Enlightenment: John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Meltdown, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London – review

John Coltrane’s four-part suite, A Love Supreme, charted a spiritual journey from contemplation through conflict to resolution. Written for the late saxophonist’s classic quartet, the music was a spiritual statement as well as a reflection on America at a time of heightened social conflict – it was composed and recorded in 1965.

This “re-envisioning”, scored by flautist Rowland Sutherland and performed as part of this year’s Meltdown festival, maintained the arc of the original with a meditational beginning, an intense and increasingly raw middle and a final devotion at the end. The emphasis was on the spiritual – curator Paul Bradshaw introduced the music as “a devotional statement on the power of love” – but, by incorporating London’s rich mix of musical traditions, social context remained. The 15-piece, locally-sourced ensemble included Ansuman Biswas playing a battery of Indian melodic instruments, a three-piece batá drum ensemble and Tunde Jegede on koras.

The opening was sparse and spiritual. Juwon Ogungbe sombrely orated a paean to love accompanied by shimmering bells and rippling Indian strings. Gradually, texture was thickened by kora and flute, the batá drums joined in, and Ogungbe switched from declamatory English to Yoruba chant. Jazz kicked in with a hint of Coltrane’s classic theme “Acknowledgement”, and moved into gear when tenor saxophonist Steve Williamson took flight over surging drums and counterpoint bass.

Each of Coltrane’s themes entered at an angle with the full ensemble before jazz moved ever more forcefully to centre stage. Shabaka Hutchings played a terrific solo on bass clarinet, and a free-jazz howl, led by vocalist Cleveland Watkiss and keyboardist Pat Thomas, was climactic. The long finale was based on the devotion to God that appeared on the sleeve note of the original A Love Supreme release. Watkiss intoned the mantra, Ogungbe translated into a soaring Yoruba vocal, and the full ensemble, conducted by vibraphonist Orphy Robinson, replied to each chorus with a wash of sustained warbles and rhythm.

Sutherland’s score is an imaginative and detailed addition to the Love Supreme legacy that adds contemporary context to the religious underpinning of Coltrane’s heritage – the opening paean to love was included on the 1972 album World Galaxy by Alice Coltrane (Coltrane’s second wife) where it was recited by Indian spiritual leader Swami Satchidananda. It deserves to be heard again.


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