Alice Coltrane’s spiritual jazz, 1968-1971

John Coltrane’s death at the young age of 40 from liver cancer in July of 1967 left the jazz community in shock. Most jazz enthusiasts and many musicians did not know of his deteriorating condition during the last months of his life. Coltrane rejected his doctor’s recommendation to have an operation and refused to be hospitalized. Many claimed that no one can fill his shoes and some named various sax players such as Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders as his successors. Few paid attention to the one person who was left with the biggest void, his wife Alice Coltrane. Without her husband, mentor and band leader, and with a family to take care of, she now had a life to live without him. Her musical life was wrapped up in his, and the future of her own musical career was unclear. In 1960, Alice Coltrane – then Alice McLeod – started playing professionally and later became a member of Terry Gibbs’ quartet. A faithful meeting with John Coltrane led to their marriage and she joined his group in 1966. As a widow she found herself with no experience leading her own band, and other than the exposure to large audiences through her husband’s band, she was relatively unknown as a musician in her own right. But what followed was an amazing streak of creativity empowered by a spiritual awakening that resulted in deeply moving music. In an interview by Pauline Rivelli in July 1968, Alice Coltrane remarked: “I don’t think that I have the talent of my husband. I don’t have the genius of John, but I will try to elevate the music as much as I possibly can.” Elevate she did, throughout her career as musician and spiritual being. This is a review of the music she made in her early career under her own name, releasing albums for the Impulse! Records jazz label in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Alice Coltrane, 1968

Alice Coltrane’s first session as a leader took place in January of 1968. Six months after her husband passed away she dedicated one of the musical pieces to him. Along with Jimmy Garrison on bass, Ben Riley on drums and Pharoah Sanders on bass clarinet, she played a composition called Ohnedaruth, or compassion in Hindu, a name that John Coltrane adopted. She said that It was chanted (played) a lot by John while working together with his group. It became the opening track on her first album, A Monastic Trio. The album not only carries John Coltrane’s spirit, but also demonstrates his mentorship and influence on Alice Coltrane: “You will not hear me play within a two-octave range, or a three. You’re gonna hear the entire piano from one to eighty-eight. When I became part of the group I only played through two or three octaves like we all did, chording for the soloists. But John said, ‘You have all these keys. Why don’t you play all of them as completely as you can?”

A new instrument that emerged on this album and continued to be heard on most of her future albums is that of the harp. Preceding her interest in the harp was that of her late husband’s, who was exploring a multitude of sonic possibilities and ordered one shortly before his death. He never lived to see or hear it, as it arrived after he passed away. Alice later recalled hearing the harp strings projecting a sound when the wind blowing through the open windows went through them. She started playing the instrument, untaught. Years later she commented on her love for the angelic instrument: “The harp has to be played with the fingers plucking the strings, but it uses air and that’s what I liked so much about it. Maybe that’s why we think of heavenly things and divine things, because we get that rush of the wind.” The entire second side of A Monastic Trio in its LP form consisted of harp improvisations as a trio, recorded in June 1968 with Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali on drums. Lovely Sky Boat is a good example from that session.

Critics were not kind to Alice Coltrane’s debut. “A Monastic Trio showed that as a solo pianist Alice Coltrane relied too much on rococo embellishment and allowed her strong choral patterns to be accentuated by quite trivial decoration.” wrote Jazz Journal. None the kinder, DownBeat added: “The piano and harp are unsuitable instruments for transmitting John Coltrane’s passionate utterance.”

Alice Coltrane was going through tough times in the late 1960s. She and her family were provided for by income generated from John Coltrane’s record sales and Jowcol music, the publishing company he established. But the loss of her husband, who was also a spiritual and musical mentor for her, threw her off balance. Through all of that emotional turmoil, she had to handle raising up four little kids.

Alice Coltrane and family. Ebony magazine, November 1967

Visits to recording studios were not at a high frequency, but she had the benefit of a home studio Coltrane built in the basement of their home, located in the town of Huntington on the north shore of Long Island, where most of her albums prior to her move to the west coast in 1973 were recorded. On May of 1969 she was able to record material for another album, Huntington Ashram Monastery. This was another trio setting, with Ron Carter on bass and Rashied Ali on drums. The format is again divided between one LP side with the harp, another with the piano. The track Turiya has a special significance, as it is the Sanskrit name she would soon adopt. In the liner notes to the album she wrote: “Turiya is complimented by Ron Carter’s bass, which has a natural rapport with the harp. Turiya is a state of consciousness. It is regarded as the high state of Nirvana, the goal of human life. Throughout this selection, I notice in the music a striving to attain to, or the movement ahead to reach the Turiya state.”

Summarizing Alice Coltrane’s musical style up to that point, Ed Michel, who produced most of her albums for the Impulse! label, said: “She would usually just play something. At that point, especially among the New Yok players, they thought of themselves as the free guys. That was where it was headed. You would suggest a harmonic environment, with a bass figure, and open it up from there. Especially in the beginning she would do that.” But the following year, in 1970, Alice Coltrane recorded two albums that demonstrated a major development in her composing style and an ability to create more structured and highly emotional pieces of music. The first, Ptah, the El Daoud, was a result of a single session in January, this time featuring two tenor sax players, Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson, and a rhythm section consisting of Ron Carter and Ben Riley. The music is focused and memorable. Turiya and Ramakrishna, a blues trio feature, is a favorite on this album, with a great solo by Ron Carter. Alice Coltrane wrote in the liner notes: “You’ll notice near  the end where I modulate from D Flat up to D and back to the D Flat before going out, there’s a suggestion of ‘Parker’s Mood’, the part to which the words went ‘Come with me…’ It’s like God asking us if we want to go home – that kind of feeling.”

The highlight of the album is Blue Nile, with the two horn players switching to flutes and Alice Coltrane on harp. This is as soulful as jazz gets, or is it jazz? The harp glissandos transcend this music outside the boundaries of any one single genre. Given the musicians who worked with Alice Coltrane, all of them steeped in the free jazz movement of the time, you would expect a much more aggressive and somewhat less communicative style of playing, but this is quite the opposite. Bassist Cecil McBee, who would soon record with her, commented: “Where we were trying to come from, as free jazz musicians, with the loudness and bombast of our music, she made these statements in a more delicate, graceful, articulate, and uniform way.”

Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson

Alice Coltrane’s seeking for higher spiritual consciousness found a natural destination in 1970. She wrote this in the opening to the liner notes of her next album: “Direct inspiration for Journey in Satchidananda comes from my meeting and association with someone who is near and dear to me. I am speaking of my own beloved spiritual preceptor, Swami Satchidananda. Swamiji is the first example I have seen in recent years of Universal Love of God in action. He expresses an impersonal love, which encompasses thousands of people. Anyone listening to his selection should try to envision himself floating on an ocean of Satchidanandaji’s love.” Guru Swami Satchidananda moved to New York in the late 1960s and started teaching his philosophy in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His lectures filled venues such as Carnegie Hall and he opened the Woodstock festival, addressing 500,000 young rock fans.

Journey in Satchidananda is my favorite album by Alice Coltrane. The term spiritual gets overused sometimes, but this is truly spiritual music. As the needle drops on the title track that opens the album, you are immediately transported to a different mental space with the drone sound of a tamboura, a hypnotic bass line, drums and bells, Alice Coltrane’s harp and a soulful improvisation by Pharoah Sanders. Coltrane said of Sanders: “Pharoah’s playing on this album sounds transcendental, reflecting the ancient, sacred sound. I believe that his music is one of the strongest forces of its kind being heard in the world today.”

Two weeks after recording Journey in Satchidananda at Coltrane’s studio, Sanders and Cecil McBee joined forces again on the sax player’s milestone album Thembi, another highlight for Impulse! Records. Coltrane on McBee: “I feel that Cecil McBee’s offering here is highly stimulating and selective in its entirety, and that his technical capabilities have reached the point that allow his music to transcend the limitations of standardized forms of bass playing.” McBee was greatly affected by the experience of recording with Alice Coltrane: “It was very, very spiritual. The lights were low and she had incense and there was not much conversation, dictation or verbalization about what was to be. Her desire of your essence was all very tangible. The spiritual, emotional, physical statement of the environment, it was just there. You felt it and you just played it. It was very subtle but powerful. I can remember it to this day. It was all novel to me, but I knew that it was something very spiritual and very special. No doubt about it.”

Cecil McBee

The album closer Isis and Osiris was recorded live at The Village Gate in New York City earlier in 1970, and farther explores ethnic timbers with the inclusion of the oud. Bass player Vishnu Wood, who knew Alice Coltrane from the early days in her home town of Detroit, introduced her to Swami Satchidananda a year earlier, and plays the oud on this track. Bass player Charlie Haden also plays here. A few years later he will record a duet with Alice Coltrane on his album Closeness. Alice Coltrane summarized the album in her closing remark to the liner notes: “I hope that this album will be a form of meditation and a spiritual awakening for those who listen with their inner ear.”

Vishnu Wood

Shortly after recording the album, Coltrane went on a 5-week trip of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). She took her harp with her and participated in various celebrations that took place in temples and retreats. She was exposed to classical Indian music and chanting. Her next album, Universal Consciousness, was a reflection of these experiences. She added additional textures to the sound palette by incorporating a violin quartet and taking up the Wurlitzer organ. Ed Michel: “Alice is a very schooled musician. She knows the classical repertoire. Universal Consciousness was the first string album for her.” Coltrane made all the arrangements for the string quartet, but enlisted the services of Ornette Coleman to transcribe the arrangements for the musicians. Hare Krishna, a mantra that serves as a praise to God, is a highlight on this album and quite a departure from her previous albums. The rhythm section consists of Jimmy Garrison on bass, Jack DeJohnette and Clifford Jarvis on drums.

Reading through the liner notes for the album, you may get tired of Coltrane’s descriptions of her spiritual awakening and all that praise of the lord, typical of someone who found a new faith. But the music cannot be ignored, it is truly spiritual in the most sincere form that Coltrane could have conceived it. She later commented on this aspect: “I think the music sounded exploratory. I’ve played pieces from ‘Universal’ in concert. The reaction wasn’t ‘Oh my, we have to become cosmical, we have to go into some mystical experience.’ The people just heard a joyfulness, a light-heartedness about it.”

Alice Coltrane, 1970

Following her return from India Coltrane moved to California and opened a center for the studies of Hindu philosophy. Her recording career continued in earnest throughout the 1970s and slowed down later. Notable recordings include World Galaxy and Lord of Lords, her last albums on Impulse!, both expanding the size and prominence of strings. She also participated in an interesting collaboration with Carlos Santana on the album Illuminations and on Joe Henderson’s 1976 album The Elements. For me that initial streak of albums following the death of John Coltrane are not only a chronicle of a great musician who was able to overcome an immense emotional strain, but they also contain some of the best music produced during that period.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this:

Categories: Artist

Tagged as: ,

12 replies »

  1. A great read! Would be nice to read a bit more about her 80ties work – “Divine Songs”, “Turiya Sings” etc. and her ashram commune 🙂

  2. Also would love to see more on World Galaxy, and the mentioned Lord of Lords. The opening note on Love Supreme with Swami Satchidanada’s vocal was always the Lost Chord I was seeking. Om Shanti

  3. Hello, I enjoyed the article! I’d love to use this quote in a paper, do you know the original source/citation? “The harp has to be played with the fingers plucking the strings, but it uses air and that’s what I liked so much about it. Maybe that’s why we think of heavenly things and divine things, because we get that rush of the wind.”

  4. Excellent article about Alice Coletrane and fellow musicians . I’ve loved her music and still do. Thank you.

  5. Great article with embeded videos. Love she played also with Laura Nyro too. She was absolutely brilliant and so diverse…
    And all this while raising 4 kids who had lost their dad. Dealing with her own loss and theirs too.

  6. I saw her in Berkeley High Auditorium with instruments from different cultures she on harp and there was an oud and they were placed separately around made the sense of peoples from around the world able to form a union thru music. It was between ’69 and 71,

  7. I had a music teacher in high school (Performing Arts in Manhattan) who was good friends with both Herbie Hancock & Alice. She got them both to speak at an assembly at our school around 1970-71 & I haven’t been the same since, especially after Alice’s visit. After she spoke for awhile, she sat at the piano & said to the audience “feel your breath & try to maintain this engagement as you listen”.

    It’s also interesting to note that a few years before she reached out to Carlos, she reached out to Hendrix, but was given the runaround a few times by his management.

    • Thank you for the story. I did not know about the connection to Hendrix. That would have been quite an interesting collaboration, like that one that did not happen between Hendrix and Miles Davis.

  8. In the early seventies, Alice and her band came to my college to perform, St. Lawrence University. I sat in the audience transformed and drew to her music. After the concert, I met her backstage and gave her one of my drawings of her. She was appreciative.

Leave a Reply