A bewitching listening to a jazz greats, Alice Coltrane | Music
In the years since Alice Coltrane left this world in 2007, a paradigm shift occurred. For much of her life, she and her music have stood in the shadow of her husband, the late John Coltrane, a jazz titan and an almost holy figure in 20th century American music.
Following her death in 1967, she recorded around a dozen albums – on piano, harp, organ, and conducting with Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Ornette Coleman, Jack DeJohnette and even Carlos Santana. – which were neglected at the time of the Liberation. By 1978, the widow Coltrane had stopped releasing music on major labels and for many years it was assumed that she had completely stopped recording music, as she had established her own ashram nestled in Agoura Hills. , California, and had retired from public view, to become a spiritual guru for a small community of fellow researchers.
It wasn’t until 2017, when Luaka Bop, David Byrne’s eclectic reissue, compiled “The Ecstatic Music Of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda,” revealed to the general public that Coltrane had never left music. (Note: The author contributed to the liner notes for this release.) Instead, she had transformed into a spiritual guru, by the name of Swamini Turiyasangitananda, and focused on performing Hindi devotional hymns (or bhajans) for his congregation every Sunday. . She self-edited a small batch of tapes in the early 1980s and appeared on California television in the 1990s with her public access show, “Eternity’s Pillar”.
This week, she returns to jazz label Impulse with the release of “Kirtan: Turiya Sings”, a slight reframing of her extremely rare 1982 cassette “Turiya Sings”. Originally only available to those who made the pilgrimage to Sai Anantam Ashram, it has since grown into a beloved internet curiosity, often uploaded to YouTube and garnering millions of views. It was the first (and only) time Alice Coltrane’s singing voice had been heard solo on an album, and the bhajans were accompanied by a wispy array of synths, organs, and synth strings, seemingly emerging. like a voice from a cloud.
Released with the blessing of his son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, he presents a mix of the album that he only recently discovered, with just his Wurlitzer organ accompaniment and a disarming voice in its immediacy. It’s a turn of events that seemed almost impossible just a few years ago. So how did Alice Coltrane come to stand alongside her husband and represent the Impulse label on their 60th birthday? It was a process that relied more on word of mouth than on a favorable critical consensus, which she had never experienced in her lifetime.
For me, it started with a guy named Alan, who I first met in the vitamins section of Whole Foods Market in the mid-90s. He was a musician who knew about supplements and crystals, recording his own new-age bands in his spare time. I was introduced to jazz, familiar with John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but not much beyond. He suggested that I watch “Journey in Satchidananda”, an Alice Coltrane album originally released in 1971. “It’s one of the most beautiful music in the universe,” he exclaimed. .
I didn’t quite understand the music at first, but I wasn’t alone. In jazz circles, Alice Coltrane was still slandered and denigrated. In a way that anticipated the kind of vitriol that would be thrown at the spouses of beloved rock stars, like Yoko Ono and Courtney Love, Widow Coltrane has been blamed for both her ending her iconic ‘classic quartet’. husband and for adding additional instrumentation to his music was released in the years following his death.
“Madame. Coltrane, while looking a bit like McCoy Tyner, lacks the physical or musical strength of her predecessor,” jazz publication Downbeat said of her “delicate” playing on a late Coltrane album. His own albums have been downright exhausted. “A hazy impressionistic feeling with no urgent substance,” said one. “Super-saccharin, often cheesy and terribly repetitive,” read another. so strongly marked by the late John Coltrane not being able to release an album, but that is exactly what is happening.
One wonders what the critics were really hearing. As calm and serene as most spiritual music aims to be ideal, Alice Coltrane’s Impulse albums can be exciting and turbulent affairs. Despite its title, “Universal Consciousness” is creepy and white-fisted, full of prickly atonal strings and harp tracks that resemble a free fall into the void. Even her take on “My Favorite Things” (from “World Galaxy”), the standard her husband raised to the stratosphere a decade earlier, leaves something to be desired. She has her electric organ lifted and sliced like a knife, before plunging into orchestral strings so lush and garish that one has the impression of being in a hallucination staged at Disneyland.
These kinds of qualities that critics complained about: delicate, impressionistic, avoiding “strength” for something less powerful, light instead of heavy, were not in tune with the times. But all this could have been forgiven if Alice Coltrane had not committed the sacrilege: adding other musical elements to her husband’s posthumous outings.
“Some people didn’t like the addition of strings,” she told Wire magazine in 2002. “They said,“ We know the original recording didn’t have any strings, so why didn’t it. ‘did you not leave it as is?’ I said, ‘Were you there? Did you hear John’s comment and what he had to say? … We had a conversation about every detail; John was showing me how the piece could include other sounds, mixes, tones and resonances like strings. He spoke of cosmic sounds, higher dimensions, astral levels and other worlds, and realms of music and sounds that I could feel.
The sound that could be felt could be a way to understand how Alice Coltrane’s music has slowly gained resonance in the 21st century. His rejection of the forms, structures and traditions of jazz has become one of his strengths. His music began to appeal to new-age and ambient fans as well as electronic musicians. His openness to other cultures and his ability to mix different musical traditions – North African, Indian, American – is both daring and surprising with hindsight.
That a black woman from Depression-era Detroit established a Hindi ashram in the hills of California next to a horse ranch and sang centuries-old Indian hymns there, it remains mind-boggling. Many artists adopted spiritual gurus and clothing in the 1960s and 1970s, but few actually embodied it like Alice Coltrane did. When I visited his ashram in 2014, it was disarming to see a portrait of a woman I knew from all his albums, now presented in the soft beatific light of a religious leader and guru. There is a sense of conflict inherent in his music, the intertwined beauty and chaos, the jazz tradition and the unknowable are all there at the same time.
The original “Turiya Sings” drew on this liminal space. These are ancient Indian hymns swaddled in the new synthesizer technology of the time. It’s a ball of speed of sound, both mystical and dinky. Coltrane sings in Sanskrit, but he instantly crosses continents and eras to strike like a country blues, expressing the angst and pain of the present moment. It sounds ethereal and beyond, but also deeply sad. You don’t need to understand Sanskrit to know the suffering it carries here.
So “Kirtan” looks odd in comparison, like demos. “This stripped down and intimate setting revealed the true heart and soul of these songs,” writes Ravi in the liner notes, acknowledging that he is “against what the artist originally chose for his work. It’s always a touchy subject, and he maintains it’s closer to his memories of his mother, to what he heard growing up.
Which is fair, but did Alice Coltrane want others to hear? Its organ is more immediate, its low register is reduced to an underground rumble. His voice is more present and closer on this album, slightly different from the more muffled sound heard on the original, as radiating from the astral plane to join us here on Earth. This is just one of the many cosmic charms from the original album. And his son maintains that without these other layers, one can more clearly guess the gospel and blues of his music. But no matter how far she traveled in the ether, that foundation was always within reach.
Such creative choices were already available to her at the time, and as an artist with her pedigree, she knew what she would sacrifice by adding these other elements rather than keeping the basic tracks that make up all of ” Kirtan “. Since she self-published the album, there has been no outside pressure, whether from a label, a producer or anyone without purely artistic motivation. But maybe it exists now.
“Kirtan” remains a haunting listening, an intimate glimpse of an artist whose greatness has barely been recognized in this world. But what stings the final presentation is how much of Coltrane’s musical career has been devoted to defending his artistic choices against the demands of others (mostly men) and now hinting at one of his works. the deepest. She chose what she chose, adding the tones and resonances of strings, chimes, water sounds, keyboard effects, and layered voices to create her singular sonic palette. We weren’t there to know exactly what “cosmic sounds, higher dimensions, astral levels, and other worlds” the mighty Turiyasangitananda could hear. But it’s a sound we should all be able to feel now, without waiting another 40 years.