Next to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all-time, no other full-length has had as much of an impact on the genre as John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Released in 1965, it’s a 33-minute minute masterwork that serves as the tenor saxophone legend Coltrane’s spiritual declaration to God. It’s a deeply-felt and musically-adventurous four-part piece that serves as a middle point between Coltrane’s ‘50s bop-influenced work and the more improvisational, modal jazz he’d pursue in his latter days before his death in 1967. His virtuosic solos influenced a new generation of players and pushed the genre into more improvisational and daring territory.
But more than that, A Love Supreme is especially resonant considering Coltrane’s biography. A longtime saxophone sideman playing in bands fronted Jimmy Heath and Miles Davis, Coltrane struggled with a heroin addiction that got him kicked out of various groups throughout the late ‘40s and ‘50s. He mostly kicked the habit in 1957, years before he’d release A Love Supreme, but the album itself is a victorious reflection of his turbulent spiritual quest. Backed by his band, keyboardist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones, considered to many the best collection of players Coltrane would perform with, A Love Supreme would be Coltrane’s masterpiece.
Though Coltrane has had an astounding influence on not just jazz but popular music itself, many people are unaware of his contributions. One of those people is Chicago rapper Joey Purp. In this interview series, whenever an artist has trouble picking the album they've never heard, I send them the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums list for inspiration. When I gave that list to Purp, he immediately picked John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and responded via text, "I'd also like to say that this list is weak as fuck. It's bogus and culturally skewed. And no way Bob Dylan made four of the best 30 albums ever and Outkast’s Aquemini is 500."
“My relationship with jazz starts and ends with stories from my father, like he'd tell me about the jazz and blues clubs around Chicago about how they used to be the hottest spots. Outside of that, I never really dove into jazz music too much outside of like having Nico Segal tell me to get into Miles Davis in high school and knowing who these big names were,” explains Purp. He adds, “But I do somewhat understand the translation from jazz to hip-hop happened as far as like the percussive vibe and then just the cadence and the speed. I chose Coltrane's A Love Supreme because I don't know anything about him, unfortunately."
To listen to the album, Purp picked me up and we drove around my neighborhood in his car listening to the whole thing. Read below to get Purp’s song-by-song reaction.
1. Part 1: "Acknowledgement"
OK. This was in Mo Better Blues off the top. I think this is in like a really important scene. I thought it was in Clockers in the opening scene where they're showing images of dead bodies and newspaper clippings of murders but I know it was Mo Better Blues.
Right off the bat, you picked that up?
It's a Spike Lee joint. Alright, now that it's playing. Let's cruise through these streets.
I'm going to read a little bit from the liner notes, which Coltrane wrote himself: This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say "THANK YOU GOD" through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor. The music herein is presented in four parts. The first is entitled "ACKNOWLEDGEMENT," the second, "RESOLUTION," the third, "PURSUANCE," and the fourth and last part is a musical narration of the theme, "A LOVE SUPREME" which is written in the context; it is entitled "PSALM."
Heavy stuff. As far as his dedication to it. It's a proclamation of his dedication to the spirit. That's tight. It's especially tight considering you were telling me about this other spirit he was consumed by before this, his drug addiction, that he probably didn't know was the negative spirit at the time.
Right, in a lot of ways this is kind of like a spiritual victory over that or at least a declaration of praise to God for getting him this far.
As a kid, for some reason, I knew jazz was black music. It never seemed like black music to me growing up but it just sounds like a black person. I don't know how to explain it. Jazz sounds like somebody beatboxing or some shit. Usually, anything that wasn't rap music as a kid I thought wasn't black music. Like I didn't know rock was black. I didn't even know Jimi Hendrix was black but I knew who Jimi Hendrix was at first. I knew he was a raw-ass guitarist because my brother liked Jimi Hendrix and then I saw the album cover and I was like, "Oh shit! He looks like a black ninja or some shit."
Here, you can see that through line between jazz and hip-hop but you can also see it going back to blues and gospel.
Exactly. Maybe that's why I knew jazz was black because I knew these sounds because of hip-hop samples. I knew soul and Motown and all was black music too. When my dad would tell me about all the blues and jazz clubs he'd go to, it took me a while to realize that this was the popular music of the time. I thought he was being "niche." He was really just taking in the culture like everyone else was.
Because jazz was black music and because it was also revolutionary there's eerie similarities between how racist American power structures treated jazz early on in the early 1900s. Communities passed laws banning it and it was even called "the devil's music." But there was no stopping it because it got so popular and universal. You can map out parallels between jazz and hip-hop's trajectory into the American culture.
It was looked down upon. How old is jazz?
You have its roots from the late 19th century and early 20th. There was the jazz age in the '20s. Louis Armstrong started his career in the late 1910s.
So that's where that feeling comes from because they were really going through it. That was real struggle. We know struggle now because people are in poverty but to be in poverty in a place where you can get killed on the street and nothing happens. That's a different level. So that's where the spirit of this music comes from: it comes from actual necessity.
This album is from 1965 in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.
I always understood that rap as one of the first types of music you could just make with your homies with minimal equipment and no musical training. But these people were really just playing and perfecting their instruments for years, right? I might be more familiar with blues than I am jazz. It's that Chicago thing.
2. Part 2: "Resolution"
To give you a little background on Coltrane's personality: he was incredibly obsessive about his instrument. Not just the addiction but being a musician led to the dissolution of his first marriage because she didn't speak the same musical language that he did. She was not a musician. So he ended up marrying a pianist and a harpist named Alice. I'm sure you've heard of Alice Coltrane.
Oh shit. I've heard of her but I'm not well-versed in her music. When I was young, I must confess I thought she was his daughter.
This might be my favorite song off the album.
I fuck with jazz piano because it's just there. It's consistent. When you nod your head, you keep hitting it.
He's playing behind Coltrane and it's so cool.
Yeah, the timing of this reminds me of a Rick Ross song featuring Andre 3000 called "Sixteen." It's about how sometimes you want to say more than just 16 bars but it's a metaphor for other things too.
[Pedestrian crosses the street and trips]
Wow, shorty's out here drunk off the xans. She was stumbling and shit. She's struggling. How she just wave like we gave her the right of way when it's a stop sign? Wait, I’m driving a Ford Explorer. She thought we were the police, she was like, “Oh thank you!” Sidenote: Someone definitely thought I was in pursuit in them. They ran a yellow light and I ran the yellow light with them.
But anyway, that Rick Ross and Andre song. It goes without saying that Andre’s verse is great and it’s like 32 bars or something. There’s another Andre song where he plays guitar [B.o.B’s “Play The Guitar”] where it’s like when rap music, like having just 16 bars, just isn’t enough. There, he says, “They be saying I sound like I'm out of tune / I ask them: "Do you cry in tune nigga? Do you laugh in tune?" It’s the rawest shit and it’s right: Does real emotion have to be in tune? That’s what I think of when I hear this time signature and the piano. Sometimes the format of what it’s supposed to be isn’t enough to get your point across.
That’s definitely something Coltrane explores with his solos. They’re so much more freewheeling and improvisational than what was going on at the time. Live, he could go off for an hour on a single solo. This was him editing and abbreviating his live show.
Really? He’d just go off like that? That’d probably be amazing and really frustrating to see depending on what kinda vibe you were going for. If you were trying to just hear your favorite song you’d be like, “Yo, will this nigga chill out?” But if you’re looking to see this man be himself then you’re like, “Oh my god, I will never see that again.”
I might be off-base here but this album is sort of the middle point between fans of the older, more traditional jazz and the free improvisational jazz movement. It’s kind of a turning point for the genre.
And this was ‘65 so jazz was already a half a century old. Oh wow, I just realized that rap is not going to be the thing one day. Wow. That just fucked me up. Because jazz is pretty much off the court right now, bro. In popular music, it is out of the paint.
Can you imagine rap becoming a thing where…
…someone who used to play a stadium is now playing a diner? Damn, people are going to be rapping in a Potbelly’s someday. In a futuristic Potbelly’s they’re going to be selling downloadable sandwiches. You just plug in and it’s like: peanut butter and jelly? Tight! That’s gonna be a hard-ass app.
I just imagine in 60-80 years where rap is a thing where old rich people go to small clubs to see it. Like, I’m imagining a futuristic sitcom version of Frasier where instead of jazz and opera he’s into Jay Z or Young Thug.
Jay Z will be the new Frank Sinatra. But it’s crazy, I wonder if Coltrane knew how futuristic it was to not really say anything on music. No lyrics. Like, I wonder if he knew that there was going to be a time where the most popular black music was based off of words. This is a futuristic concept even though it’s old. When I was younger, I didn’t understand when people said that jazz and classical music makes you think. But now I do. It’s because there’s no space for talking. It does the talking for you and it evokes thought. With talking music you can think about it when you’re away from it but with this I can’t memorize these words and I can’t think of this song when I’m not listening to it.
The more you’re exposed to it the more it’ll feel like the same language as the music you’re already familiar with.
3. Part 3: "Pursuance"
[Listens to the drum solo]
WOW. Wow. That was crazy. Holy shit, bro. That was so unpredictable! I’m definitely going to have to run that back. That was so cool because that was translatable to rap. That’s why I fuck with this music because it reminds me so much of the creativity and unpredictability of rap more than any other music. These sound more like rap cadences than anything else. More so than rap music, even.
What makes you like a rapper in the first place is when you don’t know what they’re going to say next. When you listen to rap, you try to guess the next word. Sometimes it’s just like, “Who would’ve thought of that?”
Like Young Thug
Facts. That’s what Lil Wayne had too! I feel like Young Thug is like if that one period of Lil Wayne, where he got really good into autotune, became a whole artist. Tha Carter II is my shit. One of my favorite albums of all time. Tha Carter III is good too because that’s where he just figured shit out. Once you get into that groove, it’s so serious.
One other interesting fact about this album was that it was recorded in a single day. That wasn’t all that uncommon for the genre and the time period but it’s still impressive nonetheless.
What? That’s real though. That makes sense. It wasn’t made in one day. He didn’t write the whole thing and come up with it in one day. Because they’re just playing music. It’s like a show.
Every jazz show is different. They never really played the same thing ever again. That’s why jazz fans can get so obsessive about the live performance aspect because it’s never going to be identical.
Sidebar: I love this car. Everyone thinks I’m a cop but I’m just sitting here smoking weed and seeing people give me the right-of-way. I still don’t know how police are going to react to me. At least it’s not a Crown Vic. Those are super suss. Anyone who’s not a cop who drives a Crown Vic is suspect.
This album is crazy, bro.
I’m glad you dig it. You’re also drawing comparisons so quickly and making it really easy on my end for this interview.
4. Part 4: "Psalm"
Wow, that’s probably xans girl in there. Pray for shorty off the xans though. Hopefully she gets sober and then pulls a Coltrane and makes her version of A Love Supreme.
This last one is a word-for-word interpretation of a poem Coltrane wrote for God. There’s a way to read out the poem along with the song. It’s on the liner notes which are available online. It’s super-intense though and it would kind-of kill the vibe if I read it aloud right now.
[Laughs] Ayy, that’s hilarious. You should definitely just record yourself reading off the poem. Just to have the audio of that, oh my God.
One day, when it’s midnight I’ll call you and I’ll be reading, “We know. God made us so. Keep your eye on God. God is. He always was. He always will be.” It’ll be blackmail if you hate the article.
I’m still laughing that you knew it would be a total buzzkill.
There’s this comedian Tom Scharpling who did an impression of Smash Mouth covering A Love Supreme on his radio show so it could be worse.
Oh no. That’s an insane combination. That’s crazy. You think they were on the gas? You think Coltrane was smoking Backwoods? I don’t know how they could be smoking when you’re playing the horns. It’s crazy that this is an album that came out of sobriety. This is so raw. It’s giving me chills.
[Pedestrian crosses the street as we make a turn]
Oh shit baby girl I’m sorry. You were just trying to cross the street and I almost hit you. I would’ve been so sad if I accidentally hit this girl. She’s just getting off of work and trying to go home and almost got hit by a car. I am so happy I didn’t just crush her with a vehicle.
That was so raw, bro. I’m definitely about to listen to that again. Sonically, I kind of expected what I was about to hear just knowing what jazz sounds like so it wasn’t surprising. But it was surprising how I felt about it and how inspiring it was. It reminded me of listening to Lil Wayne or Ghostface as a kid. It was so unpredictable. As I thought I was comfortable listening to it, it’d kept changing and the vibe would be completely different. Even my favorite music, regardless of genre, is always because of lyrics. This completely changes that. It’s crazy to listen to music that’s inspired by such a different energy. This was inspired by music from the early 1900s and he was coming off of such a different energy than anything I could ever imagine.
Josh Terry is a writer in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.