Finding inspiration in ‘A Love Supreme’

Courtney Lewis

I often like to ask classical musicians what they listen to in order to relax. The answer is rarely our own music; stepping outside the classical world allows our critical facilities to switch off, which is blessed relief. My after-work tastes are hip hop, R&B, house, pop and a relatively small amount of jazz. Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about what makes some of this music so great. Today I’m writing about some of my favorite jazz: John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme,” recorded in 1964, and Brad Mehldau’s “Art of the Trio vol. 4″ from 1999.

John Coltrane was the greatest saxophonist of his generation. Born in 1926, the same year as his friend and colleague Miles Davis, he led a complicated life, eventually dying in 1967 of illness related to his addictions. He mined his life experiences in his music, perhaps nowhere as personally as in “A Love Supreme.” The album is a suite of four movements all based on one simple theme, which is quickly revealed as the melody to the words, “A Love Supreme,” chanted by Coltrane. It’s a testament to God’s love, with the movements given titles: Acknowledgment, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. The resources are modest: drums, piano, bass and tenor saxophone, but from the first stroke of a gong and cymbals we are immediately contemplating a great mystery. The music has a sense of wrestling something, trying to find an answer, while at the same time being entirely content.

There’s an incredible moment in the first part during which Coltrane plays the main, simple little theme before changing key and playing it again. He continues to change key until we’ve heard the melody of “A Love Supreme” in all 12 possible keys. It’s as if he’s saying, “this love is so great, it’s everywhere.”

Sometimes I feel that jazz gets stuck in one mood: we’re always in a nightclub, we’re always relaxing, we’re always chill. “A Love Supreme” is something different. The band’s virtuosity seems like evidence of the love Coltrane is describing. The music is incredibly free and seemingly unstructured, yet the whole 33 minutes is based on that one little fragment of melody. There are few utterances in jazz that are so vulnerable, personal and compelling.

Brad Mehldau is one of today’s greatest pianists. A jazz trio consists of pianist, drummer and bassist (unlike a classical piano trio which is piano, violin and cello). The trio is a sacred genre in jazz: it’s a little like the string quartet in my world, a prestige genre in which composers show their greatest virtuosity in the purest of forms. You can always gauge the skill of jazz musicians by how they play in a trio.

“The Art of the Trio” is a series of albums, all recorded live, in which every track is an extended improvisation on standards, by which I mean songs from the American Songbook. “Volume 4″ is recorded at the Village Vanguard, the most famous of jazz clubs in New York’s Greenwich Village. What I love about great trio performances is that they develop the musical material. This is something jazz and classical composers have in common. In a lot of the music we hear every day, nothing develops. In a pop song, you hear the verse, you hear the chorus, you hear it all again, and we’re done. But in a symphony, Beethoven presents all the musical material (the melodies, harmony and rhythm), repeats it, and then develops it before repeating it all again. Developing material means cutting it up into little chunks and then playing around with it, turning it upside down, changing its mood, letting you hear every possibility contained within it. When we hear the original version after the development is over, it’s as if we know the music like a close friend, inside and out. Jazz works like this too. On the first track of “The Art of the Trio,” Mehldau begins an improvisation that is complex and virtuosic. Only gradually do we recognize the famous melody of “All the Things You Are” creeping in. He’s developing the material even before we know what it is. The drums and bass come in and they play the song, basically as we know it. Then the development starts, each band member improvising on the song’s melody. Mehldau runs up and down the keyboard, wringing every drop of meaning out of the music. This is the closest thing we have today to what it would have been like listening to Mozart or Beethoven improvise. We hear everything Mehldau finds interesting about the song, in the white heat of a composer writing as he performs.

There’s a very funny moment at the end of the second track, “Sehnsucht.” Mehldau is in the middle of improvising a complicated and virtuosic solo, when suddenly he brings everything to an abrupt close with a cadence that sounds very classical. It’s supposed to be funny, making fun of the perception that classical music is stiff. We hear a couple of members of the audience laugh. Of course, he’s playing with us, because Mehldau is also a great classical pianist; there’s a wonderful album in which he performs preludes and fugues from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” each followed by an improvisation that Bach has inspired. It’s the same 12 notes no matter what the genre.

By Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony