788: Beyond a Love Supreme by Tony Whyton

by Gerard


788.7165092: Whyton, Tony. Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 112 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-973323-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts
  • 780: Music
  • 788: Wind instruments
  • 788.7: Saxophones
  • 788.7165: Jazz saxophonists
  • +092: Biography

Recorded on December 9, 1964, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a central work in the history of jazz music. Considered by many to be his magnum opus, this album (and probably Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue) represented the height of composition done at the time. Tony Whyton’s Beyond a Love Supreme interprets the album, the man, the context, and the philosophy of jazz in 1960s.

Whyton’s analysis of both the man and the music is very technical and at times overly complicates Coltrane’s composition. Coltrane’s infusion of spirituality with his music is fascinating all on its own. But, still, Whyton has some very good arguments to make about jazz albums and how listeners interact with the music. The most interesting one on the nature of recorded jazz and its inherent flaw. Jazz was thought to be a music form that can only be truly experienced in the moment. Many people who talk about hearing jazz bands often say “you had to be there.” When you record it, you disengage the music from the musicians and the moment. It’s immediately de-valued. But, then without recording it, how do we have a record of what was done? How do we compare one composition to another?

Whyton’s other discussions deal with the complexities of A Love Supreme, the deification of Coltrane, and the power of dichotomies in jazz. (Fun fact: There is actually a church in San Francisco that honors Saint John Coltrane.) Now, in order to really understand what Whyton is talking about here, I gave the album a listen. The best thing I can say about is that it’s certainly very inventive. Now, I’m by no stretch of the imagination an aficionado of jazz music. I mean, there’s stuff I’ve heard and liked, and stuff that just sounds like noise. This one falls somewhere in the middle. The central melodies are playful and yet deep, but the raspy drum work chipped away at my enjoyment. (Full disclosure: I’m an unabashed fan of metal music, so sitting through an entire jazz album was already a little hard for me). I’m probably being excommunicated right now by the Church of St. Coltrane, but I can live with that. The book, however, will neither increase nor decrease your relationship with the album, and Whyton’s analysis certainly has merit. Even at a thin 112 pages, it’s not light reading—so be prepared for that.