For many jazz heads the mere mention of the name Coltrane can only mean one thing: John. Many wont even consider that his wife, who he asked to join his band, replacing McCoy Tyner in 1966, could have any significant artistic merit – particularly in comparison to him. Which is a shame because Alice Coltrane’s solo material as a bandleader after his death continued to develop many of her husband’s ideas, with fellow John Coltrane alumni Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali often enlisted as sidemen. There’s no denying that John was a significant influence on her music and her approach to music, yet her own style developed significantly with her increasing spirituality throughout the 70’s and for this writer it was her devotional music, in particular her last four albums for Warner Brothers between 1973 and 1978 that are her finest. They’re still free, but they’re warm, less atonal, with Alice more often than not playing organ or strings, incorporating chanting and non-western instrumentation into her compositions.
When artists find religion the results can often be saccharine, pared down, risk free where there’s little resemblance to their former selves. This wasn’t a danger for Alice Coltrane, she was fearless and single minded. Her music sounded, and still sounds like nothing else around. It moved beyond jazz, beyond devotional music into a highly idiosyncratic something else. Something new. Something Alice.
She established the Vedantic Center in 1976 for spiritual teaching, and in 1983 it was relocated to the 48 acre Sai Anantam Ashram outside of Los Angeles. It was here she practised the ancient Indian Vedic tradition continuing her spiritual journey amongst her followers. Whilst she ceased releasing music commercially between the early 80’s and 2004, she did not stop creating music. To Coltrane the concept of worship and music have always been entwined and she would perform with her followers every Sunday at the Center as well as distributing a series of private press cassettes to followers.
This collection draws from material from four cassettes she recorded and released to followers between 1982 and 1995, Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants, and Glorious Chants.
What’s quickly apparent is that her musical development has continued despite stepping from the public eye. Whilst her 1977 album Rada-Krsna-Nama Sankirtana (Warner Brothers) featured a significant amount of devotional chanting, as did the previous year’s Transcendence where she also incorporated tamboura and mrdanga (khol), here the vocals have really developed, particularly the complexity of the choirs. In much the same way she moved from piano to organ, she’s now also using synthesizer, often accenting the organ. Both strings and non-western instrumentation too continue to be very present. The revelation though is the use of her own voice, often leading chants. What’s remarkable is that what we’ve always been able to hear in her music is unmistakable in her voice, the warmth infused with pure unbridled devotional joy.
She has also continued to adapt traditional devotional Hindu music, integrating them with her own unique approach to music that incorporates her childhood playing in Detroit Baptist churches, bebop with Terry Gibbs, the free playing with her husband’s band and her own work as bandleader where she recorded 12 solo albums as well as collaborations with Carlos Santana and Joe Henderson.
There are harp solos, ecstatic at times near gospel chanting with tambourine and handclaps, soaring strings, interstellar synths, organ and vocal duets – there’s real diversity here. It’s deeply spiritual music created to soothe and elevate. It’s music designed for a higher power, but she has not lost herself in the process. It’s beautiful, free, life affirming transcendent music that doesn’t require spiritual belief to be profoundly affected by.