An Irishman's Diary
I AM the wrong person to judge U2’s new album. I stopped listening to rock music in the late 1970s, around the time I wore out the stylus of my belt-drive turntable playing, over and over again, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blueand John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. By the time U2’s first album appeared in 1980, I was hooked on modal jazz, and there was no looking back.
Yet I couldn’t help noticing amid all the hype surrounding the release of No Line on the Horizonthat it was recorded in four locations – Morocco, Dublin, London, and the south of France – and took two years to complete (not counting its false start in 2006 with producer Rick Rubin). According to the New York Times, the new album is “determinedly intuitive: a collation of momentary impulses and collaborative sparks”. Two years to record impulses and sparks?
This detail sent me back to the liner notes of my Davis and Coltrane vinyl. Now, let’s be clear: Kind of Blueand A Love Supremeare considered two of the most important musical documents of the 20th century. Both sound as fresh and innovative as they did when they were made. Both are the subject of book-length scholarly studies exploring their musical complexity and long-term influence. And even at the shallow level of public popularity, both are routinely listed on rock-centric lists of the greatest albums of all time ( Kind of Blueis ranked 12 on Rolling Stone’stotemic list; The Joshua Treeat 26).
Yet Kind of Bluetook two days to record: March 2nd and April 22nd, 1959, at 30th Street Studio in New York. That’s right – two days, not two years. What’s more, the band had scarcely rehearsed and the musicians had little notion of what they were to record. As pianist Bill Evans described it, “Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates.”
Davis handed the band members sketches of scales and melody lines to improvise on, gave brief instructions for each piece, and then told producer Teo Macero to roll the tape.
What emerged was a masterpiece that has exerted a deep influence on audiences and musicians for 50 years. Listenable, allusive, impressionistic, and swinging, Kind of Bluehas rare appeal across broad musical divides. As pianist Chick Corea has said, “It’s one thing to play a tune or a programme of music, but it’s another to create a new language of music, which is what Kind of Bluedid.” The rap star Q-Tip put it another way: “It’s like the Bible – you just have one in your house.”
One of the highlights of this great Davis album is the searing, declamatory playing of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Five years after Kind of Blue, Coltrane released his own masterpiece, A Love Supreme, which made even more efficient use of the recording studio and reached even more sublime heights of musical expression. Taped in a single session on the evening of December 9th, 1964, this visionary musical prayer embodied Coltrane’s new-found belief that music opens a window to the spirit and can create an intense, personal pathway to the eternal.
The album’s genesis was, on the surface, even more informal than Kind of Blue’s. Elvin Jones, the drummer on the date, said that Coltrane “never wrote out any music for us. When he played we more or less had to imagine, or feel, how to interpret the song”. Pianist McCoy Tyner added: “We had been playing some of that music and we didn’t know what it was going to be until we got into the studio. And then it all came together.” In one evening.
A Love Supremeconnects with listeners in a way that transcends art or entertainment. It has the scale and reach of liturgy. Its 33 minutes of music bring the listener on a journey from religious confusion to sweeping spiritual fanfare. Millions have bought the recording, enthralled by its magnificent outpouring of sound and its paradoxical genius — simple yet complex, violent yet peaceful. Bono himself has described how he discovered the album while on tour in Chicago in 1987. It was, he said, “the lesson of a lifetime. . . a man facing God with the gift of his music” – a description as good as any I’ve read.
No Line on the Horizonmay well be a fine album. And it is perhaps unfair to compare its recording history with the best jazz releases. Jazz is an improvisatory art, and its finest examples emerge from the tireless work of groups of musicians who know each other well and have played countless sessions together in small clubs and late-night jam sessions. For such an art form, recording serves a different purpose, more documentary than creative.
But in this age of arena rock, where the distance between artist and audience is literally vast, and decibels and spectacle are often more important than the songs, I like the idea of music in places where you can sit close to the musicians and talk to them after the gig, where every performance is unique, and where audiences participate in the creative process. And as a bonus, you don’t have to wait years for the next record.