#6 On My List of Vital Albums
San Francisco is the home of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, established in 1969. I am not a member, but even I, adamantly agnostic, understand why Coltrane has led his listeners towards God, whoever or whatever That might be. It is a journey that surely began with, and probably still has at its heart, A Love Supreme.
The Facebook challenge to name ten important albums in one’s life is kind of ridiculous (he said, while devoting hours to that very challenge). Who can name ten winners without feeling foolish about the many albums left off the list? All the same, I think that, if the challenge had been to name only one album that had significantly influenced my understanding and appreciation of music, and in fact of life, I could single out A Love Supreme. Coltrane’s music on this record revealed the eternal to me in ways that music never had before. It shaped me very much the way I was shaped by my most profound experiences of nature.
When I discovered this Coltrane masterpiece, I found it somehow echoing Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the poem that arrested my attention not only by what it said and how it felt, but by how profoundly it altered my consciousness, lifting me out of my small sense of self to experience–if only briefly, I know–an abiding sense of wonder at how small I am. In singing the song of himself, Whitman may seem all ego, but he in fact sings to celebrate his equality with, even his fusion with, all others. I am with him as the camera moves from a closeup of his face (and my face) where he (and I) loaf at ease in the grass, and then it moves up, higher and higher, revealing a multitude of other faces as well as forests and buildings and gardens and ships and roadways soldiers rivers mountains animals oceans…until a fulfilling joyfulness washes in, the sudden knowledge that something grand and sublime is at the heart of things.
It’s hard to write something like that, knowing how much it smells of 1969, around when I was first discovering both Coltrane and Whitman. The fact is, I had always gone about my days, as I still do, in a pretty mundane fashion. I am, like most, caught up in quotidien concerns. I am political as hell (and Hell, no doubt, is full of politicians). But I do have touchstones that take me to a different sensibility, one that removes me from bustle and despair, busyness and anxiety, and even from the sources of pleasure that are plentiful in my blessed life. It is a spiritual thing, for lack of a better and less culturally loaded word, and A Love Supreme explains it to me.
When Coltrane breathes massively through his tenor, he in-spires me. I am rocked back by the sound.
When McCoy Tyner creates cleansing storms on his piano, I am rocked back by the sound.
When Elvin Jones throws down torrential joy from his drums, I am rocked back by the sound.
When they all come together, with the heartbeat of Jimmy Garrison’s bass, I am swept away.
I, who follow no other form of worship, who shrugs off all theology, who rejects dogma and church discipline, can feel, nonetheless, A Love Supreme.