Fifty years after its release, the spiritual journey that is John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” remains one of the most essential, and perhaps the most beautiful, recordings in the jazz canon. Never before — or since — had spirituality and jazz been as indelibly entwined in such a poignant and powerful manner as ’Trane’s four-song, 33-minute recommitment to the divine.
“A Love Supreme” has been treated to numerous cover renditions, most notably by Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. It remains a fundamental influence on jazz, the upcoming Charles Lloyd record “Wild Man Blues” being the latest example. Yet its spiritual heft and the consensus that it was masterpiece of the legendary Coltrane make it a daunting opus for anyone to tackle.
That was the first reaction by Phillip Campbell, of the “sacred steel” group the Campbell Brothers. The steel-guitar-playing gospel band from Rochester, N.Y., will perform “A Love Supreme” at Walker Art Center on Thursday, in the album’s 50th anniversary month.
“At first, it struck us as jazz, and it was this giant, signature piece of music,” he conceded. “So there was an intimidation factor.”
But the Campbells had delved into jazz as far back as 2001, when the group lent its talents to an all-day tribute to Miles Davis in New York City. An organizer of that program, Bill Bragin, was impressed enough to suggest that the Campbells would be a perfect fit for “A Love Supreme.”
Many years later, as director of performing arts for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, Bragin was able to realize that vision, finding enough money in co-production with Duke University to commission the Campbells to come up with a 50th-anniversary treatment of the work. Their rendition of “A Love Supreme” received its world premiere at Lincoln Center last August, and a second performance occurred at Duke a month later.
‘A spiritual journey’
Once ensconced in the project, Campbell and his bandmates sought out source material to gain a greater affinity for the music. They came across the book “A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album” by Ashley Kahn. “It turns out there were church musicians in Coltrane’s family,” Campbell said. “And we looked at the four movements [in ‘A Love Supreme’] as part of a conversion process similar to what we had gone through in our own spiritual lives.”
Kahn, a Coltrane scholar who won a Grammy this month for his liner notes on the recent Coltrane release “Offering: Live at Temple University,” was excited about the project.
Noting that sacred steel comes out of the Pentecostal church music of the 1930s, Kahn said the Campbell Brothers “have gone on a spiritual journey of their own, and finding that their music has a much more universal appeal and impact that weaves itself into the ‘Love Supreme’ message. Even as a teenager, Coltrane was asking himself, ‘What about people in India and China; don’t they have access to universal love?’ That is the loose thread that is pulled” by Coltrane and the Campbells.
Campbell said his group “wanted to do the work justice, but we didn’t want to just cover it — we had to capture the essence of it from our point of view. It wasn’t until we incorporated the spiritual aspect of it that we really arrived at our own interpretation.”
Like Coltrane’s saxophone, the Campbell Brothers’ guitars engage in rapturous flights that galvanize the devout and nonbelievers alike. Chuck Campbell in particular has been referred to as “the Jimi Hendrix and Django Reinhardt of the steel guitar,” for his verve, passion and unique tuning. Add in Darick Campbell on lap pedal steel and Phillip on electric rhythm guitar with a rhythm section that includes Phillip’s son, Carlton, on drums, and you have a family capable of making a raucously joyful noise.
“For such a seminal jazz piece, there is a relative simplicity to this music,” Phillip Campbell said. “But what you can do with these simple chord changes shows what inspiration can bring. Coltrane is pouring out his soul, drawing from places beyond himself. That’s what makes this such an open piece of art 50 years later.”