Ashley Kahn's work—the proposals, the research, the European junkets to dig through source tapes and performance reviews three decades old; the nailing down of releases and reissues; the phone, e-mail, and on-site interviews; and (most of all) the writing—had been hectic, even draining at times. But it hadn't been terribly prolonged, considered on the cosmic scale, and in early November, slightly less than two years after he'd written the initial book proposal for A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album in a Toronto hotel lobby, Ashley Kahn stepped onto the stage at New York City's Joe's Pub to deliver some brief remarks at the book's release party.
What an evening that was: a remarkable, mind-blowing event, a celebration both of Kahn's book and the attendant reissue of Coltrane's 1965 album on Verve/Impulse. Alice Coltrane, John's widow, played piano for the crowd, as she'd done with her husband so many years ago. Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John and Alice's son, also performed. Kahn's fellow music journalists filled the place; friends, associates, and people who'd given of their time for the project crowded the room.
"And the very last thing I said was, 'I want to give a shout out to all of my brothers and sisters in the front lines of music journalism,'" Kahn recalls. "Because what really supported me, as I wrote the book, was the tremendous sense of community that I found among people working to represent and commemorate great music in words. The commitment to making words work, to getting music out into the world, was so uplifting. The best conversations I have when I'm working on a project are always with other writers. If I got tired while I was putting the book together, I could pick up some writing by Francis Davis or Nat Hentoff or I could pick up the Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology and read some great writing that would motivate and uplift me."
Kahn's words of gratitude that evening were boisterously received. ("This huge whoop went up from the bar," he reports, laughing easily.) But in truth, the crowd might have been thanking Ashley Kahn right back. In the deceptively brief space of 260 pages, A Love Supreme manages to be an extraordinary celebration all its own.
IN A SEASON of remarkable music writing, A Love Supreme arrives as one of the most satisfying books of 2002. On an immediate level, of course, it commemorates the creation of one of the most significant albums in the history of recorded music, genre irrelevant. But in giving us new ways to think about Coltrane's composition—a piece of music that, as much as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, resists verbal summation—A Love Supreme is also that rarest of books about music which strikes a perfect balance among its several necessary elements.
"[As a reader] I'm the kid in the candy store," says Kahn. "I want it all. I want the historical stuff, and I want the anecdotal stuff, and I want the music, and I want huge overarching philosophical statements—not too much, but all in the balance—and I want pictures and everything else that comes with it. And I wanted to include all of that, without falling into dry academic prose on one side, or oh-so-moist hero worship on the other."
That balance is difficult enough to sustain while writing about any so-called "classic" album. (Kahn's previous project, 2000's Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, was a case in point, singled out for praise in Booklist and Billboard for exactly that careful quality.) How much more difficult, then, when writing about A Love Supreme—a work which John Coltrane publicly positioned as his own, deeply personal offering to God.
As it turned out, however, Kahn couldn't have asked for more support than he received.
"I don't want to say it was easy," he offers after a considered moment, "but there was so much less resistance than one might have thought. Within a week of writing the proposal, I had a book deal. Within two weeks, I had met with Verve, which owns Impulse, and they were totally on board. My next meeting was with Ravi Coltrane. By midsummer 2001, I was in Los Angeles, interviewing Alice Coltrane, who was telling me what it was like to live in the house with John and their three-year-old daughter, while he disappeared upstairs for five days, composing the music.
"That was the kind of support that was necessary for this project," Kahn says emphatically. "If I didn't have Ravi and Alice and Elvin [Jones, Coltrane's drummer] and McCoy [Tyner, pianist] and [original recording engineer] Rudy van Gelderen behind this, I couldn't have conceived of doing the book. It had to have their happy participation and support."
In no way is this excessive or empty praise; rather, the very places in which Kahn's book transcends most writing on Coltrane are directly attributable to his connection with the family and the surviving members of the quartet.
KAHN'S BOOK BEGINS in 1964, when Coltrane—just home from a rigorous touring schedule with Jones, Tyner, and bassist Jimmy Garrison—"receives," as John describes it to Alice, "all of the music for what I want to record, in a suite. This is the first time I have everything, everything ready."
Drawing from personal interviews, session paperwork, and even pay stubs—his legwork on the album's two studio dates alone is staggering—Kahn achieves what even the best critical work on Coltrane has never been able to pull off, re-creating the assembly of the album almost note for note. His thoughtful breakdowns of individual solo lines and statements are especially welcome, and generously supplemented by personal interviews with Jones and Tyner.
Additionally, as a direct result of Kahn's dogged research, the two-disc reissue of Coltrane's album provides us with not one but two Grails—a complete live performance of the full suite in 1965 in Juan-les-Pins, France, and (most amazingly) two sextet takes of "Acknowledgement," the suite's first movement, featuring Archie Shepp on tenor sax and Art Davis on drums. (Happily, both noncanonical performances receive extensive attention and analysis in Kahn's book.) The book's official Web site, www.alovesupremethebook.com, furthers the project, delivering primary performance footage as well as information on upcoming related events.
"I don't want to get too deeply into why there was such an outpouring of support for the project," Kahn says now, "but it seems as though it was spiritually appropriate; it needed to happen now." (In his introduction to the book, Elvin Jones agrees, kicking off the essay with a single word: "Finally!") That spirituality, however, was the element of the project that might easily have proved a stumbling block.
"It was, obviously, an aspect of the album that had to be addressed," Kahn agrees. "And I wanted to state up front that there was no way to encapsulate it; every listener engages that element of the album on his or her own private terms."
Ultimately, Kahn chose to present this ineffable facet of John Coltrane's art through extensive personal testimony from dozens of family members, musicians, and contemporaries—a shrewd decision that allows him to explore that inexpressible quality at length, without recourse to abstract narrative. In a subtle way, this tactic also attests to the album's transcendence over time, past generations, and through genres.
In words that Coltrane himself might have approved, Kahn humbly delivers a summative comment on the work:
"In the end, you simply shoot as high as you can. And you're accepting of whatever finally comes through."
A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album is available from Viking Press. The Deluxe Edition CD of A Love Supreme from Verve/Impulse is also out now.