Though jazz music doesn't enjoy the mainstream popularity it did in the mid-20th century, there are certain albums and songs whose influence has permeated the nation's musical ground water. John Coltrane's masterpiece "A Love Supreme," release 50 years ago February, is one of these classics.
While it's not uncommon for jazz to touch on religious themes, or inspire spiritual impulses, Coltrane's 1945 album was essentially a poetic prayer put to music. In the liner notes, the poem on which the four-part composition is based is dedicated to the praise of God and the enumeration of the universality of that supreme love.
"I'd like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words," Coltrane is often quoted as saying. "I want to speak to their souls."
But the praise-filled lines are not among the song's lyrics—at least, not in a literal sense. The only spoken words in the piece are a brief chant of, "A love supreme. A love supreme." But neither is the composition a pure abstraction on religious themes. In the final passage of the piece, Coltrane puts the rhythm of the poem's words to melody, enunciating them through the plaintive sounds of the tenor saxophone.
When former Bendite Torrey Newhart first heard "A Love Supreme," as a high school musician, he says he was struck by the overarching theme.
"It definitely had an impact," Newhart, now 24 and with a master's in jazz, recalls. "The large point that he was trying to make with it was being grateful for being alive and something greater than yourself, just being human. You can really feel that. I really latched onto that when I first heard it."
Though he's not particularly religious, Newhart says the album's universalistic perspective resonates with him. That's part of why he's touring with a quartet of young musicians to offer their unique interpretation of Coltrane's iconic tune.
"For me personally, one of my goals playing music in general is to take somebody out of themselves for a moment," Newhart explains. "I think most people have had that when experiencing art, that moment when you get lost and have no idea how much time is going by—that kind of exchange is very important to me."
Pianist Newheart will be performing with another Bendite—drummer Adam Carlson. Newhart attended Mountain View High School, while Carlson went to Bend High, but the two began playing music together after they met in a class at Cascades School of Music. Bellevue's Sean Peterson on bass and Ashland's Adam Harris on saxophone will join the hometown boys for a special performance of "A Love Supreme" in Bend on Saturday, April 4.
Newhart says that it's an intimidating piece to play, and has demanding significantly more rehearsal time than other projects he's worked on. Part of that demand is due to the piece's iconic status, but part is because it relies so heavily on improvisation. There's no sheet music, he explains. Rather, the song is built on a couple simple blues melodies—Newhart uses a single sheet of paper with bullet points as his guideposts.
"John Coltrane is an iconic figure and 'A Love Supreme' is his big thing," Newhart says. "To do it any kind of justice you have to go deep into those philosophical questions, [including] are you able to stay in the moment for 45 minutes? It takes so much focus."
A Love Supreme: 50th Anniversary Tribute
Featuring Adam Carlson, Adam Harris, Torrey Newhart, and Sean Peterson.
6 pm. Saturday, April 4. Mountain View High School Auditorium.
$10 general, $6 students.