Chasing John Coltrane’s God Dream From A Love Supreme To “UltraLight Beam”

Elijah C. Watson Elijah Watson serves as Okayplayer's News & Culture Editor. When…
Chasing John Coltrane's God Dream From A Love Supreme To "UltraLight Beam"

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In Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary one of the most important parts of the film’s narrative is the creation of A Love Supreme. Considered by critics and fans alike to be John Coltrane‘s magnum opus, A Love Supreme was the saxophonist’s soundtrack for redemption.

The documentary tells the story of Coltrane creating the album in his home in Dix Hills, Long Island, where the jazz artist stayed in his house’s attic composing the arrangements for the four part suite. Upon emerging he greeted his wife Alice Coltrane (who he had three children with by this time) and chose the following musicians to accompany him on his transcendent journey: bassist Jimmy Garrison; drummer Elvin Jones; and pianist McCoy Tyner.

January 1965 — A Love Supreme: “Acknowledgment”; “Resolution”; “Pursuance” and “Psalm.”

A Love Supreme isn’t an easy listen. Inspired by Coltrane’s alcohol and drug abuse, The album is the artist’s attempt at rediscovering himself through what he knows best: music.

“Acknowledgment” begins calmly as cymbals wash over a roaring gong. Coltrane offers a flutter of notes as Tyner adds some dissonance every second. There’s a sense of foreboding throughout the track; “A Love Supreme” is uttered until it’s become a mantra.

Then, silence.

Following that is Coltrane’s rebirth and redemption: from a troubled man on the brink of overdosing, to a man of God. In “Psalm,” the album’s grand finale, a timpani triumphantly accompanies Coltrane who’s expended himself. The fast flutters present throughout the album have gone, now replaced with airy and winded long notes.

The ending is symbolic: Coltrane has purged himself of his demons and has reemerged a new man.

“I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life,” Coltrane said in the liner notes of A Love Supreme. “At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”

In the documentary Denzel Washington, speaking the words of Coltrane, further explores this declaration.

“This album is a humble offering to him, an attempt to say, Thank you, God. Through our work, even as we do through our hearts and with our tongues. May he help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor.”

God became an integral part of Coltrane’s artistry up until his death, his relationship with religion redefining not only himself but the future of jazz music. A Love Supreme became the blueprint for the avant garde and jazz fusion movements: cool and hard bop was out; mysticism and spiritualism was in.

As I watched Coltrane become a devoted man of God, there was a particular contemporary artist that came to mind — Kanye West.

Kanye West is also a self-proclaimed man of God. One of his biggest hits to date — “Jesus Walks” — is essentially a spiritual exaltation. But “Jesus Walks” wasn’t initially revered as it inevitably became.

So here go my single, dog, radio needs this / They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes / But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?

The lyrics were a reference to the struggles West endured when he was showcasing “Jesus Walks.” Executives failed to see the song’s success, and friends warned him that the song would never become a radio hit.

Now, thousands of people sell out fucking arenas just to see him perform “Jesus Walks.”

Here, the connection can already be seen: two black men achieving acclaim and commercial success, with their devotion to faith forming a turning point, if not a selling point. Through God both Coltrane and West redefined their respective genres, both becoming seminal figures that continued to experiment and explore their artistry through God.

Inevitably, that caused some controversy. West’s relationship with religion served as one of the central themes of Yeezus, the album in which the rapper proudly declared “I Am A God” on the album’s third track. The proclamation unsettled some, with most arguments against the song saying West was once again stroking his own ego.

His camp defended him, saying that it was a reference to Psalm 82: “I said, ‘You are gods / And all of you are children of the Most High.'”

Then, Kanye finally discussed the proclamation and title: “I made that song because I am a God,” he said in an interview with W Magazine. Prior to that, at a pre-release party for Yeezus the rapper stated “West was my slave name and Yeezus is my god name.”

But just as serious as the statements were, there was an undertone of humor present throughout. “I just talked to Jesus / He said ‘What up Yeezus?'” hilariously opens the second verse of “I Am A God.” Then there’s the song’s credits, which features a number of artists but only one is acknowledged — God. Finally, the album’s live show involved an incredible sound and light show anchored by someone portraying Jesus Christ throughout he Yeezus tour.

“One of the things that I wanted to really get across with that message is that you can have a relationship with Jesus, that you can talk to Jesus,” West said. “In the same way how someone will have ‘Jesus is My Homeboy’ [on a T-shirt], that is the way I would express it and the way I create, is that you can have a relationship with Jesus, that you can talk to him,” West said in a radio interview with Wild 94.9.

He then added: “There’s only two things on my mind when I create,” West said, “God and Jesus.”

A testament to that is this year’s “Ultralight Beam,” the song that starts The Life Of Pablo. “We on an ultralight beam / We on an ultralight beam / This is a god dream / This is a god dream / This is everything,” West sings. The declaration is a testament to the rapper’s faith, accompanied by a choir and seminal gospel artists Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price.

To talk to God is to also serve God — to allow God to speak through you. The fact that West has ended every single Saint Pablo performance with “Ultralight Beam,” strongly suggests it is the culmination of who he strives to be amidst all the pressures of being a celebrity — a man of God.

Coltrane dedicated the remaining years of his life to doing that too. After A Love Supreme the musician was on a steadfast journey to ascend and transcend the foundations of jazz. The last album to be released before Coltrane’s passing was Expression. Coltrane took to the stars with wife and pianist Alice; flutist Pharoah Sanders; bassist Garrison; and drummer Rashied Ali.

Surrealism pervades Expression, the ensemble traveling through so many soundscapes, as if Coltrane was searching for something. What that something might be? No one knows. Maybe Coltrane himself has no idea what that is. But even in that unknown he sounds fearless: a man guided by God, reaching a spiritual realm that he never returned from.

As Expressions was being recorded, Coltrane was suffering from undiagnosed liver cancer, a condition which ultimately resulted in his death. But Expressions was more of a jubilant sendoff than a tragic eulogy: a soundtrack for a man that had dedicated the last half of his life serving God, and was comfortable with embarking into the unknown.

In 1966, an interviewer in Japan asked Coltrane what he hoped to be in five years, to which he responded “A saint.” Arguably, he already was (although he actually became one following the creation of the Coltrane African Orthodox Church) one. Like Coltrane, West is in a lineage of artists whose work is just as much art as it is a form of religious expression — a boundless sharing of God dreams.

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