Tony Whyton’s “Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album” is as baffling as its subject is illuminating.
Whyton, a professor of jazz and musical cultures at Salford University in England, presents four interlocking essays about John Coltrane’s 1964 masterpiece, “A Love Supreme,” which in sum attempt to provide fresh insight into the work’s influence on jazz as well as on a broader culture.
Whyton culls and reiterates various musical, spiritual, political, and social assessments that “A Love Supreme” has generated, and he decides that somehow all of the viewpoints have stifled “critical listening,” which sounds contradictory; it seems that the mountain of scholarship available to Whyton for commentary is the byproduct of much critical listening.
Just how vexing a slog it can be getting through the book is illustrated in Whyton’s conclusion: “By moving beyond ‘A Love Supreme’ we can understand how recordings have the potential to be viewed both as reified objects with dominant or fixed meanings and as fluid cultural signifiers.”
This is both a “no kidding” observation and cop-out on Whyton’s part to assess or challenge the significance of the album today. He is even neutral on the radical adoptions of “A Love Supreme” as sacred text and political statement, occurrences that now seem more quaint than relevant, yet merit the comment, “Rather than seeking to challenge the deification of Coltrane, I suggest that perhaps it is more useful to examine why musicians and audiences feel the need to treat the artist as divine and perpetuate mythologies in this way.”
So why not follow that thread?
Instead, we get an essay on jazz “binaries,” another on canonical works, one on the reception of Coltrane’s work made after “A Love Supreme,” and a finale focused on the album’s influence on other forms of art.
In his first chapter, “Elation-Elegance-Exaltation,” Whyton is convinced that jazz studies are populated with “either/or” dichotomies: Are records or concerts most valuable; is composition or improvisation most relevant; and so on. And while he ably finds opposing points of view, there is never a compelling case to believe that such a black-and-white narrative is the norm, and a listener can easily appreciate the album on some sort of middle ground. Likewise, Whyton never posits why “A Love Supreme” alone undermines these perceived binaries.
In chapter 2, “From Reification to Deification,” Whyton maintains that canonizing “A Love Supreme” is a problem. But the tendency to make “best-of” lists is not just a jazz phenomenon or even just a music phenomenon. Whyton is correct in asserting that any boilerplate understanding of “A Love Supreme” will never replace an engaged listening to the album, but he is not convincing in arguing that canonization precludes such a listen.
Coltrane’s pivot toward the avant-garde after “A Love Supreme” was a bold move, and Whyton is at his most cogent discussing the upheavals caused by “Ascension,” “Interstellar Space” and “The Olatunji Concert.” Writing about the saxophonist’s wailing arrangement of “My Favorite Things” — his pre-“Supreme” melodic signature — for the “Olatunji Concert,” Whyton asserts that Coltrane uses a bit of his past to help listeners relate to his present.
In his last chapter, “A Love Supreme Remixed,” Whyton observes the impact of Coltrane’s masterwork on other art forms. He airs interesting discussions on Coltrane poetry and how the mere appropriation of or allusion to the album’s title can influence the reception of a book or film.
But Whyton makes dubious claims when he writes about “ideological control” of the work. For instance, Whyton considers Wynton Marsalis’s version of the suite recorded in 2004 as an attempt to cancel out Coltrane’s avant-gardism and assert “Coltrane as the hero of the neo-traditionalist mainstream.”
Whyton’s survey ultimately brings nothing new to consider about “A Love Supreme” and his framework — faulty or not — could have just as easily fit any jazz album held up as a classic.Scott McLennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.