Kind of Blue vs. A Love Supreme

Some questions are impossible to answer.  At least that’s what you’ve been told your whole life by a coterie of lemmings and cowards.  Tighten your belts and hang on to your pants because you’re about to have them blown clean off by a Category 6 hurricane of intellect and reason.  You read that correctly. Category 6. Debate so insightful the folks at NOAA had to rewrite the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.

Our first debate will tackle a quinquagenarian argument: Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme.

Opening Argument for Kind of Blue will now be made by A. James Brawner

I shall argue for Kind of Blue, the Miles Davis record released on Columbia Records in August 1959. 

For starters: Kind of Blue (KOB from here on out) is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest albums of all time, regardless of genre. You could, with minimal effort, broaden the scope of that claim and call it one of the greatest artworks of all time. If music is as valid as painting (hint: it is), KOB might as well be The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa comparison holds true in various ways. For one, just like Mona Lisa, KOB is bound to be known even by people who don’t care about it. You don’t have to be an art buff to have at least a passing knowledge of The Mona Lisa. Same goes for KOB. Even if you’ve never heard it, you’ve likely heard of it. No other jazz record can make that claim. 

Related to that, KOB is an entirely accessible work—unlike A Love Supreme. One can look at Mona Lisa and have a moving experience even if one knows nothing about and cares nothing about art. KOB is similar: you needn’t like jazz to appreciate and even fall in love with this record. In fact, it is the one jazz record you find in the collections of people who only own one jazz record. Let me say that better: If you’re going to own one jazz record, this is the one to own. I challenge anyone to argue against that.

KOB is more than the definitive jazz record. It actually defines an era, an aesthetic, a movement. It is practically a zeitgeist unto itself. KOB is well-dressed men wearing sunglasses at night playing trumpet, sax, bass, piano, drums. They are not playing with a burning intensity; they are playing with a smoldering intensity. The thing they’re creating is so hot it’s cool. I know that comes off like a bad play on words, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean, this record, more than any other, exemplifies “cool.” 

Unlike A Love Supreme, KOB never feels like it’s trying too hard, which is perhaps as good a definition of “cool” as we’ll ever be able to agree upon. But the coolness actually belies the effort, the artistry, the mastery. KOB could only happen because these particular players, who knew each other’s playing so well, could walk into a studio, look at a few vague sketches that weren’t yet songs, and record a perfect album. They were absolute master artists; you’re not cool unless you really know exactly what you’re doing, know it so well that you can make it look, feel, sound effortless. 

I want to clarify something: I don’t dock A Love Supreme for trying or for not being cool. Cool isn’t for everyone. Coltrane was after something entirely different, something huge and spiritual. He was reaching for something in another dimension. The trouble, though, is that all of that reaching makes for a challenging record. A Love Supreme is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but it’s also an acquired taste. Whether the effort to acquire said taste is worth it is a conversation for another blog post.

But that brings me to another strength of KOB. Many times, an album you love at first turns out to be charming only in a shallow, limited way. KOB is the rare exception. KOB, in fact, deepens and takes on more dimensions with every listen. And I do mean every listen. I’ve listened to this album hundreds if not thousands of times over the last 25-ish years; I’ve never come away with a diminished opinion, and I frequently come away with an appreciation that’s greater than it was before. For instance, I’ve learned to appreciate how the styles of Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley complement each other. How the sequencing of the solos is its own work of art. How the subtle drumming of Jimmy Cobb is absolutely perfect and quite tasty in its own right and how any other drummer would have quite likely ruined the record by overplaying. 

Behold, too, the spaciousness of the record. Listen to it in good headphones and you’ll find yourself appreciating the physical space between the players, the cavernous nature of the CBS 30th Street Studio in NYC, an old church with 50 foot high ceilings. You can hear all of this, and it’s not just recording history ephemera: it’s part of the spirit of the record, a bigger part of its overall effect than you might guess. A Love Supreme, on the other hand, sounds like what it is: four guys playing furiously and loudly in a relatively cramped space. (I happen to think that’s one of the virtues of A Love Supreme, but, again: acquired taste.) 

KOB is an archetype. It’s almost a caricature of jazz, almost a cliche—except it was the thing that started the caricature, started the cliche.

I’ve got more to say, but I’ll leave it here for now. Consider this my opening argument. 

Now let’s hear the opening argument for A Love Supreme by Charlie Brawner

For starters, building an argument against Kind of Blue is like building an argument against sunshine or chocolate.  It’s difficult to imagine anything with a higher approval rating than that album.  I will argue for John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, recorded in December of 1964, released in January 1965.  I will refer to this album mostly as Supreme from this point forward as ALS is an unfortunate initialism.  Supreme boasts arguably the greatest personnel in jazz or even music history with Coltrane on tenor sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.

I love your comparison to painting, so I will attempt to do the same.  If KOB is Mona Lisa, then Supreme is something more like Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.  Maybe not quite as well known. Demands a bit more work.  Ultimately more rewarding. More colorful and exciting. More abstract, but not so abstract that you can’t understand the message.

Coltrane pushed the limits of tenor saxophone and music to his own detriment.  Even musicians with whom he collaborated admit that Coltrane’s late work is difficult to listen to.  Somewhere between his early work in the late-50’s and his complicated late years, he found the perfect balance.  I believe the peak of that balance was A Love Supreme.  Yes, it does challenge you more than KOB.  I prefer the challenge.

I’m not here to argue that KOB isn’t cool.  That’s not possible.  I just googled the word “cool” and even now, nearly 30 years after his death, the first page of image search turned up multiple pics of Miles Davis among pics of the Jonas Brothers (?!) and flaming wolf heads.  I’ll cede the cool ground in this argument. When I’m listening to an album I don’t care about the artist’s finely tailored suits. A Love Supreme is not about being cool.  It’s about spirituality. According to Chasing Trane, a documentary on the life of John Coltrane, when A Love Supreme was being conceived Trane “secluded himself above the garage” for two weeks, coming down occasionally for food.  He didn’t just create music. He went on a pilgrimage. He went above the garage and found God through music, then shared it with the world.

Supreme takes you through a range of emotions KOB cannot precisely because of its insistence on being cool.  KOB doesn’t have the audacity to take the sunglasses off and show you what Supreme does.  Trane doesn’t have time or need for cool on Supreme.  Nowhere on KOB do you get the intense emotion you do in the opening moments of “Resolution” with its unforgettable melody or throughout “Psalm” when time signature vanishes and it’s just four guys making beautiful music with no boundaries.

Another feature of A Love Supreme that I believe makes it the superior album is the way it flows.  Where KOB has five distinct tracks, Supreme comes in four “parts” but may as well be one continuous 33-minute song.  This is especially noticeable when streaming or listening on a CD when flipping the record isn’t necessary.  Supreme is an album that you listen to from start to finish and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts because it fits together flawlessly.  You don’t cherry pick tracks from Supreme to listen to on their own.  They feel incomplete. You take in the entire album at once.

A Love Supreme is an album that you might not fall in love with on the first listen.  It makes you work for it. Those are the albums that keep me coming back.  I typically find that the albums that are initially difficult for me to comprehend are the albums that satisfy me more in the long run.

I will end my opening argument with this: 22 years ago I took a music appreciation class at UW-Milwaukee and our biggest assignment was a 10-page paper on an important piece of music.  The instructor had a list of mostly classical work that we could choose from, but he also told us that we could select our own if we could make an argument for it. Even at 22 years old the first piece of music that I believed I could write 10 pages about was A Love Supreme by John Coltrane.  When I visited the instructor after class to present my argument I opened with, “I’d like to write about A Love Supreme.”  That’s all I had to say.  I didn’t have to make an argument.  He said, “Done. Great choice.” The album is so well respected just stating the title was argument enough.

By the way, I wish I still had that paper.  I’ll bet it was pure trash. A lot of, “At the 4:32 mark the drums get quieter.  Then Coltrane plays a solo for 97 seconds. Then the piano starts.” I cringe just thinking about it.  I got an A if I remember right, but he must’ve been grading on a curve. That class wasn’t exactly the Mensa society.  

Round 2 of this debate coming soon…

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