Branford Marsalis Quartet: Performs Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live In Amsterdam
Sony Music

It's one thing to cover a single A Love Supreme track; it's a brave soul indeed who tackles the towering work in its entirety. There are many instances of the former, among them the version of “Resolution” included on Marc Johnson's 1986 Bass Desires album and the treatment of Coltrane's title track that opens Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin's 1973 Love Devotion Surrender. Yet while few have covered Coltrane's opus as a whole, the Branford Marsalis Quartet has issued two documented versions of it, the 2002 CD Footsteps of Our Fathers and 2004 DVD set Performs Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live in Amsterdam (two clarifications are in order: first, the 2015 re-release coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the original A Love Supreme release, which occurred in February of 1965; secondly, only the music component of the package, which includes a DVD featuring the performance plus interviews with Miguel Zenón, David Sanchez, Michael Brecker, and Alice Coltrane and an audio-only CD, was made available for this review).

Adding to the performance's appeal is the fact that it went down at Amsterdam's Bimhuis, one of the premiere jazz clubs in the world, during a European tour in early 2003. The audience appreciatively eggs the musicians on during the performance, and the crowd's audibly enthusiastic whoops and hollers add to the music's visceral impact. But what makes the recording so satisfying is that the musicians—Marsalis (tenor sax), Joey Calderazzo (piano), Eric Revis (bass), and Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums)—aren't cowed by the prospect of covering Coltrane's lauded work. Rather than approaching it with too much reverence and executing an overly respectful homage, the quartet delivers a scintillating performance that pays homage to its creator in the best way possible. It was a smart move on the group's part to absorb the material but not in such a way as to replicate it; instead, the musicians, having internalized Coltrane's original, channel its spirit and uses it as an impetus for their own dynamic rendition. All of the work's inimitable saxophone themes, bass motifs, and drum flourishes are present in the cover version but invested with fresh, uproarious life.

Wisely, none of the musicians imitates the playing of their counterparts on the original recording. Though Watts might draw inspiration from Elvin Jones's volcanic attack, he carves his own path through the material. Much might be said for Calderazzo in the way his playing honours McCoy Tyner's spirit, and clearly inspired by the challenge at hand, Marsalis plays with ferocity. Of course the quartet adheres to the original work's basic structure but also isn't afraid to diverge from it when opportunity knocks. “Resolution,” for instance, naturally opens with repeated voicings of its familiar theme, but once that's over Marsalis and company transorm it into a bluesy, irrepressibly swinging colossus. With Watts dropping bombs and stoking the pianist and saxist to ever greater heights, there are places in “Resolution” where it feels as if the group's crossed the line from acoustic jazz into greasy, gutbucket R&B. As epic is “Pursuance,” especially when the quartet executes the material at a high-velocity clip and when Marsalis, entering halfway through the works' eleven-minute third part, unleashes a solo of unbelievable power. All told, it's a stunning, forty-eight-minute performance that must have been incredible to witness in the flesh, and one imagines Coltrane himself would be pleased.

June 2015