Yearning and Trane

Yesterday I watched Chasing Trane, a documentary on jazz luminary John Coltrane. (I mentioned Coltrane my introduction to Coltrane in my tribute to Dr. Ray Smith.)

The documentary is a perfectly acceptable review of a fascinating life. And what really struck me was Coltrane’s spirituality. He was a religious seeker and, like Bach, he sought to elevate his listeners through his music, to bring us closer to the transcendent and the Divine.

And his approach toward religious transcendence is nowhere as explicit as in his suite “A Love Supreme.” (Jason K. wrote about “A Love Supreme” in a Mormon Lectionary Project post seven years ago.)

“A Love Supreme” is a different approach to religion than we as Mormons usually take, in our music or in our rhetoric. Our hymns are generally composed in four-part harmony with classic voice-leading. The lyrics comfort. The harmonies and melodies are familiar and comfortable. Any dissonance ultimately resolves.

“A Love Supreme,” by contrast, is yearning, seeking. It’s not messy, but it’s definitely not clean. Coltrane’s saxophone sooths and then it screams. He chants, he runs scales and patterns, he comes back to a melody, he leaves it again. He’s trying to find God and reveal God and live God. He and his band feed us questions without pretending to give answers, other than the sheer existence of a love supreme.

Anecdotally, my Mormon experience hasn’t been comfortable with the spaces Coltrane opens up. We want resolution, not only in our music, but in our questions. We want answers, which means we don’t ask the questions we can’t answer. We don’t explore, we don’t push further into the frontier of religiosity, we don’t truly challenge.

But we could! We originated with a young man asking questions he couldn’t answer! And we, too, can afford to push ourselves, push our understanding of the Divine, and sometimes live in the space between, where truth swirls, soothing and screaming. We can, in other words, sometimes live in Cotrane’s Love Supreme.

Muncharelli, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Comments

  1. Have you read “God’s Mind in that Music?” It’s a book by Rev. Jamie Howison, an Anglican Priest colleague of mine, here in Winnipeg. He explores the spiritual roots of Coltrane’s music.

  2. Donald, I haven’t read it yet. But now it’s on my list; thanks!

  3. Old Woman says:

    I was an accomplished classical pianist in my younger days. I never could develop an ear for jazz. To me it was just unending scattered music. I needed the resolutions, repeated refrains, the movements, the grand finales of classical music to give sense to the music. Likewise I have needed that from church, the rote answers of the Plan of Salvation, until I didn’t anymore. The answers no longer satisfied. I wanted so much more which released a new phase in my spiritual development, which I shall now call my religious jazz phase.I am learning to live with the unanswered questions and to face eternity without knowing the resolution. Perhaps now I can appreciate jazz. I love this post Sam. Thanks!

  4. Antonio Parr says:

    “A Love Supreme” is rivaled only by Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” as the greatest jazz album of all time.

  5. stephenchardy says:

    Old Woman: I hate addressing someone like that! In any case, thank you for your comment. I relate to it. However, I have never been an accomplished pianist. But my experience, and needs, are the same.

  6. Agreed, Old Woman. Thank you for your comment–I love that way of approaching religion!

  7. Bro. Jones says:

    This is an excellent post and you have directed me to a topic I need to learn much more about. Thank you!

    On a side note, I most definitely detected the “elevation emotion” at a death metal concert I attended recently. While I can objectively state that it was not what would be called “uplifting” in LDS parlance, it sure was enjoyable and exciting.

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