Juan Rollan Quartet Shows Some Love for John Coltrane’s Iconic Spiritual-Jazz Masterpiece

Juan Rollan press shot
"Coltrane’s playing always has always embodied the full spectrum of human emotion," says Jacksonville musician Juan Rollan. The Juan Rollan Quartet will perform Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' at Blue Jay Listening Room on Saturday | Rob Futrell, courtesy of the artist (cropped)

In the mid-1960s, saxophonist John Coltrane was experiencing an undeniable evolution.

Having the ability to perform slow-burn ballads and high-speed changes with equal agility, he had spent the previous decade establishing himself as a firebrand soloist with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. As Coltrane’s compositional skills increased, so did his prolificity as a bandleader.

After signing with the label Impulse! Records, he released a volley of studio and live albums, aligning himself with a band that were intuitive to his mercurial explorations. Pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones helped Coltrane navigate the flux-state of 1960s jazz and in Impulse! Records he found a sympathetic label willing to document this shift through a series of rapidly issued albums. An undeniable jewel of this increasing level of composition and group improvisation is A Love Supreme.

Recorded in a single session on December 9, 1964 and released the following month, the four-song suite of A Love Supreme has been routinely viewed as “hymnal” and is an apt description. In the liner notes, Coltrane describes the spiritual awakening that led to its creation. The four extended pieces that comprise A Love Supreme— “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalm”—still offer a contemplative form of jazz that seems to point to a mystery and otherness.  In turns somber and joyous, created in the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and earliest Vietnam War protests, the album was also the beginning of Coltrane’s total surrender to extended improvisation and devotions to  God. 

In less than three years after recording A Love Supreme, Coltrane would die at age 40 from liver cancer. In that brief window of time between A Love Supreme and his passing, Coltrane would record what amounts to a staggering 19 studio and live recordings, many released posthumously, where he discarded even the radical compositional and performative aspects of that groundbreaking release. Albums like Ascension (recorded in 1965), Meditations (recorded in 1966) and Interstellar Space (recorded in 1967) document Coltrane’s mystical quest played through his instrument, and in his last interviews he acknowledged the ongoing influence of vegetarianism, Eastern mysticism and various other wisdom traditions and interfaith religions.  

“None of the improvisation is verbatim. It’s literally impossible to do that. And why would we want to? That’d be antithetical to the jazz experience.”

Juan Rollan on performing ‘A Love Supreme’

On Saturday, September 23, the Juan Rollan Quartet will perform A Love Supreme in its entirety. Led by saxophonist Rollan, the band includes pianist Jonah Pierre, bassist Stan Piper and drummer Stefan Klein; all familiar heavyweights of the Northeast Florida jazz community. Rollan has explored A Love Supreme in concert before and locals will have a chance to hear he and his peers revere A Love Supreme, an album that has sold a million copies since its release. 

Even though he was in the middle of a flurry of performance engagements, the Jacksonville Music Experience caught the ear of Juan Rollan, who offered up his thoughts via email on his decision to explore Coltrane’s masterpiece that has influenced subsequent generations of musicians and seekers.

Could you give us a bit of history in regards to your musical career? 

So this is where I have historically been terrible. I’m like a hermit living on a mountain. I don’t promote myself, so no one knows me except my closest musical friends and regional employers. I’ve been playing the saxophone for 30-plus years. I had the privilege of studying with the great Bunky Green. I played for just under a year with R&B legend Al Green. I’ve been a member of the Noel Freidline Quintet for about 22 years now. I’ve shared the stage with Jimmy Cobb, Arturo Sandoval, Ben Folds, Bernadette Peters and many others. 

When did you first hear A Love Supreme

I don’t remember the exact date, but I would have been in my late teens; maybe 18 or 19.

What do you think are some specific musical qualities — compositional, performance by players, etc. — that make A Love Supreme so impactful on musicians?

I won’t get into any musical specifics, because I’m not thinking about any of that while I’m listening to the record or humbly rendering it, myself. I’ll leave that to the analytical transcribers and the true scholars. Rather, I’ve always been drawn to the way it made me feel. It goes without saying that Trane’s Impulse! trio – Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner – had a remarkably deep swing and groove. And Trane’s playing always has always embodied the full spectrum of human emotion: a longing for freedom, intense lamentation of pain and suffering, warmth and beauty, melancholy, and joy. When listening to the record, I always got the impression that he was submitting himself humbly to the higher power and allowing himself to become a conduit for that energy to reach us through an artistic medium. I think of it as the musical equivalent of speaking tongues.

The album has an inherent spiritual theme and Coltrane states as such in the liner notes. Does the mystical facet of the music have an influence on you?

I’m not a “religious” person at all, and I’m certainly no theologian. I’ve spent some time in various churches and I’ve read a small bit of the bible, but dogmatic practices and rhetoric pushed me away in my early twenties. I was jaded by the experience and that lead me to atheism. But I had an incredibly powerful psychedelic experience in my early forties that shook me to my core and since then, I feel firmly agnostic – I know somethings there, I just won’t act like I know what it’s called. A Love Supreme is a prayer – it’s a heartfelt expression of love to the divine and when we perform it, we try to channel that same spirit of humility and submission.

How will you handle the actual playing of the album? In lieu of total improvisations, will you try to play any of the album’s solos or passages note for note? 

None of the improvisation is verbatim. It’s literally impossible to do that. And why would we want to? That’d be antithetical to the jazz experience. We play the melodic themes of each movement, but the improvisations are us. The only exception being the final movement, “Psalm.” Coltrane wrote a beautiful poem to God and the final movement is his musical rendition of that: in C-minor. We’ll be channeling that same vibe and spirit, but it will be uniquely our own.

Considering how much A Love Supreme has been celebrated and exalted, do you feel any apprehension in performing the entire album?

Ten years ago, I was approached by a good buddy of mine and he asked me if I’d ever consider doing A Love Supreme. I looked at him like he was crazy and my first reaction was, “Hell no!” I knew better than to tread on such hallowed spiritual ground. So the answer was “no.” But I pondered it for some time and I think I just realized one day that we’re all human beings and we all have a right to express ourselves. I’m not an oppressed Black man in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, but I carry my own traumas, my own fear and anxiety, my own understanding of love and my own relationship with the divine. No one gets bent out of shape when everyone else recites The Lord’s Prayer, so I figured no one should care that I wanted to honor one of my heroes and express my own prayerful meditations using his template. And to be honest, as a 46-year old, I just don’t care about the opinions of others when it comes to what I do with music. People can take it or leave it. I’m going to express myself as I see fit. 

John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme with The Juan Rollan Quartet is featured at 8 p.m. Saturday, September 23 at Blue Jay Listening Room in Jacksonville Beach. Tickets are available here.

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