Friday, November 20, 2009

'A Love Supreme' With Strings

John Coltrane's A Love Supreme is a jazz classic, powerful and seemingly untouchable since its conception... sort of. Just a few months ago, the Turtle Island Jazz Quartet is said to have done this iconic piece justice, and with strings, to boot. The group released A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane in April of 2007, and they recently performed a live version, at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City receiving a Grammy for their audacity in reworking the seminal album (and probably because it sounded okay too). An ambitious take on the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and others, the centerpiece of the album is, without surprise, a string quartet reading of John Coltrane's 32-minute, A Love Supreme.

What I wanted to know was how a group can "recreate" and do justice to a jazz piece by Coltraine. I mean, the fact that he's Coltrane set aside, there's quite a bit of improv to account for... But the Turtle Island Quartet's violinist and arranger David Balakrishnan explains their approach to A Love Supreme through each of the movements: "Acknowledgment," "Resolution," "Pursuance" and "Psalm." The first movement is simply a transcription of the entire Coltrane saxophone solo, only orchestrated for strings (already I'm impressed). The second and third movements incorporate their own improvisation over the rhythm section, and the last movement, Psalm, is supposed to be a prayer to God. It's said that when Coltrane recorded it at the end of 1964, he brought a Psalm to the studio and set it on a music stand, then played the prayer note for note. And, of course, uniting the composition, Balakrishnan uses the four-note figure "A Love Su-preme" that underscores the original.

I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around how one can "recreate" a jazz piece with so much improvisation, when the composition belongs to someone else... and I find myself slipping back into those musings on plagiarism and the blurry lines separating an original work from a remix, from a new original work altogether...
I've become convinced that arbitrary labels really have no place in music.

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