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Lions Roar : March 2018
in Coltrane’s challenging later albums, which can be described variously as going far beyond simply meditating to pleading, exhorting, and crying out to the heavens—or, as some have sug- gested, speaking to God in a language only He could understand. These works were intended by Coltrane as 100% spiritual testament, the communica- tion of an ongoing, endless spiritual quest into mystery, rather than any kind of peaceful and harmonious arrival at answers. It’s an approach quite similar to the ongoing, ever-deepening ques- tioning of Zen koan practice. This is something Coltrane himself well understood, as suggested by his reference to the Platform Sutra in this description of his evolution: “There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always, there is a need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discov- ered in its pure state; so that we can see more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give, to those who listen, the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.” The divine force breathes through us all, said Coltrane, and the last years of his life can be seen as an attempt, sometimes a struggle, to breathe God through his horn. “Once you become aware of this force for unity in life,” wrote Coltrane in the liner notes for 1966’s Meditations, his follow-up to A Love Supreme, “you can’t forget it. It becomes part of everything you do... my goal in meditating on this through music however remains to uplift people as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more their capacities for living meaningful lives.” “I believe in all religions,” Coltrane said. “The truth itself doesn’t have any name on it to me, and each person has to find it for themselves.” ♦ credit for what, in essence, had passed through them. But Coltrane was not one of these. You could say the truest and deep- est improvisation is an act of faith, because the player never knows what is going to happen. This is some- thing Coltrane knew, especially in the later years of his work, and expressed consciously through both words and music. Well-known for his deep inter- est in meditation and the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism—he made a special effort to visit Zen temples during his 1966 tour of Japan, and quoted from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor of Zen in one of his late interviews—his spiritual tastes remained eclectic, ranging from Krishnamurti through to the Koran, the Bible, and even Edgar Cayce, and he retained a largely theistic view of the absolute. A Love Supreme is clearly presented as an offering to God as supreme being. The spiritual substance of that album in no way compromised its appeal—it remains the second best- selling jazz album of all time, after Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, on which Coltrane also appears. Still, experi- encing the supreme love depicted in this music—not to mention in the far more difficult music of Coltrane albums still to come like Medita- tions, Ascension, and Om—can at times be a challenge for listeners. A Love Supreme pushes against the bound- aries that the later Coltrane would dispense with entirely as he delved ever further into free jazz, sometimes devolving into apparently random, non-harmonic honks and squeals that explored the far edges of musical- ity, his instrument, and at times the patience of his listeners. But isn’t that the way the spiritual life is? The embrace of life in its full- est involves pain as well as beauty. That’s basic Buddhism. And thus it is LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2018 26 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE