Alice Coltrane

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - An­wen Craw­ford

Be­tween 1982 and 1995, one of Amer­ica’s fore­most jazz mu­si­cians recorded a series of al­bums that were only ever made avail­able on cas­sette tape. To ob­tain one you had to send away by mail or­der – that or drive through South­ern Cal­i­for­nia to the foothills of the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains, where the Sai Anan­tam Ashram sat amid nearly 50 acres of ru­ral land. The ashram’s founder and spir­i­tual leader, know to the con­gre­ga­tion as Swamini Turiya sang it an and a, was also its mu­si­cal di­rec­tor, and the four cas­sette al­bums that she made – Turiya Sings (1982), Divine Songs (1987), In­fi­nite Chants (1990) and Glo­ri­ous Chants (1995) – were in­tended as a record of, and a guide to, the de­vo­tional ser­vices that took place there. Be­fore she founded an ashram, Swam in iT uriya sang it an and a was a jazz pi­anist, harpist and band­leader named Alice Coltrane; be­tween 1965 and 1967 she was also mar­ried to the jazz com­poser and sax­o­phon­ist John Coltrane, and played in his band. And be­fore that, she was Alice McLeod, a be­bop mu­si­cian from Detroit.

The ashram tapes of Alice Coltrane make for un­usual lis­ten­ing. Sai Anan­tam Ashram was ded­i­cated to the study of the an­cient Hindu scrip­tures known as the Vedas, but the mu­sic that Coltrane cre­ated is not strictly in­ter­change­able with the bha­jans or kir­tans (re­li­gious songs) of In­dian tra­di­tion. These in­ter­pre­ta­tions of San­skrit chants also bear traces of gospel mu­sic, and of im­pro­vi­sa­tional jazz, though one could hardly de­scribe them as jazz. And with promi­nence given to a thick, swirling syn­the­siser, played by Coltrane, they sit oddly ad­ja­cent to elec­tronic pop mu­sic, too. Coltrane died in 2007. After years of the ashram tapes cir­cu­lat­ing in boot­leg form, a se­lec­tion of songs from them has been made of­fi­cially avail­able as The Ec­static Mu­sic of Alice Coltrane Turiya sang it an and a, re­leased this month by the world mu­sic label Luaka Bop.

The com­pi­la­tion opens with ‘Om Rama’, taken from In­fi­nite Chants. You hear a rus­tle of shak­ers and tam­bourines, a hand-clap­ping beat, and an as­sort­ment of voices, male and fe­male, singing in loose but dis­tinct har­mony. Singers fade in and out of prox­im­ity to the mi­cro­phone, as if they were danc­ing while they sang, which they may well have been. Though all of Coltrane’s ashram tapes were recorded in Cal­i­for­nian stu­dios, they nev­er­the­less con­vey a strong im­pres­sion of how these mu­si­cal ser­vices would have sounded in situ.

Three or four min­utes into the song there is a shift. The tempo slows, the clap­ping falls more heav­ily upon the off­beat, and Coltrane be­gins to play a series

of bluesy chords on her syn­the­siser. In a word, the whole thing gets groovy, while a beau­ti­ful, fer­vent male voice rises up to lead the singing. This is John Hen­der­son; like Coltrane he was a trained mu­si­cian, and once played in Ray Charles’ band. The sense of gospel mu­sic is sud­den but un­mis­tak­able, like a clear­ing in­side a great for­est – then just as sud­denly it’s gone. The pace in­creases, voices and per­cus­sion crowd­ing in anew, un­til Coltrane bends the pitch of her syn­the­siser down, up, then down again, drag­ging the mu­sic to a halt. In nearly ten min­utes we’ve been to the ashram, to the church, and to some­where al­to­gether oth­er­worldly.

Alice McLeod was born in Detroit in 1937, the fifth of six chil­dren in a mu­si­cal, work­ing-class, church­go­ing fam­ily. Her fa­ther, Solon, was a truck driver; her mother, Ann, played pi­ano and sang in the choir of the Mount Olive Bap­tist Church. Though there was no pi­ano in the fam­ily home, Alice be­gan re­ceiv­ing pri­vate lessons at the age of seven from a neigh­bour, and would ac­com­pany the Mount Olive choir dur­ing ser­vices. Her tal­ents were even­tu­ally sought at other Detroit churches, in­clud­ing the in­de­pen­dent Mack Av­enue Church of God in Christ. Its choir was led by David “Pop” and Delores “Mom” Wi­nans, the first of a multi-gen­er­a­tional gospel record­ing fam­ily.

In a 2001 interview with eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist Franya Berk­man, Coltrane re­called her vis­its to the Mack Av­enue church as “the gospel ex­pe­ri­ence, mu­si­cally, of my life”. She de­scribed a “God feel­ing” that swept through the con­gre­ga­tion, with singers over­come and car­ried out faint­ing, the whole ser­vice “filled with the spirit of the Lord”. Through­out her life, Coltrane would con­tinue to pur­sue this joint state of mu­si­cal and spir­i­tual tran­scen­dence.

As a young woman she played pi­ano in jazz and gospel bands around Detroit, her style in­flu­enced by be­bop pi­anists like Bud Pow­ell and Th­elo­nious Monk. Like Pow­ell, she spent some time gig­ging in Paris, but after a brief mar­riage there she re­turned to Detroit, ac­com­pa­nied by her daugh­ter. In 1963, while play­ing in New York, she met John Coltrane, an­other jazz mu­si­cian of Chris­tian back­ground, who had taken up his own, wide-rang­ing spir­i­tual quest. That same year John and Alice be­gan liv­ing to­gether; late in 1964 John recorded his most cel­e­brated al­bum, A Love Supreme, which was re­leased in 1965.

Ac­cord­ing to John Coltrane’s own liner notes, A Love Supreme was “a hum­ble of­fer­ing” to God. It was also the hinge upon which his mu­sic be­gan to swing to­wards the rad­i­cal and of­ten mys­ti­cal prac­tices of free jazz. His sax­o­phone play­ing got squallier, his ar­range­ments more ab­stract. With Alice, he took up the study of Hindu scrip­tures, and in 1965 made Om, a record­ing of chants from the Bha­gavad Gita. Dur­ing that same year Coltrane over­hauled his band, and Alice be­came his pi­anist. They can be heard play­ing to­gether on the 1966 record­ing Live at the Vil­lage Van­guard Again!, which fea­tures one of Coltrane’s lengthy de­con­struc­tions of the Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein stan­dard ‘My Favourite Things’. Against a hurly-burly of du­elling sax­o­phone played by Coltrane and Pharoah San­ders, and fre­netic per­cus­sion from Rashied Ali and Emanuel Rahim, Alice’s pi­ano is a har­monic an­chor, the calm at the cen­tre of the storm.

John Coltrane died in 1967 at the age of 40, from liver can­cer, leav­ing Alice a widow with four young chil­dren, in­clud­ing her three sons by John. Her first record­ing as a band­leader, A Monas­tic Trio, was re­leased in 1968. The orig­i­nal six-song al­bum (reis­sues have in­cluded ad­di­tional tracks) formed a suc­cinct el­egy for her late hus­band; it was “ded­i­cated to the mys­tic, Ohnedaruth, known as John Coltrane”. The first three songs were pi­ano-based, in­clud­ing a mus­cu­lar blues called ‘Gospel Trane’, while the later ones gave promi­nence to Alice’s newly ac­quired harp, which was soon to be­come cen­tral to her mu­sic.

Coltrane taught her­self how to play the harp, and her rapid glis­san­dos on the in­stru­ment are like a sonic translation

of sun­light rip­pling the sur­face of wa­ter. She cher­ished “the quiet­ness, the peace­ful­ness” of the in­stru­ment. Her mu­sic re­mained lu­cid even as her spir­i­tual in­ves­ti­ga­tions grew more eso­teric; her best-known record­ing, Jour­ney in Satchi­dananda (1970), fused her com­po­si­tional skills with her in­ter­est in In­dian cul­ture, re­sult­ing in an ex­per­i­men­tal mu­sic that is also ac­ces­si­ble, even to the novice jazz lis­tener. The songs are grounded in Ce­cil McBee’s pur­pose­ful bass lines, with Coltrane’s harp and the dron­ing sound of an In­dian tan­pura (also known as a tam­bura) adding har­mony and tex­ture, while Pharoah San­ders’ sax­o­phone carves out gor­geous, curl­ing lead melodies, quite dif­fer­ent from the dis­so­nant so­los that he had played with John Coltrane.

In part be­cause she con­tin­ued to col­lab­o­rate with John’s band mem­bers, in­clud­ing San­ders, Rashied Ali on drums and Jimmy Gar­ri­son on bass, Alice Coltrane’s mu­si­cal ca­reer was con­sis­tently over­shad­owed by her late hus­band’s. But she also de­ferred to him. “I don’t think that I have the ta­lent of my hus­band,” she said, in a mag­a­zine interview reprinted in­side the cover of A Monas­tic Trio. “I don’t have the ge­nius of John, but I will try to el­e­vate the mu­sic as much as I pos­si­bly can.”

This el­e­va­tion would reach its pin­na­cle on her ashram tapes. Coltrane first be­came in­volved in ashram life dur­ing the 1970s; her el­dest child, Michelle, re­mem­bers that “when she be­came a Swami, she put her [new] name on the re­frig­er­a­tor to help re­mind us [of it]”. In 1983, Coltrane bought the prop­erty that would house Sai Anan­tam Ashram, and though the con­gre­ga­tion’s Sun­day ser­vices were, the­o­ret­i­cally, open to the pub­lic, in prac­tice not many peo­ple from out­side the ashram would ever wit­ness them.

It is lucky, then, that we have the tapes. In­fi­nite Chants and Glo­ri­ous Chants em­pha­sised the sound of the con­gre­ga­tion, while Turiya Sings and Divine Songs were fo­cused on Coltrane’s own singing and play­ing. Five songs from the lat­ter al­bum – ‘Om Shanti’, ‘Rama Rama’, ‘Hari Narayan’, ‘Er Ra’ and ‘Ke­shava Mu­ra­hara’ – are in­cluded on the Ec­static Mu­sic com­pi­la­tion, and they rep­re­sent her most sin­gu­lar mu­si­cal cre­ations.

Coltrane’s own voice (she had never sung on record be­fore mak­ing her ashram tapes) is deep and mel­low, and her phras­ing idio­syn­cratic, as if the chants arose from her own spon­ta­neous feel­ing as much from any re­li­gious text. ‘Rama Rama’ once again fea­tures the drone of a tan­pura, while ‘Ke­shava Mu­ra­hara’ folds in a silken string ar­range­ment. Time as­sumes strange qual­i­ties in these divine songs; the tempo is slow enough to feel lag­gard, and yet one has the sense that each in­stru­ment is mov­ing ir­re­vo­ca­bly for­wards, and up­wards, into the at­mos­phere. This isn’t back­ground mu­sic, for it will al­ter the room and your con­scious­ness, as it was de­signed to. Open your mind and step in.

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