The ascent of mantra
Anthology of the spiritual jazz trailblazer’s Warner Bros studio recordings. By Andrew Male.
Alice Coltrane Spiritual Eternal THE ALBUMS Alice Coltrane recorded for Warner Bros in the late ’70s remain the most overlooked of her fascinating career. The deep modal questing of 1968’s A Monastic Trio to the orchestral richness of ’73’s Lord Of Lords are now established as masterpieces of spiritual jazz, while the ashram music she later recorded was finally made available to non-devotional ears when Luaka Bop released World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music Of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda in 2017. Yet the bridge between those two very different worlds has failed to receive the same degree of attention, until now. As Ashley Kahn tells it in his excellent linernotes, Coltrane’s arrival, in 1975, at the home of Fleetwood Mac and The Doobie Brothers came after Bob Krasnow, Warner Bros’ new VP in charge of talent, heard her music during a latenight opium session with Santana manager Stan Marcum. History doesn’t record whether Krasnow was similarly baked when he listened to Eternity, Coltrane’s first LP for Warner Bros, nor how he responded. The opening track, Spiritual Eternal, begins with Coltrane’s super-heavy workout on a droning Wurlitzer, before she’s joined by a huge-sounding string section. A groove is established, then questioned by a solo harp piece, Wisdom Eye. The reedy Wurlitzer returns on a complex Latin strut, Los Caballos, before being swapped out for a distorting Fender Rhodes on Om Supreme. The album ends on a glorious version of Stravinsky’s Spring Rounds, with Coltrane corralling a full orchestra into reaching for what she called Stravinsky’s “infinite sound of eternity”. While similarly exploratory, Coltrane’s second Warner Bros album, Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana, was a work of two distinct halves: the first side rooted in Vedic devotional songs and the second taken up by a raw 19-minute organand-drums blues riff on a traditional Hindi mantra. The focus had become spiritual rather than musical, but with her final and finest Warner Bros studio LP, Transcendence, it felt like a signature sound had been found. On its final four tracks, the ashram vocalists are singing in a gutsy, soulful style in tune with the gospel-blues roots of Alice’s youth. This is the sound Coltrane would take with her to the Vedantic Centre in Agoura, California, and later the Sai Anantam ashram in Agoura Hills, where she taught until her death as Swami Turiyasangitananda. Discussing her Warners departure with Essence magazine in 2006, Coltrane said: “I wanted to go deeper into what the Lord had outlined for me… the music was changing and I thought maybe my time is finished.” This welcome reissue would suggest that perhaps, her time is now.