John Coltrane ‘A Love Supreme: The complete Masters’ 3CD Box Set (Impulse/Universal) 5/5

john-coltraneRe-issues do not come more historically important than this and the re-activated Impulse label is virtually synonymous with the most prodigious output by the John Coltrane classic quartet. Generally acknowledged as one of the towering achievements of the saxophonist’s career, this spiritual homage has long featured as one of the favourite all-time jazz albums and rightly so. Now, exactly fifty years after its original release in 1965, an expanded version appears that builds upon the 2 CD deluxe edition that first surfaced in 2002. For those who purchased that edition believing it was the final and definitive one, this new 3CD version will generate debate as to whether the new elements are truly worthy of a new purchase and it will be up to the individual to make up their own minds on the matter. This writer, however, was only previously familiar with the original vinyl and its CD re-master and thus, the new package, marks a significant addition and supplementary aid.
A key question is what do the different versions contained within tell us about the direction that John Coltrane was taking? For this listener, the genius of this newly expanded version is that allows us, if however fleetingly, to briefly dip into the mind of the great musician and hear and view how his own vision of ‘A Love Supreme’ oscillated between quartet and sextet interpretations. Further, it enables us to hear within a given section how different takes reveal that Coltrane was experimenting to the very end and within the studio as to how the final version should sound. This is best exemplified on ‘Acknowledgement’ where Archie Shepp joins the quartet and this modifies how the piece sounds. With a second horn player entering the fray, John Coltrane and Shepp play off one another and consequently a freer sound is created while there is absolutely no lessening in intensity from the dynamic rhythm section. At times, this is quite simply music on another planet of expression and challenging for even the most seasoned of jazz aficionados. Compare take 1 with take 6 where an eastern-influenced drone sound emerges in the intro and this writer especially liked the polyrhythms of Elvin Jones that are much in evidence. The jousting between Coltrane and Shepp is akin to a modern jazz equivalent of the classic cutting edge sessions between reed players.

If the complete sextet takes are a revelation to these ears, mono versions of the original quartet add very little new to our understanding. Nonetheless, the live concert at the Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes remains intact and is still an extremely useful document of how John Coltrane envisaged the album to be performed in front of an audience and the sound is perfectly acceptable. Some have seen fit to criticise the packaging, yet to these eyes at least, it is tastefully contained within a gatefold sleeve excellent quality photos of the original sessions, with original master tape graphics, personal rough draft notes by Coltrane, and an informative and extended essay by jazz writer Ashley Kahn. On musical content alone, this is an outstanding historical masterpiece and Universal deserve credit for treating it with this degree of reverence and respect. Owners of the 2CD set may grumble at having to fork out more for a relatively small new amount of music, but in the fullness of time, this and not the 2002 edition will be the benchmark against which all subsequent generations of jazz lovers evaluate the recording as a whole.

Tim Stenhouse