Friday, August 18, 2017

Alice Coltrane - 1971 - Journey In Satchidananda

Alice Coltrane 
Journey In Satchidananda

01. Journey In Satchidananda 6:33
02. Shiva-Loka 6:33
03. Stopover Bombay 2:50
04. Something About John Coltrane 10:40
05. Isis And Osiris 11:32

Originally recorded November 8, 1970, Dix Hills, New York.
Track 5 was recorded July 4, 1970, in performance at The Village Gate, New York City.

Bass – Cecil McBee
Bells, Tambourine – Majid Shabazz
Design – Wallace Caldwell
Drums – Rashied Ali
Harp, Piano, Liner Notes, Composed By – Alice Coltrane
Soprano Saxophone, Percussion – Pharoah Sanders
Tambura [Tamboura] – Tulsi
Bass – Charlie Haden (On track 5)
Oud – Vishnu Wood (On track 5)

My music collection has diversified over recent years. I blame it on people, if such a wondrous thing can be “blamed” on anyone. But having met many different people over the years, both online and off, I can say that the expansion of one’s music library is a fantastic side effect of being social, of being open to people—something that’s coming easier to me the more I do it. I like to think of my musical evolution in stages, or new waves.

I like to think I’m this open to new music because of my earlier discovery of jazz. I’m not sure if the connection is sound logically, but it makes sense in my head: the ad-libs, the improvisation, the creative freedom, the way in which the music demands attentiveness. In my mind, if you can listen to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew in one sitting, then you’re probably apt to listen to anything and perhaps find some joy. (Full disclosure: I love Bitches Brew, but it’s been a long time since I heard it.)

My fascination with jazz comes and goes, often replaced with more popular music. Still, around this time last summer, I wanted to dive back in and decided to give Alice Coltrane a try. Various people had described her music to me as “wild” or “out there” or even “transcendent”—of what, I was uncertain. And admittedly, my curiosity at first centered, briefly, on her husband John—specifically, his well-documented spiritual journey and transformation, in body (giving up alcohol and kicking his drug habit), in soul (a recommitment to his religious beliefs), and in music.

There’s a photo of John sitting down, saxophone in hand, thinking contemplatively with a fist covering his mouth. In the background, sitting at what appears to be a piano, is young Alice. There was something about the image that went against the prevailing theory that John just sort of stumbled into a spiritual reawakening, or that its origins were unknown due to his untimely death in 1967.

The answer seemed to be sitting right next to him at the piano. Or part of the reason. I don’t know if the simple act of a person entering your life can, in and of itself, trigger some kind of evolution. Sources of inspiration—human or otherwise—tend to be catalysts. There’s truth in the belief that you can’t change a person. People have their own motivations, their own agendas, for doing (or not doing) the things they do.

To say Alice was the sole reason for John’s transformation is a little off for two reasons: it presumes John didn’t want to make the changes himself, and it suggests that Alice’s sole purpose was to be by John’s side, to wake him up, and help usher in the final productive years of his career and life. Perhaps it’s best to say that John wanted and pursued wholesale changes in his life—changes that precipitated the arrival and marriage to Alice. I can understand it. I see it.

Yet this is where conversations and essays and articles on Alice Coltrane tend to derail themselves. To write about Alice is to separate her from John (apologies for taking so long to do so). A pianist, organist, harpist, and composer in her own right, Alice’s musical career—coupled with her own spiritual journey and transformation—superseded John’s output by forty years. Which brings me to my first exposure to her work, around September of last year.

Music, much like literature, finds us when we need it, or arises and serves as puzzle pieces to greater connections we make in our heads and hearts. Love, personal evolution, and creative focus: these three ideas were on my mind as I searched online for “best Alice Coltrane album to start with.”

The Internet seemed to unanimously suggest the 1971 classic, Journey in Satchidananda. Purchased without a second thought via iTunes, Journey… first made its impact on me with its titular track. Cecil McBee is credited as the bass player for the opening track, and so—McBee with a haunting, earth-deep bass line, setting the tone for a piece of music that is equal parts standard and avant-garde, easy listening and deeply meditative.

Pharoah Sanders—saxophonist, and owner of one of the coolest names in music (albeit accidentally)—is first on the track, swiftly moving up and down and through scales with his soprano sax. I’m often not a fan of the soprano sax—blame Kenny G.—but its pitch makes sense in “Journey in Satchidananda” and throughout the album in general. Its light, high tone is inviting, devoid of the brash power behind the alto and tenor versions of the instrument. The sound is inviting, but the speed of the notes being played requires such close attention to what Sanders is and isn’t playing.

There is nothing “easy” or “inviting” about Alice as she begins her solo. Where her fingers open the titular track as she uses the harp to intro, and back, Sanders, those same fingers thrust “Journey…” into the difficult. The harp itself isn’t one I would’ve considered to be a jazz instrument, and being a jazz harpist was itself a rarity. This is to say the harp’s place in a jazz track—specifically as a solo—demanded immediate attention from me.

To hear Alice play with the hands of a guitar virtuoso, making an elegant instrument, typically reserved for more classical music, sound powerful and experimental and spiritual and cool is, indeed, a transcendent experience. The beauty of music played with live instruments is the violence necessary to create the harmony, the melody. To bang, pluck, blow into is to create a symbiosis between musician and instrument. The result is, despite not hearing a single lyric, a single word, listening to Alice is to listen to her call forth all the physical and soulful energy in her body.

The rest of the album—thirty-seven minutes in all—is a little less bold than the first track, but is equally rooted in the physical, the soulful, as “Stopover in Bombay” swings with Alice on the piano. “Something About John Coltrane” is a tribute to the bandleader’s husband—a standard that could easily take its place amongst John’s albums Blue Trane or perhaps Giant Steps. Pharoah Sanders, channeling his deceased collaborative partner, pays great respect to Coltrane’s sound without attempting to replicate him. Alice, once again on piano, plays while channeling a bit of Thelonious Monk, who collaborated with John during his early recording career in the 1950s.

In all, Journey in Satchidananda is both textured and easily accessible—understandable that my search results all recommended this album as an introduction into Alice Coltrane’s discography. I’ve since added the albums Universal Consciousness and Lord of Lords to my collection, with so many more records to go. I have a lot to say about Alice—relative to and independent of John—and what activate personal and creative transformations, and how the right people can enter our lives at the right times, under the right conditions, to trigger, perhaps, an accelerated evolution. And maybe I’ll write more about Alice, both here and elsewhere.

For now, listening to Alice play is to hear what love, and the love of life, sounds like—it is a love that is for John, but is also clearly a love for something higher, something far less flawed and temporary than another human being. You can hear it in You’re Dead!, the latest album by Alice’s grand-nephew, Flying Lotus—a transcendental love reaching for more than the impermanence of our lives.

Alice Coltrane - 1970 - Ptah. The El Daoud

Alice Coltrane
Ptah. The El Daoud 
(Featuring Pharoah Sanders And Joe Henderson)

01. Ptah, The El Daoud 13:58
02. Turiya & Ramakrishna 8:19
03. Blue Nile 6:58
04. Mantra 16:33

Bass – Ron Carter
Drums – Ben Riley
Bells – Chuck Stewart
Piano, Harp – Alice Coltrane
Tenor Saxophone, Alto Flute – Joe Henderson
Tenor Saxophone, Alto Flute, Bells – Pharoah Sanders

Recorded in the studio at the Coltrane home, Dix Hills, New York, January 26, 1970.

The description of the track "Turiya & Ramakrishna" in the liner notes of Ptah, the El Daoud contains a quote from Alice Coltrane - "It's more a feeling than a melody" - which actually describes the music on the album as a whole. And yet it's far from the unfocused avant-garde haze such an assertion (as well as the presence of Pharoah Sanders) may seem to indicate; though never sharply defined - and excepting a few rambling missteps outside the realm of tonal structure during the vastness of the title track and "Mantra" - the music is honed and performed with the utmost kinetic congruence. Coltrane's music achieves its dynamic goals by channeling some of the most expressive and empathic players ever to wield instruments in Sanders, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Ben Riley. The overall result is a captivating and indeed transcendent musical experience. 

The afore mentioned "Turiya" and "Blue Nile" stand out as the shorter, more buoyant pieces sandwiched between the other two haunting epics. "Turiya" is a completely unique piece built around Coltrane's equally unique piano style; she tends to play a keyboard much the way she plays the harp, eschewing root chords for tight clusters of arpeggiated notes, and on this song she manages to wrap this around an exquisite blues form. The harp is only utilized on the album in "Blue Nile", providing an illustrious backdrop for the quiet musings of Carter and the saxophonists. Sanders sounds especially piquant in this somewhat restrained setting, though he compromises none of his intensity along with the volume. And Henderson, as soulful as they come yet not as obvious a choice as others perhaps more in Coltrane's (or Impulse's) more immediate musical circle, was an excellent personnel selection for Ptah. 

Moreso than sequences of notes from respective instruments, what one hears and assimilates throughout this music is the individuals themselves who play it; designed within the ultimate statement and vision of Alice Coltrane is the opportunity for the soloists and even the rhythm players to filter their own spirits through it. Even as one may have no use for Coltrane's (or her husband's) underlying mysticism, there is no denying this magnificent spiritual quality that earmarks the best of her music. Seldom did it attain such heights as on Ptah, the El Daoud

The word avant-garde is simply a term for the “leftovers” of music that don't fit neatly into any category. Given the breadth of experimental possibilities, it is rather meaningless by definition in conveying any prior sense of what to expect before actually hearing a new musical piece. Such is the case for ALICE COLTRANE and her masterpiece PTAH THE EL DAOUD (Ptah is an Egyptian God and El Daoud simply means The Beloved.) This sounds absolutely nothing like many of the other jazz artists lumped into the avant-garde such as Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra etc. Upon first listen it seems to me that Alice simply created something in the jazz world that is similar to what emerged in the rock world that later become known as post-rock, meaning rock instrumentation focused on ambiance and soundscapes rather than preordained musical compositions. ALICE COLTRANE does just that. It is clearly jazz by the sounds of the saxes and flutes, yet it's like the scarab beetle that graces this beautiful album cover. Alice's musical vision is the soft spiritually-infused fleshy part on the inside and the jazz instrumentation is the hard exoskeleton giving it a form. Just like post-rock, this post-jazz has additional instruments not usually heard in jazz. In this case the harp played with full virtuosity by Alice herself. And a super satisfying performance I may add.

This album is just brilliant! It is a return to the modal jazz composition of the previous decade that was quickly being abandoned for a more fusion approach in the jazz world, yet it wasn't just being retrospective. It was also fresh and original taking jazz to new places. At times the piano reminds me more of soul or gospel adding a warmth and a gentleness to the ferociousness of the musical performance that feels like a battle between order and chaos and at times it truly does have a free-jazz feel especially when Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson are competing on the left and right channels with their saxophones. The free form performances of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Ben Riley show that it really is the sum of the parts that make this album come together. None of the individual instruments would sound right without the contrast. The strange thing about this album is that despite feeling like a mystical spiritual journey the music doesn't particularly evoke any feel towards the Ancient Egyptian imagery depicted on the cover art. Doesn't matter a bit though. I find this music satisfying from beginning to end and wishing more albums of the sort had been made like it. However, I guess that would diminish from its uniqueness. 

Alice Coltrane - 1969 - Huntington Ashram Monastery

Alice Coltrane 
Huntington Ashram Monastery

01. Huntington Ashram Monastery 5:30
02. Turiya 4:16
03. Paramahansa Lake 4:29
04. Via Sivanandagar 6:03
05. IHS 8:44
06. Jaya Jaya Rama 6:25

Bass – Ron Carter
Drums, Percussion – Rashied Ali
Harp, Piano – Alice Coltrane

Extracts from liner notes:
"Ashram means 'hermitage'. Of the many humanly-constructed ashrams and monasteries throughout the world, I feel that the real ashram is in your heart... 
...'Turiya' is a state of consciousness. It is regarded as the high state of Nirvana, the goal of human life... 
...IHS means 'I Have Suffered'. It exemplifies the sufferings and tribulations of mankind in general. According to Eastern thought, suffering is a gift from God. Certain individuals suffer to a greater extent, more than others, depending upon Karma (action in general). The highest of these individuals are those who sacrifice themselves for humanity and love of God".

Composer, pianist, keyboard player, harpist and bandleader Alice (McLeod) Coltrane married John Coltrane in 1965. She played in her husband's band until his passing in 1967 but his influence remained strong throughout her music thereafter. Few of her albums reflect this influence more strongly than Huntington Ashram Monastery, recorded in 1969
Huntington captures a trio date with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Rashied Ali, who picked up for Elvin Jones in John Coltrane's band and helped propel 'Trane into his most "free" jazz. Its title track, originally composed as a solo harp piece, and "Parmahansa Lake" pivot their internal (meditative) and external (exploratory) faces upon the fulcrum of Carter's repetitive, throbbing bass, even though their swirling movements and rhythms, especially from Coltrane's harp, sound static, nearly floating. "I am especially pleased with Ron Carter's playing on this album," she wrote in Monastery's original notes. "His ears are harmonically attuned to higher chord progressions."

Coltrane moves from harp to piano for "Via Sivanandager" and "Jaya Jaya Rama" and the piano's less heavenly, more temporal sound seems to root them in more earthly styles. The spiritual overtones, and multiplicity and sheer volume of her notes, impart such majestic jazz power to "Via Sivanandager" that the comparison to McCoy Tyner, another of her husband's most famous sidemen, seems almost too evident. Her piano roots "Jaya Jaya Rama" in the blood, sweat and tears of the blues.

This is the rare occasion of an Alice Coltrane trio album, and it provides a more intimate look at her music than most of the other albums from this period, many of which sounded like the John Coltrane band without Coltrane.

On side A, Alice Coltrane does an exercise in abstract impressionism, weaving ethereal sound tapestries on her harp while Ron Carter works his bass like a water pump. The semantic link to New Age music is definitely there, but Coltrane's music is simply too abstract and angular to please anyone who would expect anything melodic.

On side B, she does an exercise in abstract expressionism, this time on the piano, and it seems almost as if she's pointing out the way that piano solos would take on 20-30 years later. This is perfectly up to date music, with only a slight hint of late 60s hippiedom, but firmly rooted and full of expressive emotion.

In fact, this album borders so much on modern classical music that it may surprise first-time listeners, who, I guess, expected something very different from John Coltrane's wife. This is unlike most of her other albums, and it probably hasn't been properly reissued on CD for this very reason, but it's by no means an album that can be neglected.

Alice Coltrane - 1968 - A Monastic Trio

Alice Coltrane 
A Monastic Trio

01. Ohnedaruth 7:49
02. Gospel Trane 6:44
03. I Want To See You 6:42
04. Lovely Sky Boat 6:51
05. Oceanic Beloved 4:18
06. Atmic Peace 5:53

Bass – Jimmy Garrison
Drums – Ben Riley (tracks: A1), Rashied Ali (tracks: A2-B3)
Piano, Harp – Alice Coltrane

A Monastic Trio, created in the year following her husband's passing, is Coltrane's first recording as a band leader and features six original compositions. While John's spirit can be felt throughout – from the song titles ("Ohnedaruth" was his adopted Hindu name) to the personnel (Jimmy Garrison, Rashied Ali, and Pharaoh Sanders were frequent collaborators) – the album showcases Alice's immense talent for fusing spiritual free jazz and new age with classical, Eastern, post-bop and gospel.

As the late Amiri Baraka writes, "'I Want to See You' is a monastic piano concerto. With echoes of Europe ... it has a solemnity and majesty to it.... Yes, monastic is the word. The piano broods in its earth imagination."

Alice Coltrane - 1968 - Cosmic Music

Alice Coltrane 
Cosmic Music 

01. Manifestation
02. Lord Help Me To Be
03. Rev. King
04. The Sun

Bass – Jimmy Garrison
Drums – Ben Riley, Rashied Ali, Ray Appleton
Flute, Tenor Saxophone – Pharoah Sanders
Piano – Alice Coltrane
Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet – John Coltrane

Tracks 1 and 3 are John Coltrane's last recordings from 1966 and then tracks 2 and 4 are Alice Coltrane's from 1968.

This is the purple cover edition of the privately pressed release by Alice Coltrane.

Born and raised in the religious family of Solon and Anne McLeod in Detroit, Michigan, Alice McLeod (August 27, 1937 – January 12, 2007) became interested in music and began her study of the piano at the age of 7. She consistently and diligently practiced and studied classical music. Subsequently, she enrolled in a more advanced study of the music of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky.

Alice: ‘Classical music for me, was an extensive, technical study for many years. At that time, I discovered it to be a truly profound music with a highly intellectual ambiance. The classical artist must respectfully recreate the composer’s meaning. Although, with jazz music, you are allowed to develop your own creativity, improvisation and expression. This greatly inspires me.’

With a scholarship to the Detroit Institute of Technology, her musical achievements began to echo throughout the city, to the extent that she played in many music halls and churches, for various occasions as weddings, funerals, and religious programs. Her skills and abilities were highly enhanced when she began playing piano and organ for the (gospel) junior and senior choirs at her church.

But her brother, bassist Ernie Farrow, introduced her to jazz early on, and as a teen she became quite taken with bop and its offshoots. In Detroit she played piano on sessions with masters like guitarist Kenny Burrell and saxophonist Lucky Thompson. By the early 60’s she was sharing the bandstand with vibes player Terry Gibbs, it was on tour with Gibbs that she met saxophonist John Coltrane.

Their 1965 wedding was the start of a musical union as well. When she replaced pianist McCoy Tyner in the classic Coltrane Quartet there was hubbub in the jazz world. But John Coltrane’s music was unfolding further with every passing month, he had begun probing musical motifs and deep inspiration from the East.

When her husband died in 1967, Alice continued working with members of his last group, including Garrison, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and drummer Rashied Ali. She began playing the harp, utilizing sitar and tablas in the ensemble, and turning fully to Eastern cultures for inspiration. Spiritual and colorful, her music morphed into the soundtrack for prayer and meditative techniques.

John Coltrane transformed the inner architecture of jazz throughout the mid-1950s and 1960s and long after his premature death at age 40 in 1967. No other American musician could be said to be at the spiritual center of the '60s musical universe as Trane influenced Albert Ayler, La Monte Young, Jimi Hendrix and everybody in between.

Cosmic Music, originally self-released by Alice Coltrane in 1968 and later issued by Impulse!, features two tracks ("Manifestation" and "Rev. King") by John Coltrane's legendary final quintet that were recorded in San Francisco on February 2nd, 1966 and two more ("Lord Help Me To Be" and "The Sun") from Alice Coltrane's very first session as a bandleader, recorded six months after her husband's passing.

"Manifestation" opens with the group already in mid-flight: Trane's fierce tenor leads the way with Pharoah Sanders' blistering sax and Alice's powerful chords hearing his call. On "Rev. King," Trane introduces a lyrical theme and then the composition erupts into fiery incantations, while Jimmy Garrison's bass throbs alongside the propulsive, gravity-defying drumming of Rashied Ali.

Foreshadowing her majestic debut, A Monastic Trio, "Lord Help Me To Be" brings Alice's celestial piano playing and inspired improvisations to the foreground with Sanders, Garrison and drummer Ben Riley rumbling in tow. "The Sun," a meditative ballad with subtle urgency, perfectly closes the album's contemplative circle.

As John Coltrane recites on the final track, "May there be peace and love and perfection throughout all creation."