All conversations or discourses around A Love Supreme will invariably loom in the shadow of God’s influence, but everything you truly need to know about Love lies in John Coltrane’s face.
The album’s cover, an off-center portrait of Coltrane sternly gazing away from the camera, captures the saxophonist both determined and weary in the midst of creation. Love’s liner notes detail the fabled spiritual reawakening Coltrane had with God in 1957, leading him to make the album as a devotional, reclaim his highly productive final years after overcoming substance abuse and, ultimately, earn a consecrated space in jazz music history. The intense Coltrane on the cover of Love arguably says it all and then some, earnestly wearing both the divine intervention and his well-documented struggle with heroin and alcohol that came before it.
When I talked with the Mattson 2 about their full-length interpretation of A Love Supreme, there wasn’t an unpacking of the brothers’ religious leanings or some trite dissection of a “transcendental moment” in the studio. Thankfully, more than anything else, the focus seemed to be on finding their own dead-set, genre-transcending conviction while offering up a devotional to Coltrane.
“I don’t view it as religiously sacred as a lot of people,” drummer Jonathan Mattson admitted early into our conversation about Love. “I view it as one of the most incredible pieces of music, so when Jared and I were doing our interpretation of it, we didn’t hold anything sacred.”
“I hope I don’t create a lot of enemies saying this, but I feel like the jazz purists over the years have defined their own version of what jazz is,” guitarist/bassist Jared Mattson added later. “[Since] the late ’80s and early ’90s, it’s taken a purist, naturalist approach… but I think the purpose and desire of, for instance, John Coltrane writing this piece was to create something that other people could eventually take, although it’s near and dear to him in a spiritual way, and do their own thing with, as is the jazz tradition.”
Given the assurance that the Southern California-based twins began collaborating literally from birth, there’s a certain amount of trust in the Mattsons to “do their own thing” with loose borders between jazz tradition and fusion-fueled psych rock.
One of their first releases was a collaboration with professional skateboarder Ray Barbee in 2009, a fairly straightforward but somewhat eyebrow-raising pairing that now registers as a fairly standard entry alongside the rest of the Mattsons’ eclectic canon.
For reference, this past March’s Vaults of Eternity: Japan acts as an homage to the 20 tours the brothers have routed through Japan over the years. The Youtube-exclusive cover album pairs hazy renditions of notable Japanese experimental composers like Yasuaki Shimizu and Haruomi Hosono with modern Japanese musicians/vocalists like Tanukichan and Gotch of Asian Kung Fu Generation.
Then there’s last year’s Star Stuff, arguably the brothers’ most popular collaboration, which features Chaz Bear from Toro Y Moi. Bear and the brothers became acquainted, fittingly, by an act of divine fate: Jonathan forgot a drum throne before a show in Oakland and, through a mutual friend, borrowed Bear’s last minute. Accompanying the brothers to their gig, Bear and the Mattsons found themselves plotting studio time by the following morning over coffee while returning the throne.
Considering their bonds to chillwave progenitors and citing Cocteau Twins alongside jazz icons as influences, covering an album like A Love Supreme seems like both a step toward the safety of jazz tradition and a fool’s errand had it not been handled with their certain, Californian sense of ease and eagerness.
“International Jazz Day was coming up [last year] and we said, ‘Let’s cover a jazz album,’” Jonathan recalled. “Jared didn’t think we should do a jazz album that’s a collection of songs; he wanted to do a suite that could stand on its own. After much thought, we were like, ‘Dude, A Love Supreme! It’s our favorite jazz record, so let’s try to recapture it.’”
“Undertaking really difficult music isn’t a new thing for us,” Jared said. “A few years before, we had done a performance of Louie Andriessen’s Workers’ Union. That’s another one of those tour-de-force pieces where you look at it and you’re not sure whether you can climb this mountain, but then you hit base camp, keep going and take it slow, try to digest everything along the way. Eventually, it just plays itself out.”
The duo began working on the album in January of 2017 for a one-time performance in San Francisco the day after International Jazz Day on April 31, but a second date was added a month later after the initial show sold out the 500-capacity theater. Word continued to carry outside of Northern California after the second show, leading to performances in Ponoma and Chicago before the brothers decided to commit their rendition to tape.
“We started foundationally by learning almost every single note on the record, whether it be the piano, bass, saxophone, or the drums,” Jared said. “Once we had a vocabulary of what the musicians were trying to say, we wanted then take that vocabulary and speak our own kind of language with it.”
“The beauty of the project was doing all of the research and seeing how musicians approached A Love Supreme,” Jonathan said. “I think the missing link in a lot of people’s interpretations of the piece is their inability to capture McCoy Tyner’s chords and harmonies mixed with the dialogue between the bass and the drums. Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones are these insane minds that were, to me, like one voice when they play together.”
“I heard so many versions of A Love Supreme,” Jared continued, “and it gets good credibility if [an artist] almost takes this purist approach to it, but at the end of the day, if it’s going to sound like John Coltrane’s, I’m just going to listen to John Coltrane’s.”
Both Mattsons credit John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana’s take on the suite in 1973 and Branford Marsalis’ version three decades later as touchstones that dared to expand on Coltrane’s vision, but Alice Coltrane’s version on World Galaxy ultimates wins out as the duo’s most influential rendition outside of the original.
“There’s this underlying groove, almost like it could be a hip-hop sampled groove that’s going on underneath it,” Jonathan attested. “That influenced the way we did a certain section of Movement 1, [“Acknowledgement.”]”
Where the opening salvo of “Acknowledgment” is iconic for its wide-eyed, ecstatic submission to a higher power through Coltrane’s braying saxophone, the Mattsons aim for something more celestial with their rendition. Opening on a delay-heavy solo toward the heavens, Jared gives Coltrane’s devotional a warbling reassessment on guitar as Jonathan dutifully unpacks Elvin Jones’ singularly passionate style of drumming.
At large, the Mattsons take a part-reverential, part-personality driven spin in chasing down the heart of Coltrane’s intensity on Love, finding a balance on “Resolution” and opening up a synthy space-out on “Psalm” that wouldn’t sound out of place amid a Mild High Club or BadBadNotGood set. Still, moments like the Mattson original “Interlude” feeding into the iconic drum solo on “Pursuance” answer how a project this steeped in history can still surprise without being disrespectful to the source. Initially improvised during “an ambient zone” mid-soundcheck in Chicago, Jared attests that the album’s “Interlude” is a testament to the brothers’ self-proclaimed “twin-chronicity.”
“We are identical twins, so we share a heightened level of communication as it relates to music and everyday conversation,” Jared explained. “We’ll finish each other’s sentences, we will think the same thoughts, we’ll dream the same dreams sometimes. When it comes to music… we’ll also get on this heightened wavelength. Coltrane’s piece, we felt, would be the perfect launching pad to express new forms of this communication within our own music.”
Gone is the exclusive, one-show-only origins of the project; the Mattsons are taking their twin-chronized Love Supreme across the country, adding in looping, extendable points to each movement with the only hope being that it doesn’t boil over into “this super esoteric experience.” Pairing up on set design with visual artist George Murphy, who previously worked on Tom Petty and Journey, the brothers admit this extended tour has become shaped more in the image of the more mainstream, indie rock tendencies that poke out occasionally within their music, but for both Jonathan and Jared, that’s just a fitting, final touch in their respectfully deconstructionist project.
“It takes you out of this purist jazz mentality,” Jonathan concluded. “We’re not rule-bound, we don’t view jazz as a museum piece that needs to be preserved… in the end, if you’re trying to get people to enjoy jazz music, you can’t make it so rigid. You gotta make it something that’s accessible to everyone and I think that, in a very small way, helps.”
Tim Gagnon is a Los Angeles-based culture writer as seen on Noisey, Consequence of Sound, and WBUR among others. He also might be a member of The Armed, but you didn't hear that from him.