A Love Supreme... l-r: Joe Armon-Jones, Gary Crosby, Denys Baptiste and Rod Youngs. Photo: Steve Marchant
Later this month the landmark of 50 years will be reached that marks the only ever live performance of John Coltrane masterpiece A Love Supreme. The album itself passed the half century mark since its release earlier this year.
It must be a daunting prospect to take on a rendition of one of the most beloved jazz albums in history. Yet any trepidation didn’t show as the Gary Crosby quartet took to the stage of the Living Room of the Queen Elizabeth Hall after a short speech of introduction by Tomorrow's Warriors chief executive Janine Irons.
This wasn’t a case of reproducing a facsimile of the album nor was it about taking reckless liberties.
Not hugely long by modern standards, broken up into four parts: Acknowledgement with its instantly recognisable refrain; Resolution; Pursuance and Psalm altogether have operatic intensity and amount to life-changing message music in line with most of Coltrane’s best work. Somehow the journey to the inner urge never went deeper in all his time on the planet than on this suite.
This wasn’t a case either of each player assuming a role. While tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste, providing most of the emotional heavy lifting, has a very spiritual sound he isn’t a Coltrane clone at all. And Gary Crosby too, with his warm, unfussy and highly mobile approach to rhythm and chordal interplay, particularly in tandem with piano, wasn't setting out to be Jimmy Garrison either.
Earlier in the year Gary wrote on his personal blog explaining his personal relationship to the piece. This is an extract:
“What does A Love Supreme mean now? It’s been a part of my entire adult life, all the way through its many phases – whenever I am down, even feeling low, or looking for creativity, it’s one of those albums that lifts me. I carry it everywhere with me. It’s on my iPhone, my iPod. It’s everywhere around me. It’s about ten years ago that I started playing A Love Supreme with Denys Baptiste (and I’ve only ever performed this work with Denys on saxophone). This is a rare piece and, in fact, we have only played it about 7-8 times. However the way we play Coltrane is ingrained in our consciousness. We try to keep the spontaneity, and are mindful about how and when we rehearse. In fact we only ‘rehearsed’ the piece before we had to perform it for the very first time all those years ago, and every other time since then, we command up our energies, get into the mindset and play the set in the sound check before the live performance. In doing so we try to keep a collective purity, a kind of naturalness if you like. However A Love Supreme is one of the world’s sacred canons, and we certainly will not abuse the composer’s intention. As musicians, we want to learn from the piece each time we undertake the work. It’s our absolute duty to play it as Coltrane intended, for example in the case of the bass solo in the movement, Resolution, it really does not need anything from me (or any musician) to be heard as a great piece of art. The work is awesome and awe-inspiring."
No one had stars in their eyes at this performance, more gripped by a sound in their heads. And certainly as the performance progressed and the solos organically moved into freer space and Youngs increased the rhythmic heat gradually it was the inspiration and motivation in the music that kept the attention of the sizeable audience basking in the Front Room surrounding the stage. It was a big occasion for newcomer Joe Armon-Jones, again his style removed from McCoy Tyner, actually he reminded me more of a young Andrew McCormack to a degree, and no better way to begin the weekend than with the sound of Coltrane in all our hearts and minds.