners. Coltrane died in 1967 at age 40, and his last three years of recordings, when he veered into more and more ecstatic music, are Coltrane at his most fervorous. In Live in Seattle, which was recorded in 1965, Coltrane and saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders frequently employed “squawking” – bursts of atonal riffs – that turned off many of Coltrane’s earliest fans. As a bandleader, Coltrane’s most accessible album is My Favorite Things from 1961; the title song plays with the signature tune from The Sound of Music.

Coltrane was always pushing himself in new directions. Where My Favorite Things – like A Love Supreme – sounds as fresh today as it did decades ago, it was a relatively safe creation. A Love Supreme was deeply personal. Coltrane, who was raised in North Carolina with the religious values of the black church, went though a period of heavy drug use in his late 20s and early 30s, and then kicked his habit in 1957. In the liner notes of A Love Supreme, Coltrane said his new compositions were testimony to God’s guidance and of his “richer, fuller, more productive life” and his ability “to make others happy through music.” But Coltrane implied that he still struggled with addictive behavior.

“As time and events moved on,” Coltrane wrote about his post-1957 life, “a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT … IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME.”

On the album’s songs, Coltrane keeps the words to a minimum. The album begins with a Chinese gong, transitions to Coltrane’s brief scale-hopping, and settles into a stretch of relative quiet that is ruminative, introducing the four notes that correlate to the syllables and sounds of the words “A Love Supreme.” Then at 1:05, Coltrane takes off. For five minutes, he lets his saxophone wander in arresting directions, riffing, squawking, and improvising until slowing down and reclaiming the four-note bar that began the song. At 6:07, Coltrane chants the words “A Love Supreme” over and over – softly but assuredly – until 6:44, when Garrison, Tyner, and Jones pick up the atmosphere of the opening gambit and continue until the song, called “Acknowledgement,” ends a minute later. Achingly beautiful. That’s how I’d describe the entirety of A Love Supreme.

To interpret A Love Supreme at the SFJAZZ Center, Ravi Coltrane has chosen a mix of collaborators: saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Geri Allen and others on Thursday, Dec. 11, 7:30pm; the Turtle Island String Quartet on Friday, Dec. 12, 7:30pm; trumpeter Nicholas Paytonbassist Matthew Garrison (son of Jimmy Garrison) and others on Saturday, December 13, 7:30pm; and the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars on Sunday, Dec. 14, 1pm. SFJAZZ’s Coltrane celebration reaches its denouement on Sunday, December 14, when saxophonist Steve Coleman and his Five Elements band perform Coltrane’s music at 7pm.

The events are sold out or close to selling out – no surprise given the theme, the names involved, and SFJAZZ’s venue, which is an ideal place to hear music. But year-round, you can hear Coltrane’s music live, at the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church on 1286 Fillmore Street between Turk and Eddy in San Francisco. Archbishop Franzo King, who is officially ordained by the African Orthodox Church, started the church in 1971, six years after seeing Coltrane perform and leaving convinced that God was speaking through his songs. Playing saxophone with other church clergy, King uses Coltrane’s music – especially A Love Supreme – to preach God’s salvation. Attending the Sunday mass at noon is an experience like no other.

In 2000, when the church was located on Divisadero Street, Franzo King told me that Coltrane’s widow, the musician Alice Coltrane, had attended service at the church in the 1980s and blessed his work. “She walked into this building and told us that we were fulfilling John’s highest ideal,” King says. “His music,” King adds, “is still alive.”

It is. This week’s SFJAZZ celebration is further confirmation that A Love Supreme is still a powerful work, still able to inspire people who hear its transportive notes and realize they’ve experienced something much deeper than “jazz music.”

SFJAZZ is celebrating the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme with a symposium and five concerts from Wednesday, December 10 to Sunday, December 14, 2014. For tickets and more information, visit


How to Listen to Songs in a Language You Don’t Understand

(Published at KQED on August 2, 2016:

Many years ago, when I was looking for something to eat and drink on a late night in Hiroshima, Japan, I found the only place that was open. The woman spoke virtually no English. I knew a few phrases in Japanese, including “Eigo Wakari Masuka? (英語分かりますか)” (“Do you understand English?”) and “Watashi wa Amerikahito desu (私 は アメリカ人 です。)” (“I’m an American”). I stayed at the eatery for an hour, “talking” to the woman through gestures, drawings, intonations, and other techniques that academics would call paralanguage. In the end, she gave me a gift — a wooden ornament with my name in Japanese, which she wrote in beautiful calligraphy.

Words are everything. But they can also be completely unnecessary to understanding someone — or a song in a language that’s foreign to your ears. Every day on my computer or my CD player (yes, I still have one), I listen to dozens of Brazilian artists croon on in beautiful Portuguese. I’ve visited Brazil, including the Amazon Rainforest, but the only phrase I still remember to utter is, “Eu não falo Português” (“I don’t speak Portuguese”). I still don’t speak Portuguese, but my lineup of favorite Brazilian songs gets longer every day, and now includes Nara Leao’s “Com Açucar, Com Afeto”, Gilberto Gil’s “Sala do Som”, Vinicius de Moraes’ “Carta ao Tom 74”, Jorge Ben’s “Bebete Vãobora”, Elis Regina’s “Chovendo na Roseira”, and Zeca Pagodinho’s “Maneiras”.

No, I would argue. Absolutely not.What the heck do these songs mean? Am I an absolute dilettante — a pseudo-pretentious but ultimately dumb American — for connecting with lyrics that go over my head (but right to my heart)?

I’m especially convinced of this after speaking with Pat Pattison, a prominent professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he teaches lyric writing and poetry. Pattison has authored such books as Songwriting Without Boundaries, and his students have included Grammy winners Gillian Welch and John Mayer. In Pattison’s view, a song’s lyrics — the words we hear — are just part of the complete (and very complex) sonic package that’s delivered to our aural doors. A myriad of wordless cues, from a tune’s orchestration to the singer’s inflections, give listeners the insight they need to realize what the song is expressing. Maybe not exactly what the song is expressing, but enough to draw important conclusions, even if those conclusions are challenged upon learning the song’s true lyrics.

Pattison himself often listens to opera sung in French, German, and Italian, all of which he has a basic understanding.

“If I don’t understand the lyrics, I’m then able to appreciate the singing itself — I’m able to listen to the vocal quality and so on,” Pattison says, in a phone interview from Boston. “Even more importantly, I think, I’m listening to a human voice. And in terms of language or communication, a small percentage of our communication takes place with the actual meaning of the words. There’s so much more communication that takes place with tone of voice, with body language.

“We can certainly tell,” Pattison adds, “when a singer is singing a passage whether there’s some innuendo going on, or something that’s sexy going on, or whether there’s anger or whether there’s a helplessness. We hear all of that in the tone quality. So there seems to be a level of communication that’s always present, whether or not we actually have the cognitive meaning of those sounds.”
Remember that happy time, oh I miss…Vinicius de Moraes’ “Carta ao Tom 74” is a good example. Hearing it the first few times, I assumed — because of de Moraes’ almost sentimental intonations, the song’s heavenly backup vocals, and the accompanying minimalistic (and at time dissonant) piano playing — that the song was about something sweet but wistful. I knew that de Moraes was a lyricist of the highest order (he wrote the words for Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema”), and that Jobim is frequently referred to as “Tom Jobim.” And I knew, from having listened to so many Brazilian songs, that the concept of “saudade” — a longing for a person or a past — is ever-present in the culture. Eventually I translated the song into English with the help of free lyrics sites and translation programs, and I saw that the song’s English title is “Letter to Tom 74,” and that its words include the lines:

Ipanema was just happiness
It was as if love hurt in peace.
You, my friend, there is only one certainty
We must end this sadness
We must invent new love.

De Moraes first released the song in 1974, six years before his death at age 66, as an homage to his collaboration with Jobim, and it’s a clarion call to move ahead and find love anew. Basically, my musical instincts were right.

But they’re not always right. Not at all. The other day, I was listening to Gilberto Gil’s “Sala do Som,” which I guessed had, like “Carta ao Tom 74,” something to do with reflection and moving on. But after doing a lyrics search, I realized it’s about a singer preparing for a show, and trying to rest and also get inspired.

In many ways, enjoying songs with foreign-language lyrics is about first impressions — about liking a song for whatever reason, and then correcting that impression with actual facts. It’s not unlike dating or seeing a person at a party who grabs your interest. You’re smitten. Your brain starts rewarding you with dopamine and serotonin. Language barriers notwithstanding, you’re transfixed.

Do you remember the opera scene in The Shawshank Redemption, when the Tim Robbins’ character, the jailed banker named Andy Dufresne, mischievously plays Mozart’s Canzonetta sull’aria over the prison’s loudspeakers? The song is about planning a seduction to test the fidelity of a royal figure. Not that it even mattered: “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about,” says Morgan Freeman’s character, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, in the film. “Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid.”

Which is true. I don’t always want to know the exact lyrics of every foreign-language song that I listen to. I’m content in my ignorance — content to project what I can onto the music, or to just have the music as a happy distraction. Professor Pattison also does that on occasion, telling me: “I purposefully listen to songs with lyrics I don’t understand, simply because I would like to listen without my brain going into overdrive.”

But for me, this “ignorance is bliss” style of listening is really the exception rather than the rule. I ultimately want to know what I’m listening to, in order to test my instincts, and to challenge my intuition. The thing about challenging yourself this way is that your intuition gets better. You learn a few more words in Portuguese (or Arabic, French, Bambara, or another language). You get to know the song better, and you get to know yourself better: what you like in music, and what’s behind your attraction to this work of art that somehow called out to you.

In an episode of my favorite TV comedy series, Britain’s Peep Show, the drug-addled character named Super Hans meets a beautiful Japanese woman who speaks no English. It doesn’t matter. They can’t be separated. “We speak the language of love,” Hans bellows.

With each new foreign-language song I find, I fall a little bit in love, musically speaking. I don’t have to know what the words mean. Not initially. I’m in the early honeymoon phase, and that’s all that matters for now. Without that phase, the other phases won’t arrive.