John Coltrane’s vaunted A Love Supreme is a record with baggage. And while almost none of it is negative, the price of absolute reverence can be untouchability, or worse, mass appeal. And while the record may be Starter Pack worthy, underneath fifty-three-years of slow-burn into the popular consciousness is still a musicality and composition that wows first-time listeners and to-this-day informs creators and philosophers alike.
But the album has never been untouchable. Artists have tried recreation and exploration, all with varied results. Yet it is still bold for the Mattson 2 to attempt a rendering of the esteemed Classic. Judged as a whole, the Mattson twins’ take on Coltrane’s opus is part worthy homage, part contribution to the ever-ongoing dialogue around the piece. Their version feels fresh, unique, and technically incredible.
Aquarium Drunkard: Did your dive into A Love Supreme start from a place of recitation and trying to get it down pat, or was there a creative undercurrent or burst right from the start?
Jared Mattson: It wasn’t an initial burst – what we wanted to do was pay reverence to the piece as far as the foundation and the theory of it – really get that dialed in the classic jazz manner. We had all the elements available in our head when we got to recording, and with all these elements, were able to create and add our own, unique voice to it. We didn’t want to repeat the lines that we had learned but we wanted those lines to be there just in case we wanted to quote from the original in a more referential sort of way.
Jonathan Mattson: I think that also highlights a really important point about jazz in general — half of jazz, musicians say, is covers of older stuff, paying reverence to the past, and the other half is doing more original stuff. And what Jared and I did was, we did our homework and learned the piece and learned all the stuff around it, even the musicology aspects of it, we took that and used our own original approach to it. And we applied our own background, our own original sound, and made it our own, leaving the integrity of the piece, so you could still tell that its Coltrane.
There are certain [versions of the record by other artists] that just sound too much like the original, why not just listen to the Coltrane album? I’d rather just do that. You’re getting so close to it, and Coltrane does it so much better. And then there’s the other school, which I love, and they do a completely different take on it. Like Alice Coltrane, she does “A Love Supreme” in an amazing way, but it’s so different, you could almost give it another name. Any jazz musician could really sit down and delve into Coltrane and learn the technique, but what we brought to it and made it ours was our backgrounds and our compositional style. And also our telepathy as twin brothers, our ability to jam and improvise together as twins.
AD: You bring an interesting point about half of jazz being covers. A term I find applicable to jazz is the Uncanny Valley – it’s interesting to think about the point at which a version may get too close to the original and causes discomfort, even if there is creativity there. There’s a razors edge to pulling off a recognizable jazz cover. In those early stages of working on the piece, were there times where you felt like you were inhabiting the piece or that it was the dominating force of your energy?
Jared: We wanted to have down 100% before we played it. I, as the guitar player, tried to learn every note of every solo. Some of it was just too hard, but I learned what I could as far as note-for-note solos and melody lines. And after that I learned all of the McCoy Tyner voicings, which translated surprisingly well to guitar. Then I learned the basslines Jimmy Garrison’s lines. And as a little nugget of creativity, I had never really listened as closely to the bass as I had during this session. I would zoom in on certain parts of the bassline that would only happen maybe one second of the song, but we would take those cells of grooves that only happen once in the song, and we’d turn those into the bassline of the whole piece, and make it a groove oriented bassline, using a zoom-in view of Jimmy Garrison’s basslines. And then Jonathan would learn Elvin Jones drums, trying to be note for note. And once, in those early stages, when the vocabulary and language was learned, we took it and applied it with our own aesthetic, through our own filter. There was a lot of meticulous transcribing of the parts.
Jonathan: Did we actually feel like we were in it? Yes, obviously, it was when Jared was transcribing all of these note-for-note solos of Coltrane. But the part that tied everything together like glue, and the part that is missing from almost every version, was learning the McCoy Tyner chords. To see the way Jared tried to capture the harmony Tyner was doing behind Coltrane, it was an eye-opening for me as a drummer, and as someone who listens to the record all the time. To hear those chords being captured on the guitar, it blew my mind how it sounded.
AD: When you were going through that process, were there big instances, or any instances, where you were struggling to capture the musicality of the original, or the version that you were trying to create — and, if so, how did you get around that?
Jared: It happened after we had played it live, and then went into the studio to track it. In the studio, because it’s so well mic’d and there’s a lot of sensitivity to the acoustics and the sound, what was working live wasn’t entirely convincing to me and Jonathan from a recording stand point. So we laid down all the live information that we could, and then fine-tuned it with minimal overdubs. We took a Brian Eno approach and actually created loops from the ground up, that sounded like overdubs, or very evolved, recorded parts, but were actually loops we played to in the studio. Similar to what did with our “Agar” record, we spent hours and hours and days, building the perfect loop setups, with the purpose of playing to it live in the studio, rather than doing this live looping stuff — we actually wanted to tailor it to the album and have a lot of complexity with the loops. So you still get that live sound and feel, but it’s a little bit more involved, to fill the sound out. One of the major solutions to that was really thinking at a primal level, to think about the bass groove and the drums, to really give it that backbeat.
AD: You’ve done a couple of “Meets” records, where you collaborate with another artist on a new sound. I’m wondering, to what extent would consider the approach to this record to be about collaboration – either the two of you together or Coltrane as a silent, or not so silent, partner, or even original record itself? Doing a cover record, for as loaded as that term can be, is like having another person in the room. As twins, as a duo – what is it about working with a third entity that you’ve now done it without it actually being a living person?
Jonathan: For me, collaboration is so invigorating because we only collaborate with people who do things we can’t do ourselves. When we get together it creates something that couldn’t have been created with just one mind, or just one compositional aesthetic. That’s, to me, the whole point of collaboration. As it relates to Coltrane, I feel like a lot of people would be taken aback by me saying that, yeah, I do feel like, in a way, Coltrane was a collaborator in the room. But I definitely feel like that was the case. All of the homework we did on transcribing it, getting in the headspace of what he was doing, it translated so well, and we were able to speak that language, but in our own way. It felt like we were channeling the piece, keeping the integrity, but still having it be this modern piece.
Jonathan: From a jazz perspective, I feel like this is the first real, hard jazz record we’ve done. It’s still not that jazzy cause [laughs] it is what it is. I could be speaking too soon, but I do see this as the start of a concept, of a series, where through the Mattson 2 filter, we do a non-present collaboration, with the album and its concept itself. I see this being a pathway to even more records like this, our favorite jazz records in their entirety. But this record was chosen because every record we thought of – we thought of doing a Monk one, or a Miles Davis one — each one we tried, it just sounded like a collection of songs. What we like about “A Love Supreme” is that it is a concept record, and it’s a narrative that’s meant to be told from start to finish, rather than a really incredible Wes Montgomery record, or an incredible Monk record, where it’s literally just a collection of songs. So I think, keeping with this pathway, of “collaboration,” quote-unquote, we would choose records that have that kind of narrative, of this concept album type thing.
AD: This is such a heavy piece in people’s minds and has such a collective presence, so it’s one thing to commit to it, to internalize and externalize it. It’s another thing to play it live for a crowd. And it’s another thing to record it. And a whole other thing to release it. In a non-musical sense, outside the joy of study, of transcription and playing — what was it about your experience with this music that made you want to share it with a wider audience?
Jonathan: It started on International Jazz Day. We were thinking about ideas and ended up playing Coltrane, for the first time, in San Francisco, and it sold out — the demand was really high for it, so we thought, let’s play it again. We had no intention of recording it. We played it again, and that second show went really well, and started this buzz. Our agent came to us and said this venue wanted to do it in Chicago, so we did another one. Then we did Sonoma, and then we did New York, as well. All these venues heard about it and wanted us to do it there. After those performances, we got such a great response from the audience. A lot of people in the audience had never even heard the piece before and it was this fresh thing for them. And in the process of performing the piece — it’s not a forgiving piece at all — it was moving technical wise, and we liked the challenge of piece, and devoting ourselves to a solid 30-minutes, which is about how long it is when we play it. You get in this wormhole where you lose track of time. I think the audience response and how much people wanted us to record it — we love our audience — we just followed the feedback we got, and we just love playing it so much.
AD: Releasing a record, even Coltrane doing it as precise as he did, always involves arbitrary deadlines. Artists are often under pressure to have records out by a certain time. The recording can then become arbitrary, and it may not be the ultimate or apex version — it may be incredible, but may not be the “best.” For you two, playing it live, taking it on the road as you’re about to do, and recording it — is this recorded document the ultimate version of yours, or did you wish to capture a moment, and it’s a living breathing document?
Jared: I think it was Steve Albini who said, “my job is to capture this moment in time.” I think a recording is always going to be that, but I do think this has said what we want to say about the piece, there’s not much more in my opinion. And we’re extremely happy with it.
Jonathan: The thing that’s crazy to me, and you raise a good point about a recording being a document but is it the best version, is like, Charlie Parker, when he first started getting really famous in be-bop circles, people going to the would expect to hear the exact same solos as the recordings. So I think there’s something to be said about keeping the familiarity of the piece and capturing certain elements like you would on a pop album. I think that’s how some people can conceptualize and personalize the music, which makes them enjoy the music more — having it tell a story and they associate with that story. But the power of this piece, and the excitement, is we’re doing this 35-date tour and no show is going to be the same performance. The beauty of the piece is improvisational elements, and while we will capture a lot of the content of the album, we’re really going to explore that improvisational side to. So to answer your question, is it the greatest one? I’m not sure, but for me, I feel like the studio lends itself to having something you can’t create live.
AD: We’ve talked a bunch about what you guys brought to the music, I’d like to ask what you feel you’ll take away from this, that’s not specifically about playing this music, but about your playing together? Maybe it was only an exercise, but what do you take away as learners, and players?
Jared: What I took away from it was something that I look for in music in general, which is this constant evolution and constant balance of the unknown and the known. This constant dialogue between doing something that is familiar and is your fingerprint, but your fingerprint is ever-evolving and ever-changing – you always want to balance that with experimenting with the unknown. I think that’s why people like Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix had such huge followings: they had this level of predictability with the melodies, and the grooves, and that was paired with the being in a situation where they had no idea what may happen next. And then once that happens, they’re taken on this trip to this outer universe, and then the beat comes back in and they’re home. We want to bring our audience on a journey, and we want to go on a journey ourselves, with the music. What this piece did was further explore the unknown for us, and further evolve that side of us and really delve deeply into — yeah we’ve studied jazz, but we delved deeper into jazz than we ever have before and we learned a lot technically and performance wise, but that was never at the cost of groove or catchiness. words / b kramer