Sound Grammar: Out of the Past Into the Now, the Best Music of 2021

John Coltrane icon, Coltrane icon at St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

Some music embeds itself into our minds so deeply that it seems to congeal in the memory from our first hearing. So it is with the four-note theme of A Love Supreme, which from the moment most of us first encountered it seems as if it has always been there, as familiar as Für Elise or Let It Be.

A Love Supreme offers itself as an invocation, and most invocations, owing to their spiritual nature, seem timeless. They exist outside of time. We think we know it, the cadences of its notes, the beat of its rhythms. They seem as fixed as the words of a prayer. This is the way it goes: from the first assertive E flat to the shimmering cymbal that brings the suite to a close. This is the way it is. This is the way it will be.

But what if someone opens a box, put away 55 years ago, and discovers  that’s not the way the invocation has to go. In fact, that’s not the way it was always played by its players. What if instead of being timeless, Coltrane’s invocation is revealed to be a way to play with time itself–to stretch it out, reorder it with sonic jump cuts, and pursue what we think we know in a way that chases the times themselves. What if a suite of music recorded in the past comes alive in a new way in the present?

One of the reasons A Love Supreme seems so abiding, so immutable is that Coltrane rarely performed it live. For decades, there was only one alternative version, a crips, abbreviated performance recorded live at Juan-les-Pins. But now we have another, much different incarnation.

The version of A Love Supreme Coltrane and his band (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on double bass, and Elvin Jones on drums) recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio on December 9, 1964, isn’t the version they played in Antibes six months later at the first International Festival of Jazz, and that isn’t anything like the explosive version they performed in Seattle in October.

Time left its marks on Coltrane. His music was never static. It was always in flux, often fiercely so.  And we were foolish to think that A Love Supreme would be the exception, that it would remain immune to the upheaval around it. Coltrane was in the moment, his music of it. He was current and the current ran through him and out his sax.  Take “Up ‘Gainst the Wall” from Impressions. It has no lyrics, but every black man knew the experience the music describes. A year later Coltrane recorded “Alabama,” shortly after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by the KKK. According to McCoy Tyner: “It came from a speech. John said there was a Martin Luther King speech. It was in the newspaper–a printed medium. And so John took the rhythmic patterns of his speech and came up with Alabama.” Not a word was spoken by Coltrane, but nothing that mattered was left unsaid.

What had changed in those 10 months?

On February 21, Malcolm X is assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom. Two weeks later the US begins carpet-bombing Vietnam under LBJ’s Operation Rolling Thunder. A few weeks later MLK, Jr. leads his marches on Selma. Then in August, Watts erupts in fiery rebellion after numerous incidents of police brutality on local residents.

America wasn’t the same and neither was Coltrane or his band. In June Coltrane took his esteemed quartet into the studio to record the music that would be released six months later as Ascension, a landmark of free jazz, whose musical structures were so liberated from the past that even Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner had a hard time keeping up.

Modern music, let’s not reduce it to “jazz,” thrives on the tension between composition and improvisation, between structure and contingency. One unforeseen contingency, and a very fortuitous one, is that on the foggy night of October 2, 1965, halfway into Coltrane’s weeklong run at the Penthouse, the opening act was a band led by local saxophonist Joe Brazil, who used the house recording system to document his performance and then kept the tape deck rolling for that night’s performance by Coltrane’s band, which for this evening at least had swelled from a quartet to a septet. A process of augmentation had begun, a kind of doubling, featuring two bass players (Garrison now joined by Donald Garrett) and two tenors (Coltrane with Pharoah Sanders), with Carlos Ward sitting in on alto sax, and Coltrane and Sanders whacking away on percussion with Jones.

So the tapes rolled for a largely discrete performance (there were only 275 people in the room that night) that lasted for roughly 75 minutes, twice the time of the original recording and the Antibes performance. Twice the time and twice as dissonant. At times it seemed the band was playing at each other so fiercely sparks must have flown over Puget Sound from the crashing soundwaves.

Afterwards, Brazil packed up the tapes and took them home, where the reels were stowed away in his basement, repining for decades, and presumably unplayed after Brazil’s death in 2008. Then a couple of years ago another Seattle musician, Steve Griggs, prevailed on Brazil’s widow to let him browse through Brazil’s stash of tapes, where he unearthed a box labeled: “Coltrane…a Love.” He put the reel on the tape deck and hit play, catching Coltrane in mid-solo, blowing out a coruscating stream of notes that didn’t sound exactly familiar. If this was A Love Supreme, it was unlike any version Griggs, a sax player himself, had ever heard. The other reels were nearby and Griggs soon pieced them together in the order of the performance, the music that confronts us  across five calamitous decades of cultural change.

Drop the needle on it now and hear a new sound being born, given birth by a band that was fracturing, splitting apart, and going off in uncharted directions. The music subverts our expectations of what it should be, of how the composition should go, of how it should sound. The sublime has been replaced by the contentious, harmonies supplanted by abrasions. What had once seemed defined and scripted is busted wide open, every convention shattered. The music sparks, stutters, and growls. It goes off on tangents, sometimes circling back; other times hitting ends that seem to be dead, then burst back to life. It is by turns angry and mournful, fractured, and resolute. Solos splinter off, then are called back to the deep thematic tones of an abstracted, agitated blues. Because that’s what a Love Supreme is, deep down at its core, a blues for our times.

The performance flirts with resolution, but leaves so much open-ended, as if transporting both the musicians and the audience to the very the cusp of a revelation–or revolution–that has been invoked by the incantatory repetition of those four familiar notes.

If this version of A Love Supreme remains an invocation, it is less to a spiritual deity than to the subversive nature of music itself, the power of raw music to penetrate time, break the shackles of entropy and speak directly to us now–in the time of drones and George Floyd and Charlottesville and Ahmaud Arbery. This music  calls us to follow its swirling tempest of sounds through time itself and embrace its open defiance of all expectations for how things should be.

A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle is the recording listened to the most frequently last year, along with a few others that captured my attention and refused to let go.

A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle
John Coltrane
(Impulse!)

Black to the Future
Sons of Kemet
(Impulse!)

Sharecropper’s Son
Robert Finley
(Easy Eye Sound)

Afrique Victime
Mdou Moctar
(Matador)

Springtime in New York: the Bootleg Series, Vol. 16
Bob Dylan
(Columbia)

Breathe
Dr. Lonnie Smith
(Blue Note)

Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album
Hasaan Ibn Ali
(Omnivore)

The River Doesn’t Like Strangers
Chelsea Carmichael
(Native Rebel)

Marriage
Deap Vally
(Cooking Vinyl)

Let My People Go
Archie Shepp and Jason Moran
(Archieball)

Drones
Terrace Martin
(Sounds of Crenshaw)

I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of LA
Dean Wareham
(Double Feature Records)

I Be Trying
Cedric Burnside
(Single Lock Records)

This Bitter Earth
Veronica Swift
(Mack Avenue)

Live at Hermann’s
David Vest
(Cordova Bay Records)

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3