Bobby Zankel: Revisiting Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”
AAJ: Wikipedia has a brief article on the year 1965 in jazz, and it's startling to be reminded of what was going on: breakthroughs by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver, Ornette Coleman, and others just in that one year. It was an incredible period in the evolution of jazz. I wonder whether, in writing your composition based on A Love Supreme, you went back to that time in your mind for inspiration?
BZ: Even before we get started on my composition, I want to say that I didn't really choose to do this piece. I was approached about doing it by Mark Christman of the Ars Nova Workshop. He said, to me "Let's do something for Coltrane's birthday," which I usually do every year anyway. His birthday is September 23, and we're doing the performance of my piece on September 22  on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
Despite my reservations, I accepted Mark's offer. A few years ago I wrote a suite called A Force for Good, using some of Coltrane's ideas to produce a four-part suite, which also featured Odean and vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd. This time, Mark suggested I do one of Coltrane's albums. Frankly, I never liked the idea of using an iconic album for my own purposes. I've never been into that. However, it's so rare to get a paid gig for my big band, the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, and then to honor Coltrane's birthday and have enough money to bring in saxophonists Odean Pope and Dave Liebman and vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd. So I took up the offer. At first, Mark let me choose the album, and I thought of Coltrane's last one, Interstellar Space (Impulse!, 1974), which would really have been unique with the big band. Then Mark suggested A Love Supreme, and I sort of winced; it's such a perfect creation. But I agreed to do a work based on it, but just looking at it as a starting point, something to build around, to open up and apply some of my own personal musical ideas.
AAJ: As you may know, there are already several adaptations of A Love Supreme that have already been recorded. Are you familiar with any of them?
BZ: Not very muchbut, come to think of it, I went on the web and heard Branford Marsalis soloing on one of the parts. So I have heard Branford do it. He's a wonderful saxophonist. And Jeff "Tain" Watts is really a great drummer.
AAJ: Speaking of drummers, on the original Love Supreme album, Elvin Jones is just out of this world, exceptional even for him. Also, I wanted to ask you if you listened to Coltrane's live concert version on the Deluxe Edition (Impulse!, 2002)?
BZ: Yes, I've had that for years. It's a lot livelier and looser than the studio recording. And it was performed a year after the studio work. Coltrane was evolving so rapidly that he was in a totally other place. It's the same structure, but his playing was more open.
AAJ: Would you call it "free jazz"?
BZ: I don't think you would call it free jazz. Coltrane's language was always very specific. But he expanded things.
AAJ: So now let's focus back on your own version of A Love Supreme. You were asked by Mark Christman to do this for Ars Nova?
BZ: This is not an Ars Nova project. Mark was also involved with the Rotunda, a community arts space near the open air location we're using.
AAJ: I like to explore how musicians think and develop musical concepts. So let's look at your composition. First of all, did you stick to the four-movement structure that Coltrane used?
BZ: Yes. I didn't want to vary that because in a sense they are four distinct pieces of music, and I wanted to use each of them. I had a lead sheet for the first section and had done an arrangement of it a long time ago, but it was very rudimentary. So I began listening to the Coltrane version a lot, and then sitting at the piano, and seeing what I could do. The first section, "Acknowledgement" has two main aspects: The out-of-time introduction, and then the famous bass line and chant. During the same time period, I happened to be working on a project for woodwind quartet plus jazz quartet. So I tried to combine efforts. I worked on a version for the woodwind quartet, which I had to complete sooner for a concert. So I wrote for the quartet, and then reorchestrated it for the big band.
AAJ: So which parts of the Coltrane album did you quote directly, and where did you go your own way?
BZ: Let me go through the process with you. I took the out-of-time intro, where Coltrane plays some arpeggios and long melodic notes. I took those more or less verbatim, and then expanded them. I changed a few notes and changed some keys, moving it around. And I created a certain feeling, out-of-time, trying to get the same feeling Coltrane got, and within that I created some extended chords for the big band, which Odean Pope and Dave Liebman could improvise over, introducing their voices into the equation.
Then there's the second part, where Coltrane chants the words "A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme..." I used those intervallic relationships of the bass line which everyone knows. But I added some rhythmic ideas that I've been working on for a long time. I took the 4/4 rhythm and turned it into a fourteen-beat phrase, a two-three-four-five additive rhythm, creating a kind of rhythmic mode. So after the listener is locked into the simple familiar phrase, I start making it spin on a rhythmic axis, which I think is very exciting. Then I created some cross-rhythms based on those subdivisions, so the listener's head is starting to spin. Then I come back and play the melody, expanded so it fits the rhythmic idea. So you're hearing the original melody, a point of familiarity and comfort, but yet it is asymmetrical. Plusover this asymmetrical section, I construct something like maybe what Coltrane would've played as a solo, but it's not a solo, but some virtuosic written notes which everyone plays in unison, creating a sort of "super sax" vibe.
And then the solos begin. So that's how I went about that section. And I had the great fortune of using my woodwind quartet to rehearse it! They read so well, and they nailed it, and we got to perform it at the Philadelphia Art Museum Friday Night Jazz series. So I felt very good about that section because it had been tested.
AAJ: When you were writing your version of A Love Supreme, were you actively thinking of Odean Pope and David Liebman doing the solo work?
BZ: I tried to create solo spaces where they could do their thing, so their playing was on my mind.
AAJ: I'm going to ask you a question from a somewhat skeptical viewpoint, but my purpose is to get you to rebut it. To me, Dave Liebman, Odean Pope, and yourself are such individualistic artists, and so different from each other. It's a totally different experience listening to each of you. To me, it seems crazy to try to bring those two guys into your music; how can you possibly successfully bring those diverse styles together?
BZ: I disagree. I think we are very compatible. Dave played with the Warriors once for a festival. Odean and I have played on each other's recordings. I would recommend the Odean Pope Quartet's Fresh Breeze (CIMP, 2010), which includes Odean, myself, Craig McIver on drums and Lee Smith on bass. I think we sound great together. Also, contrasts are sometimes good. Think of Gene Ammons playing with Sonny Stitt, or Johnny Griffin with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. And what about John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders? In fact, Coltrane recorded a couple of outtakes from A Love Supreme with Archie Shepp!
AAJ: You just sold your point; okay, you win [laughter]. That's a perfect counterargument.