Christian McBride On 'A Love Supreme' And Its Descendants



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John Coltrane during the recording of A Love Supreme in December 1964. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History)
John Coltrane during the recording of A Love Supreme in December 1964. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History)

Christian McBride remembers very well the first time he heard A Love Supreme, the John Coltrane classic that turns 50 this month. The bassist, composer and host of NPR's Jazz Night in America was in high school in Philadelphia, and had grown friendly with the staff at record store he passed on his daily commute. One day he pulled the album from the bins and asked a clerk if he should buy it — to which the clerk replied, "I'm not quite sure you're ready for this yet."

"That made me want it more," McBride says. "I was familiar with sound of the quartet, the legendary quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums — but when I heard A Love Supreme, I got it. Not because the music was any more challenging than I had heard on records like Live at Birdland or Crescent. You could just tell that this was the quartet at its apex — that they were at a peak, and that coupled with Coltrane's spiritual discovery, music being put to that. It's a gospel album in many ways."

Speaking with NPR's Audie Cornish, McBride invoked the names of two contemporary pianists, Eric Reed and Marcus Roberts, and explained how their work demonstrates a similar connection to gospel and reverence for music history. Hear the full conversation at the audio link.

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Do you remember the first time you heard John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme?" Christian McBride does.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: I was in high school. There was a record store in Philadelphia called the Sound of Market Street.

CORNISH: McBride is the jazz bassist and host of NPR's Jazz Night in America. We wanted to talk with him about Coltrane's landmark work and two great jazz interpreters of today. But first, back to that story of when Christian McBride first heard "A Love Supreme."

MCBRIDE: I remember going into the store one day - I must've been a freshman - and the buyer for the store, a guy named Craig Baylor - really, really great guy - and he would always give me recommendations on what albums to pick out. I remember holding "A Love Supreme" because I had heard about it. And I said should I buy this, Craig? And Craig kind of paused for a second. And he looked at me, he looked at the record, he looked at me again. He says why don't you wait? I'm not quite sure you're ready for this yet.


CORNISH: Christian, when you listen today, what are you listening for? You know, how has your listening changed since you were starting out?

MCBRIDE: If you read the liner notes, Coltrane specifically writes about his spiritual transition in the late 1950s when he got himself clean - when he got himself off of heroin. And he did a complete 180 in his lifestyle. And I think it's obvious that the way he played, you could tell that he's moved by something not many other musicians were moved by. This man is being moved by the spirit of God, you know? And I think that had been in his sound long before he made "A Love Supreme," but it all comes out in this recording.


CORNISH: I want to talk about another artist, one who actually is influenced by gospel, right? Eric Reed.

MCBRIDE: My homeboy. Philadelphia.

CORNISH: Philadelphia, right. And he's a pianist, and we heard him perform an old Coleman Hawkins tune. And Hawkins actually was a tenor saxophone player, really brought the instrument to jazz.

MCBRIDE: That's right.

CORNISH: And just to remind people, here is a 1949 performance at Carnegie Hall, Coleman Hawkins playing "Rifftide."


MCBRIDE: Coleman Hawkins was - he was the first tenor saxophone player. I mean, when you think of jazz, you know, he's the Genesis. He's the first book of jazz language for the tenor saxophone. So no, there would be no jazz tenor saxophone without Coleman Hawkins.

CORNISH: And yet here we have Eric Reed, piano player. And here's a performance he did of "Rifftide."


MCBRIDE: Go ahead, homie. Swing it.


CORNISH: So Christian, obviously, this is a huge part of jazz, right, reaching back and covering artists, interpreting artists. What are we hearing in what Eric is bringing to this?

MCBRIDE: You're hearing a very, very special artist with a special feel and a deep, deep appreciation and respect for the history of the music. There is a school of thought that says if you consciously try to not listen or try to, you know, create something new, so to speak, you do that by not getting too caught up in the historic aspect of the music. But that, to me, is quite naive thinking.

CORNISH: How come?

MCBRIDE: Because what happens is you wind up doing something that has already been done anyway, but you just don't know it. So what I love about Eric - and I think of myself in the same way 'cause Eric and I, we come from the same school. We love going back to listen to old records and discover what musicians were thinking of in the '30s and the '40s and the '50s. Those musicians were creating things out of their environment. We don't have that same kind of environment now, so even if we were going to do - you know, like Eric is doing "Rifftide" right now. It's not going to sound like Coleman Hawkins. It's not going to feel like Coleman Hawkins, but it's going to be swinging hard. It's going to have that groove. And it's going to be a respectful tip of the cap to what Coleman Hawkins was dealing with.


CORNISH: Now, another performer who is well known for his connection and reverence to jazz history is Marcus Roberts. He actually...


CORNISH: ...Teaches at the Florida State University School of Music.

MCBRIDE: That's right.

CORNISH: Here he is in the song "Being Attacked By The Blues."

MCBRIDE: (Laughter).


CORNISH: Christian, we heard Eric Reed earlier. What are you hearing in this piece by Marcus Roberts?

MCBRIDE: Both Eric and Marcus come from gospel. They know how to bring the sanctified feel - that buoyancy. They know that feeling that - you know, that Baptist feeling, you know, that kind of group that makes your head pop - you just get that groove happening.

CORNISH: I think I'm doing it right now, yeah. (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: Yeah, see? You know not everybody can make you do that, you know, and they love the blues. They understand that tree of the African-American heritage - that it's all in one thing - gospel, blues, jazz. And I love listening to Marcus. I love feeling Marcus, you know what I mean, because it's always got that thing.


CORNISH: Well, Christian, I feel like since we started with "A Love Supreme" and the song "Acknowledgement," I want to give you a chance to choose the song we go out on - maybe a moment from Coltrane's work that you think people don't pay as close attention to?

MCBRIDE: If we're going to play something from "A Love Supreme," I would have to say "Resolution," and especially because it starts out with a bass solo.


CORNISH: Always with the bass bias.

MCBRIDE: By the great Jimmy Garrison.


MCBRIDE: Another Philadelphia product - Philadelphia's just - we always representing. You've got Eric Reed, you've got me, you've got Jimmy Garrison - Philly.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Well, Christian McBride, Philly booster, bassist and host of the program Jazz Night in America, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCBRIDE: It's always a pleasure to speak with you.

CORNISH: And to hear more about pianist Eric Reed and Marcus Roberts please go to our website, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.