In 1911 Wassily Kandinsky, amongst others, formed the art group Der Blaue Reiter. For them, visual art had enormous spiritual, communicative potential and its relationship with music was vitally important.
50 years later, visual art (and its relationship with music) was transformed by photography and the invention of the album. By the 1960s, the portrait cover LP was standard. While significantly less fashionable now, the portrait offers a unique two-way relationship between artist and listener.
John Coltrane almost always had his face on his album covers: photographic with a quality of candour. Spirituality dominated his character as well as his popularly imagined mythos. Raised Methodist, and preoccupied by sound’s spiritual potential, the links between spirituality, image, and music ran central to his philosophy.
Two album covers come to mind when I think of John Coltrane: first is Ballads; the second is A Love Supreme. Ballads is in no way a demonstration of why Coltrane has become one of the most revered artists in jazz history, but it is a window into his mind and work. Before recording Ballads, Coltrane had suffered wounding accusations from jazz critics. They labelled his music ‘anti-jazz’, after Eric Dolphy and himself explored ‘freer’ jazz. Ballads’ recording was an attempt to prove his musical competence. An 8-track set of jazz standards, it was straight and simple. On the cover of the record, Coltrane is perched in a corner, seemingly unfocused, caught off-guard. It’s an expression of vulnerability.
While Ballads remains relatively obscure, Coltrane’s career was defined by A Love Supreme. With a self-penned religious poem printed on the back, and a striking bluish-monochromatic Coltrane on the front, the juxtaposition between it and Ballads is unmistakable. Coltrane can be seen with a furrowed brow below stark and confident white-printed text reading ‘A Love Supreme / John Coltrane’.
The harsh critical reception of his music which culminated in the recording of Ballads is shown clearly by the receded Coltrane on the cover. Comparatively, on A Love Supreme, Coltrane is focused and intense. These two covers tell a crucial story in Coltrane’s development and, importantly, highlight his humanity. But they also show the reciprocal value of the album cover and music’s artistic contribution.