The version of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme that we all know—recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, studio on December 9, 1964 and released by Impulse! Records in January 1965—stands as a pinnacle both of the saxophonist/composer’s work and of the jazz genre. Its hallowed status and its mystique have been at least slightly strengthened by the fact that there are so few other versions. Alternate takes of album tracks from the December 9 quartet session have found their way out over the years, as have sextet renditions of the opening track, “Acknowledgement,” recorded the following day. In 2002, the one then-known live recording of A Love Supreme, from a July 1965 festival performance in Antibes, France, was released officially. But that’s been it. Until now.
Coltrane scholars had long been aware that A Love Supreme was played live in its entirety on at least one other occasion, on October 2, 1965, during a weeklong residency at the Penthouse in Seattle. What wasn’t known—or had been forgotten—was that Joe Brazil, a Seattle-based saxophonist, educator, and good friend of Coltrane’s, had recorded this performance using the club’s house gear: two microphones and an Ampex reel-to-reel tape machine. After the show, Brazil took the tapes and stored them in his personal archive, where they remained for the next five decades. Their existence was only discovered well after Brazil’s death in 2008.
On October 8, we can all finally get to hear what was in Brazil’s vault, when Impulse! releases A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle. Unlike the Antibes performance, which featured Coltrane in his standard quartet setting with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones, the Seattle version expands the group to include tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, alto saxophonist Carlos Ward, and second bassist Donald “Rafael” Garrett. Its closing piece, “Psalm,” can now be heard in part online via WBGO.org.
As time has passed, it’s become tempting to think that Coltrane’s reluctance to perform A Love Supreme live was in some ways an acknowledgement (pardon the unintended pun) of the studio album as an unbeatable document of the piece. It also may have been a reflection of his unwillingness to rest on his laurels; he’d gotten that music out and it was time to move on. But listening to the rather muted, uncertain crowd reaction at the end of this recording is a reminder that audience response could have been another consideration. In 1965, after all, this was fresh material. Most listeners hadn’t studied it the way jazz fans now have for more than half a century. And Coltrane’s playing was already heavy enough on tunes that everyone recognized; to present a new four-part, nearly hour-long suite on top of that might have been viewed as a bridge too far. (The Antibes experience from that summer could be instructive here: Coltrane’s quartet performed A Love Supreme in its entirety on July 26, then returned the next day at the request of the festival to play material that more listeners were familiar with, including “Naima” and “My Favorite Things.”)
In any case, it’s our great fortune, after all these years, to hear a new take—to our ears, at least—on a canonical work by the master who created it.