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What a Rare, Live ‘A Love Supreme’ Reveals About John Coltrane
"A long-buried private recording of the suite, captured in October 1965, allows listeners to experience more sides of the musician than some major albums in his catalog.
When John Coltrane released “A Love Supreme” in early 1965, fans recognized it as a masterwork practically on first listen. Best-of-the-year accolades rolled in. It became the biggest commercial hit of his career, and possibly the most timeless piece of worship music in the American canon.
“A Love Supreme” was a realized ideal: Its four-part suite perfectly melded spiritual transcendence and physical exertion, powerful composition and openhearted improvising. And as soon as it was released, Coltrane was ready to leap ahead far further.
He started expanding the classic quartet that had recorded the album until the group reached a breaking point. He brought in other, often-younger musicians and guided them into furious improvisations, drawing upon spiritual traditions from across the Global South. And he rarely returned to “A Love Supreme.”
Until this week, only one known live recording of it had been released, from a performance in Antibes, France, in mid-1965. But on Friday, Impulse! Records will put out a long-buried private recording, “A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle,” captured in October of that year at the Penthouse jazz club.
It’s a landmark discovery. Over the course of the extended 75 minutes of the suite, we experience more sides of Coltrane than on some major albums in his catalog.
Coltrane would later look back on this brief moment in his career with a special fondness, and some longing. His classic quartet — one of the most revered groups in the history of jazz — was still intact, but he had taken to attacking its equilibrium, infusing it constantly with fresh blood.
“I was trying to do something,” Coltrane told the critic Frank Kofsky in late 1966, by which point the drummer Elvin Jones and the pianist McCoy Tyner had ditched the group. “I figured I could do two things: I could have a band that played like the way we used to play, and a band that was going in the direction that the one I have now is going. I could combine these two, you know, with these two concepts going. And it could have been done.”
Actually, it was done, for a limited stretch of 1965 — more or less from the assassination of Malcolm X, in February, to the first major escalation of American warfare in Vietnam, in November. Touring the West Coast that fall, Coltrane spent a week at the Penthouse in Seattle, with his quartet augmented by a second bassist, Donald Rafael Garrett, and a second tenor saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders, both of whom had joined the band during its prior tour stop, in San Francisco. (Coltrane had just invited Sanders in as a permanent member, which he would remain until Coltrane’s death in 1967, from cancer, at age 40.)
Another album from Coltrane’s run that week, titled “Live in Seattle,” came out a few years after his death. Recorded that Thursday night, Sep. 30, it features epic-scale renditions of his originals, and jazz standards turned over. While he recorded prolifically during this period, it was until this week the only live club date from 1965 released as an album.
On Saturday, Oct. 2, Coltrane invited the young alto saxophonist Carlos Ward, who had been part of the local matinee band at the Penthouse, to join his group as a seventh member that evening. The daytime band had been led by Joe Brazil, a saxophonist and prominent bandleader on the Seattle jazz scene, who died in 2008. An inveterate reel-to-reel tape user, Brazil recorded his own performance that day, and Coltrane’s that night, on the club’s house system.
The recordings were high-enough quality for an audio team to successfully restore them, and the final product’s sound is relatively clear, with only the two basses sometimes winding up muffled.
The tapes languished in Brazil’s basement for years. It wasn’t until Steve Griggs, another area saxophonist, gained permission from Brazil’s widow, Virginia, to sort through his collection that the “A Love Supreme” reel surfaced.
Griggs set about bringing his uncle’s old Akai reel-to-reel player back to working order. “Finally when I did get it working and I could listen to the tapes, I started looking through the Coltrane material, and there was this one tape that said, ‘Coltrane … A Love’ on the box,” Griggs remembered in an interview.
He had stepped into Joe and Virginia Brazil’s basement hoping to find clues into Coltrane’s historic week in Seattle, thinking he might write something about it. He got more than he’d imagined possible. “This recording has kind of exceeded my wildest dreams of making that scene come alive on paper,” he said.
The first notes of the suite he heard were from “Psalm,” its last movement, the tenderest part: a praise poem, addressed directly to God, that Coltrane had set to music and played through his saxophone. The poem itself is printed in the original album’s liner notes.
In Seattle, he chops up and reorders the melody, lingering on and repeating certain phrases (like he did in France, on the other live recording). With Coltrane the lone saxophone on this track, it’s a respite after more than an hour of soaring and crashing, hard-blown notes over Jones’s polyrhythmic waves. Griggs didn’t know about all that until he flipped the tape, and played it back from the beginning.
In concert Coltrane was known for pushing himself, and his horn, to the physical limits. It is part of what drew him to Sanders, whose role in the group was largely to provide atonal cries and expressionist sounds (what today would be called extended technique, but his critics often called noise).
Coltrane’s studio albums, including “A Love Supreme,” had included more digestible helpings of spitfire improvising, held to the ballast of his quartet. That would change with “Ascension,” a howling large-ensemble session that Coltrane recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studios in summer 1965, shortly before leaving for the West Coast tour, and that Impulse! would release the following year.
“Ascension” marked the beginning of Coltrane’s final period. Having written jazz’s major composition with “A Love Supreme,” he now fled from musical prescription.
But on “A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle,” he pushes in both directions. It’s clear from the recording that these musicians hadn’t rehearsed the suite, and some didn’t know it by heart. He gives verbal cues here and there, and at times he has to use the magnetism of his horn to yank the group back to center. He does this on the up-tempo minor swing of “Resolution” and “Pursuance,” blowing the melodies in strong, controlled gusts, in sync with the multilevel machinery of Jones’s swing feel.
The pianist and Coltrane scholar Lewis Porter, who contributed to the new album’s liner notes, marveled at Coltrane’s ability to balance an expert’s rigor with a beginner’s mind. “How do you square the world’s most amazing saxophonist — who’s always practicing, partly out of fanaticism, but partly just to get better — with a guy that says, ‘Let’s all get together and play “A Love Supreme,” even if you don’t know how it goes?’” Porter said in an interview.
He noted that Coltrane had credited Miles Davis with convincing him that rehearsals stifle creativity, rather than draw it out. To a sometimes extreme degree, Porter said, Coltrane “took Miles’s message to heart.”
The saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, 24, is high on the list of young jazz innovators today, and like Coltrane sees both composing and improvising as something akin to a form of worship. Growing up in Philadelphia, where Coltrane spent his formative years, Wilkins came to know the sacred music of “A Love Supreme” via jam sessions, where musicians would call “Resolution” and “Pursuance” along with Broadway standards, injecting a reverent current into the space.
“There was a general common knowledge onstage that we were reaching for something high,” Wilkins said. “This wasn’t a personal thing; you could feel it on the bandstand. You weren’t done soloing till you felt we had, not even peaked, but reached a transcendent level.”
Listening to the newly unearthed recording, Wilkins said that in Coltrane’s push toward a freer aesthetic, he heard a group of musicians reaching escape velocity. “I wonder if they were thinking of the audience in these moments,” he said, considering the nearly 300 paying guests who were gathered at the Penthouse that night.
“I don’t think they were,” Wilkins said. “I think they completely escaped surveillance.”
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Sunday, October 03, 2021
Jan. 6 Was Worse Than We Knew
However horrifying the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol appeared in the moment, we know now that it was far worse.
The country was hours away from a full-blown constitutional crisis — not primarily because of the violence and mayhem inflicted by hundreds of President Donald Trump’s supporters but because of the actions of Mr. Trump himself.
In the days before the mob descended on the Capitol, a corollary attack — this one bloodless and legalistic — was playing out down the street in the White House, where Mr. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and a lawyer named John Eastman huddled in the Oval Office, scheming to subvert the will of the American people by using legal sleight-of-hand.
Mr. Eastman’s unusual visit was reported at the time, but a new book by the Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa provides the details of his proposed six-point plan. It involved Mr. Pence rejecting dozens of already certified electoral votes representing tens of millions of legally cast ballots, thus allowing Congress to install Mr. Trump in a second term.
Mr. Pence ultimately refused to sign on, earning him the rage of Mr. Trump and chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” by the rioters, who erected a makeshift gallows on the National Mall.
The fact that the scheme to overturn the election was highly unlikely to succeed is cold comfort. Mr. Trump remains the most popular Republican in the country; barring a serious health issue, the odds are good that he will be the party’s nominee for president in 2024. He also remains as incapable of accepting defeat as he has ever been, which means the country faces a renewed risk of electoral subversion by Mr. Trump and his supporters — only next time they will have learned from their mistakes.
That leaves all Americans who care about preserving this Republic with a clear task: Reform the federal election law at the heart of Mr. Eastman’s twisted ploy, and make it as hard as possible for anyone to pull a stunt like that again.
The Electoral Count Act, which passed more than 130 years ago, was Congress’s response to another dramatic presidential dispute — the election of 1876, in which the Republican Rutherford Hayes won the White House despite losing the popular vote to his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden.
After Election Day, Tilden led in the popular vote and in the Electoral College. But the vote in three Southern states — South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana — was marred by accusations of fraud and intimidation by both parties. Various officials in each state certified competing slates of electors, one for Hayes and one for Tilden. The Constitution said nothing about what to do in such a situation, so Congress established a 15-member commission to decide which electors to accept as valid.
The commission consisted of 10 members of Congress, evenly divided between the parties, and five Supreme Court justices, two appointed by Democrats and three by Republicans. Hayes, the Republican candidate, won all the disputed electors (including one from Oregon) by an 8-to-7 vote — giving him victory in the Electoral College by a single vote.
Democrats were furious and began to filibuster the counting process, but they eventually accepted Hayes’s presidency in exchange for the withdrawal of the last remaining federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction and beginning the era of Jim Crow, which would last until the middle of the 20th century.
It was obvious that Congress needed clearer guidelines for deciding disputed electoral votes. In 1887, the Electoral Count Act became law, setting out procedures for the counting and certifying of electoral votes in the states and in Congress.
But the law contains numerous ambiguities and poorly drafted provisions. For instance, it permits a state legislature to appoint electors on its own, regardless of how the state’s own citizens voted, if the state “failed to make a choice” on Election Day. What does that mean? The law doesn’t say. It also allows any objection to a state’s electoral votes to be filed as long as one senator and one member of the House put their names to it, triggering hours of debate — which is how senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley were able to gum up the workson Jan. 6.
A small minority of legal scholars have argued that key parts of the Electoral Count Act are unconstitutional, which was the basis of Mr. Eastman’s claim that Mr. Pence could simply disregard the law and summarily reject electors of certain key battleground states.
Nothing in the Constitution or federal law gives the vice president this authority. The job of the vice president is to open the envelopes and read out the results, nothing more. Any reform to the Electoral Count Act should start there, by making it explicit that the vice president’s role on Jan. 6 is purely ministerial and doesn’t include the power to rule on disputes over electors.
The law should also be amended to allow states more time to arrive at a final count, so that any legal disputes can be resolved before the electors cast their ballots.
The “failed” election provision should be restricted to natural disasters or terrorist attacks — and even then, it should be available only if there is no realistic way of conducting the election. Remember that the 2012 election was held just days after Hurricane Sandy lashed the East Coast, and yet all states were able to conduct their elections in full. (This is another good argument for universal mail-in voting, which doesn’t put voters at the mercy of the weather.) The key point is that a close election, even a disputed one, is not a failed election.
Finally, any objection to a state’s electoral votes should have to clear a high bar. Rather than just one member of each chamber of Congress, it should require the assent of one-quarter or more of each body. The grounds for an objection should be strictly limited to cases involving clear evidence of fraud or widespread voting irregularities.
The threats to a free and fair presidential election don’t come from Congress alone. Since Jan. 6, Republican-led state legislatures have been clambering over one another to pass new laws making it easier to reject their own voters’ will, and removing or neutralizing those officials who could stand in the way of a naked power grab — like Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, did when he resisted Mr. Trump’s personal plea to “find” just enough extra votes to flip the outcome there.
How to ensure that frivolous objections are rejected while legitimate ones get a hearing? One approach would be to establish a panel of federal judges in each state to hear any challenges to the validity or accuracy of that state’s election results. If the judges determine that the results are invalid, they would lay out their findings in writing and prevent the state from certifying its results.
There is plenty more to be done to protect American elections from being stolen through subversion, like mandating the use of paper ballots that can be checked against reported results. Ideally, fixes like these would be adopted promptly by bipartisan majorities in Congress, to convey to all Americans that both parties are committed to a fair, transparent and smooth vote-counting process. But for that to happen, the Republican Party would need to do an about-face. Right now, some Republican leaders in Congress and the states have shown less interest in preventing election sabotage than in protecting and, in some cases, even venerating the saboteurs.
Democrats should push through these reforms now, and eliminate the filibuster if that’s the only way to do so. If they hesitate, they should recall that a majority of the Republican caucus in the House — 139 members — along with eight senators, continued to object to the certification of electoral votes even after the mob stormed the Capitol.
Time and distance from those events could have led to reflection and contrition on the part of those involved, but that’s not so. Remember how, in the frantic days before Jan. 6, Mr. Trump insisted over and over that Georgia’s election was rife with “large-scale voter fraud”? Remember how he called on Mr. Raffensperger to “start the process of decertifying the election” and “announce the true winner”? Only those words aren’t from last year. They appear in a letter Mr. Trump sent to Mr. Raffensperger two weeks ago.
Mr. Trump may never stop trying to undermine American democracy. Those who value that democracy should never stop using every measure at their disposal to protect it."