Stuart Nicholson

Coltrane in a new light

Coltrane in a new light

Today, the name Coltrane prompts unreasonable expectation of raising the sunken treasures of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s legacy. Although he died in 1967, he left in his wake so many imitators it seems as if he has never gone away. Every contemporary saxophonist in jazz reflects Coltrane’s influence to a greater or lesser extent, be it melodic, harmonic or rhythmic. However, the intensity of his solos — part self-inquisition, part spiritual quest — has never been equalled.

Coltrane was a charismatic figure who, because he claimed to have been spoken to by God during the recording of his album A Love Supreme in 1964, inspired the formation of St John’s African Orthodox Church in San Francisco. He is considered a saint by those who worship there (somewhat ironic, given his universalist leanings), and the album still provides inspiration for their weekly liturgy. In 1973, the hypnotic ‘Love Supreme’ motif from the composition ‘Acknowledgement’, the first of the album’s four-part suite, was taken by the rock guitarist Carlos Santana on his hit album Love, Devotion and Surrender, prompting curiosity about Coltrane’s music among the broader constituency of rock fans. The album has even inspired a book, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, by Ashley Kahn, published in 2002.

This year saw the album’s 40th anniversary, and to mark the occasion BBC Radio Four recently weighed in with a documentary that claimed it was the greatest jazz recording ever made. It is not, but it is by far Coltrane’s most popular recording, with CD sales alone topping $1 million by 2001. Today, Coltrane’s name is bankable in a way that it was not during his lifetime. Feed it into Amazon’s search-engine, for example, and you get well over 3,000 items including, intriguingly, an item in ‘Kitchen & Home’, which turns out to be a framed Coltrane print.

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