John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”

John Coltrane's A Love Supreme album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s 1965 album “A Love Supreme.” I first discovered this album about eight years ago. At the time, I was studying painting at college. Some of my favorite artists, like Willem de Kooning, were fans of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. While I painted, I’d listen to jazz CDs I’d borrowed from the school library. I found that I enjoyed much of it. I can’t say I always understood it. Regardless, jazz became part of my art-making routine.

John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” immediately became one of my favorites. It caught me off-guard as it went into musical territory I’d not yet imagined. The music confused me, yet somehow FELT like it made perfect sense. I even bought a brand new vinyl record of the album when I only had plans to buy a record player. Three years passed before I even had anything to play it on.  That’s how much I liked this one. 

Here’s the thing though, even after these years of hearing it off and on. Even after spending a full week with the album.. I feel ill-equipped to really write about it. I can tell you that I like it; I can talk about how it’s neat that he plays the 4-note “a love supreme” motif in several keys on the saxophone before chanting the words vocally. And I think that’s neat.

I appreciate that they repeat a melody line several times to establish for the listener what the basis for the next section is. And then they use that as a starting point to go off into other realms; cutting up the melody, flipping it around, filling it with seemingly random flourish and excitement. But then, they fold instruments in and around each other playing variation on themes (especially the love supreme motif) until they come back around. They weren’t just going crazy, but rather intelligently and methodically dissected the song, examined it, displayed it’s variations, and put it back together.

This is what I hear in this album. I’m not confident in saying that’s what it really is, but that’s what it is to me.  What I can note with confidence is that the album, with its four tracks, feels like a whole. There are (at least) three similarities that tie them together: the use of motifs, the methods by which motifs are used, and the instruments.  I appreciate that it sounds like a single performance. The same instruments are used from start to finish, recorded and mixed in the same way with the same sound to the room.  I like that.

So, in breaking with my usual way of writing about these albums, I’m mostly saying that I can’t write about this one as a musician. I’m in awe by what happens. I cannot explain what I’ve heard, nor understand how it was done. All I can say is that it is amazing.

Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”

For the past week, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s 1959 album “Kind of Blue” for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. Though not my first time hearing the album, this week definitely served as an introduction. As the songs are all instrumentals, I have no lyrics to discuss. Yet, the music itself speaks in a different language than I’m accustomed.

This is instrumental jazz instead of the rock and pop that I usually listen to. Furthermore, it presents to me the unfamiliar concept of modal jazz. I avoid giving an explanation here for fear that I get it wrong. The article on Wikipedia gives a basic description. Modal jazz is challenging to me, because I’m accustomed to tonal music. In tonal music, the foundation of a song consists of chord progressions that travel from and return to the tonic chord. As I understand it, modal jazz utilizes modal changes instead of chord progressions. Hack Music Theory has a short video explaining Modes. With modal jazz, Miles Davis gave freedom to the melody by releasing it from constraints of chord progressions. I hope I’m getting this right.

Still, my familiarity with tonal music contributes to “All Blues” being the song I most enjoy. While the songs goes through mode changes, within each the song follows a 12 bar blues chord progression. “All Blue” probably fails to be a true example of modal jazz for this reason. The track is in 6/8 time with the emphasis on the first and fourth eight note. Secondary emphasis on the third and sixth give the rhythm a little hop. A gentle rumbling piano opens the track to be joined by horns. This gives an atmosphere of the train yard in twilight or early morning. The rhythmic hi-hat tapping emphasizes this feeling.

That brings me to how fascinating I find the percussion on this album. It’s almost completely based on the hi-hat. The cymbals are played with great expression to convey rhythm. In rock and pop, the hats are most often used to keep time while the kick and snare convey rhythm. The percussion on “Kind of Blue” gives the hats great importance. The drummer plays the other drums much less often than I’m used to. The snare provides occasional emphasis, to add some flavor or to occasionally signify a change. A brush slides across the surface, the rim is tapped, or light trills provide texture. This greater variety of sounds from the snare really gets my interest.

The opening track “So What” also grabbed my interest. The piano plays “buh-boop” followed by the bass “duh doodoo doodoo doodoo doo doo” introducing the foundation of the song. There’s 16 bars in one mode, then 8 in another, returning to 8 of the first mode. Once this is introduces, a splash of cymbal tells kicks off the real journey. Horns take turns soloing improvisational melodic lines over the rhythm section. As mentioned earlier, the cymbals provide the sense of rhythm. The bass gives a foundation for that rhythm. On the piano, chords are played but they are not the drive of the song. They more provide interesting emphasis and offsets to the rhythm. Sometimes, to my ear, the chords sound strangely wrong, but oddly appropriate. This cool music sounds alien to me. I don’t understand the language, but I can feel it.

I definitely need more than a week with this album to full appreciate it. Its cool smoky night-time feel really gets me. I’m looking forward to more from Miles Davis as well as some of the other musicians on this album. John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley played the saxophones and Bill Evans played the piano. I already know some of Coltrane’s work. I understand that Bill Evans was a major part of this album’s compositions.  Also Jimmy Cobb played the drums here. I feel that I can learn a lot from his use of drums for my own programming of drum machines. I can learn a lot from this album, especially in the way instruments are being used and interact with each other.  The concept of modal jazz presents a challenge to me which gives me a desire to further understand it.

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”

I have been listening to Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue” for past seven days. This album was all new to me, but I have not looked forward to this week. What little experience I’ve had with Joni Mitchell proved to be unpleasant. This time allowed me to develop an appreciate for the songs. Joni Mitchel is a noteworthy songwriter and a great pianist and guitarist. Many people love her singing, but I’m not one of them. I like her voice in the lower alto range, but too often her singing often dances up to a soprano. Thankfully, everything else on the album is good, so there’s plenty else for me to appreciate.

In contrast to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited“, the instruments play in conversation with each other. The voice provides the primary source of melody, but also takes part in the conversation. Sometimes an instrument will continue a melodic phrase at the end of a verse or chorus. I see this album categorized as Folk or Folk-Country, but I hear a lot of jazz influence. Some of her melodies and the way the piano and voice work together make me think more of vocal jazz than folk. I see now how later musicians that I’m more familiar with like Alanis Morissette, Counting Crows, Tracy Chapman, and Tori Amos drew much of their influence. I enjoy her oft-clever use of phrasing, story-telling and descriptive language.

Carey” immediately caught my attention and quickly became my favorite song on the album. The breezy strummed dulcimer of this jaunty song appropriately suggests both dancing at a cafe and travel. “Carey” is one of the few songs on the album with percussion and even this is an unobtrusive hand percussion. The lyrics are a farewell letter from one who’s decided living the beach commune life isn’t their thing. They did not always get along, but they were still friends (“Oh you’re a mean old Daddy, but I like you”). I love the opening verse that perfectly introduces the setting, topic and tone of the song.

The wind is in from Africa;
Last night I couldn’t sleep.
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here, Carey,
But it’s really not my home.
My fingernails are filthy,
I’ve got beach tar on my feet,
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.

The other song that I liked was the album closing “The Last Time I Saw Richard“. The melody flits seemingly aimlessly like bumblebees across flowers, while on the piano she plays arpeggios as if searching for a song. The thing is that this sense of searching without getting there suits the song perfectly. I can imagine the piano player in the dark corner of the cafe at closing time. Maybe there’s a few customers left, but the singer ignores them. She remembers the cynical Richard in the first verse as criticizing her “You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies, pretty lies”. However, when he plays a song on the jukebox, she points out his own hypocrisy and contradiction in one of the best verses on the album:

He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr.
And a bar maid came by, in fishnet stockings and a bow tie,
And she said, ‘drink up now it’s getting on time to close.’
‘Richard, you haven’t really changed’, I said.
‘It’s just that now you’re romanticizing
some pain that’s in your head.
You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs
You punched are dreaming;
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet.’
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet

I love that line “You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs you punched are dreaming.”

As these verses from “Carey” and “Last Time I Saw Richard” demonstrate that Joni Mitchell incorporates rhyme in her songs, though not she’s not as strictly formal as Bob Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited.” She doesn’t mind breaking a rhyme scheme, or even having many lines that don’t rhyme. Her use of rhyme is also more subtle and natural. For example, in “Carey”, when she rhymes “not my home” with “French cologne.” The lyrics and melodies maintain natural flow much more than stick to a traditional rhythmic pattern.

I have learned to appreciate Mitchell’s songwriting. Unfortunately, my dislike of most of her singing will keep me from returning to this album after this week. IT’s a shame, because some of the songs are very good.