Wow, do the years go by. This month marks the 50th anniversary of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane‘s “A Love Supreme.” “A Love Supreme” offers one of the most variegated and complex of musical encounters available. Coltrane was endlessly innovating. If that sounds like faint praise, it helps to remember the whole sine qua non of the jazz idiom is innovation and exploration. Louis Armstrong is sometimes accused of essentially putting his music in a time-capsule. But those who say innovation for Armstrong stopped at the hot jazz period of the 1920s–with subsequent decades spent in safe popular music territory–are wrong. Armstrong in his mid-career (1950s, specifically) was still changing the scope of the art. That’s what makes him a jazz icon. And without hesitation, the jazz critical hierarchy recognizes Miles Davis for his absorptive range, from cool to electric fusion. But Coltrane is legendary for moving from bop to ballad to African-inflected to Eastern mystic-inspired combinations in his sound with a spiritual and political wrestling that isn’t apparent in Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis.
To confront Coltrane’s legacy is to ask what jazz means, for he changed totally and often. He warped his traditional understanding with his rhythm, excessive soloist digressions, chordal combinations, and ideas. To confront Coltrane is to recognize not only the peculiarity of his approach, but also what sweet, ruminative, airy, tuneful music he could make. Whether “A Love Supreme” is a spiritual gesture of the highest order or a provocative detour in avant-garde jazz, it is the concentrated effort of a supreme artist.