• Aarik Danielsen

Saint John the Divine

I strike up the band and, at once, wish for a needle to drop.


A Love Supreme deserves more than a tired Monday-night stream through cheap plastic earbuds. John Coltrane’s 1965 jazz opus rises to the level of “Rhapsody in Blue” or Abbey Road, even following the sweetness of Beethoven’s most exquisite sonatas. Work like this defies man-made categories yet burrows to the center of the human heart; it springs from distinct context yet sounds like a mode of expression not yet invented.


You never hear A Love Supreme the same way twice. The album erases all previous patterns and perceptions from your memory, beckoning you back to the level of one man’s breath and his band’s pulse.


I owe Coltrane more than the stage I offer. His work deserves all the crackle and clarity of well-tuned stereo sound. Yet if I believe what I say—that mercy arrives in puddled sidewalks and miracles reveal themselves through dog-eared thrift-store novels—then perhaps beauty can radiate from even the crudest instruments.


I never feel entirely comfortable in spiritual settings built around a single person or notion. Yet if I believe what I say—that God wants to be found—perhaps it’s worth looking and listening up to those who discover the divine through Coltrane.

The album unfolds in four parts: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalm.” Yet, recorded during one day with legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder, A Love Supreme sounds ceaseless and dynamic—like a run-on Pauline sentence or one of the Psalmist’s precursors to gospel music, call and response springing from one spirit, spurring each other on to the beautiful more.


“Acknowledgement” opens with a starburst of notes, the same sublime clearing of the throat preceding Gabriel’s annunciation of good news to Mary. Coltrane plays his saxophone against a gathering storm: rolling waves of gong and cymbal, a piano’s plaintive promises.


Jimmy Garrison’s bass breaks the clouds, playing the album’s primary motif in the company of drummer Elvin Jones’ dusky grove. Pianist McCoy Tyner holds the world of the song together; each instrument earns its own part and personality yet pulls in the same direction as the other three.


Coltrane slips between foreground and background. He demonstrates the power of playing unburdened, sounding out his notes with cool and confidence against the relative, surrounding chaos. As the cut winds to a close, he chants the album’s title—and animating force—for a solid 35 seconds, his timbre shifting and drifting.


Coltrane may or may not have closed his eyes to picture the same god you or I worship; but this recitation—“A love supreme. A love supreme. A love supreme.”—resembles every true attempt to invoke and comprehend divine affection.


This is Rich Mullins cannonball diving into the “reckless, raging fury they call the love of God.” This is Rumi intoxicated with the beams of heaven, or the author of Psalm 136 repeating “his steadfast love endures forever,” trying to make sense of the words.


“Resolution” opens on Garrison’s bass, enfleshed and self-sufficient. The band then breaks into andante, Tyner leading the way. His piano pulses, then cascades; establishes a note, then plays its mockingbird answer. Coltrane leans back or lays out for much of the track, before serving in the role of usher, guiding his friends home.


I ponder A Love Supreme even when it’s not playing; this sort of art blurs the lines between your days and daydreams. Only a handful of creators possess my imagination in absentia. I catch myself turning over unknowable details about Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense or wondering what Mary Oliver was like on Wednesdays. In particularly misty moments, I grow heartsick for San Francisco and a church I never knew.


The Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church adopted the saxophonist as its patron saint, its very existence an affirmation of the Spirit blowing through his music. First Sunday meditations revolved around A Love Supreme and its power to reset the soul.


I never feel entirely comfortable in spiritual settings built around a single person or notion. Yet if I believe what I say—that God wants to be found—perhaps it’s worth looking and listening up to those who discover the divine through Coltrane.


Too much Christian worship rocks like an unbalanced washing machine, unsure how to harmonize immanence and transcendence. Artists like Coltrane twist around the torn tabernacle veil, suggesting the Spirit might be hovering over the person next to you and would appreciate your attention too.


Often what I ask from music or literature, even a good meal, is an echo of the divine consolation: You are not alone.

An icon by artist Mark Dukes, “God Breathes Through the Holy Horn of St. John Coltrane,” prominently resides on the church’s website; like the artist, I’m not beyond asking God to send fire billowing from a saxophone’s bell. If a little Pentecost comes, let it creep close enough to singe my clothes.


“Pursuance” starts with Jones alone on the drums. For a good 90 seconds, his playing hypnotizes, drawing you into the tempest. I can’t imagine what it was like to stand six feet from Jones as he prophesied, silently rehearsing a worthy response. The band bounds in with elements of earlier motives before Tyner seizes the moment, daring you to spell his name with all capital letters. MCCOY TYNER, y’all.


“Psalm” brings the beginning of the end. I know a couple synesthetes, people who experience the braiding of several senses. Once I wrote about a painter who assigned colors to certain chords, plotting her pieces according to harmonic progression.

While I am not among their number, I hear colors in Coltrane’s saxophone. Ballads often evoke midnight gray and streetlamp gold; on “Psalm,” he plays royal purples and Rothko blues, then dips the brush in wine-dark red.


Presence and transcendence—these are the gifts art gives.

The record ends with a slow march, a benevolent squall of notes. And I feel dizzy, like I’ve just been kissed. Often what I ask from music or literature, even a good meal, is an echo of the divine consolation: You are not alone.


In rare moments, another whisper comes through: And there is even more than this.


Presence and transcendence—these are the gifts art gives. And these are the everlasting graces threaded through A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme.




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