Alice Coltrane: where to start in her back catalogue

In Listener’s Digest, our writers help you explore the work of great musicians. In this instalment, how to navigate the wildly esoteric recordings of jazz pioneer Alice Coltrane

The album to start with

Journey in Satchidananda (1971)

Alice Coltrane: Journey in Satchidananda – video

The first thing to understand about composer and musician Alice Coltrane’s catalogue is that there are no duds. Jump in anywhere and you’ll find variations on the signature sound that developed from her beginnings in bebop jazz, through the spiritual free compositions of the Coltranes as a romantic and spiritual unit (John Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967, four years after they met), to the transcendental sounds of her later divine music.

But you have to start somewhere, so make it Journey in Satchidananda, a mid-point between the modal and meditative, where all the parts of her musical being and biography are present. In its opening (title) track, there are all the aspects of Alice Coltrane’s music – jazz player Cecil McBee lays down a double bass motif, joined by a sharp drone from an Indian tamboura, then Coltrane’s sparkling harp pours in like cool water as Pharoah Sanders’s saxophone dances over the top. It is an audaciously lush theme for her guru, Swami Satchidananda, and like so much of Coltrane’s composition it is positively cinematic, suggesting the opening of luxurious drapes on a panoramic vista. It ought strictly to be called fusion music, with elements taken from Indian music and combined with western traditions, but in Coltrane’s music there are no visible joins – all is bound in cosmic opulence.

The three albums to check out next

Alice Coltrane with Strings – World Galaxy (1972)

Alice Coltrane: My Favorite Things – video

There is a sub-catalogue to this primer, which is the music of John and Alice. They met in 1963 when Alice was on tour as a member of the Terry Gibbs Quartet. After John’s divorce they married and she joined his band, playing on albums including Infinity and Expression. They made one duo album, Cosmic Music. John died suddenly, leaving Alice as a single mother with four children, but she continued to work on the music they had been developing. World Galaxy includes Alice’s renderings of two of John’s signature tunes – it was not the first or the last time she did this, but there is a ferocious power and emotion in these versions of A Love Supreme and My Favorite Things.

Recorded over two days with a 16-piece string orchestra, World Galaxy features Alice playing piano, harp and organ. My Favorite Things starts sweetly but descends into a chaotic breakdown as her organ flares in anxious bursts. The album closes with the salvation of A Love Supreme, which is soothingly narrated by Swami Satchidananda before she lets loose a rude funk upon the standard’s signature motif.

Joe Henderson with Alice Coltrane – The Elements (1974)

Joe Henderson with Alice Coltrane: Fire – video

Coltrane’s own music was always about collaboration, whether with other players or other cultures – this entry could equally have been Ptah the El Daoud, with Pharoah Sanders. The Elements, based on the four elements and recorded with saxophonist Joe Henderson (who also plays on Ptah), is a triumph of concept. Variously credited to Joe Henderson, or Joe Henderson with Alice Coltrane, its first track, Fire, opens with Charlie Haden’s burning bassline, a lick setting up a suite that moves through Air, Water and Earth. It is an immaculately conceived and executed project and Alice’s sound looms large. The pieces all sound like their titles, from the light and ephemeral Air to the fluid and rippling delay deployed on Water and the grounded groove on Earth.

Alice Coltrane-Turiyasangitananda – Divine Songs (1987)

Alice Coltrane-Turiyasangitananda: Divine Songs – stream

Coltrane later took the spiritual name Turiyasangitananda, which roughly means “the Lord’s highest song of bliss”. By the mid-80s she was recording spiritual music and releasing it as private press tapes on her own Avatar Book Institute. Luaka Bop released a double collection of her devotional music in 2017, gathering selections from the albums Divine Songs, Infinite Chants and Glorious Chants (but missing out Turiya Sings, which is also essential).

Divine Songs is the best, a mind-blowing psychedelic vision of what transcendence might sound like. Its lavish string sections and sung chants combine with luminous synths whose pitch arches upwards as if in salutation. It’s an unbeatable cosmic power-up. Coltrane is not often considered the creator of synthesiser masterpieces, but this album demands a reassessment in that respect.

One for the heads

Spiritual Eternal, from Eternity (1976)

Alice Coltrane: Spiritual Eternal – video

Whether she is taking a section of Dvořák and making it a journey through the clouds (Going Home), or playing wild free jazz on Wurlitzer organ and harp, much of Coltrane’s astral wonderland is arguably one for the heads. So rather than sending you to a lost cut, an unreleased solo performance or a track from her Ashram cassettes that nobody can find unless they’re pro online diggers, here’s Spiritual Eternal, from her one of her most “mainstream” albums, Eternity.

Eternity never gets much credit in her catalogue. It is short and lacks the coherence of her other releases. However, this opening track is wildly underrated, the huge Wurlitzer solo swaddled in strings, like the theme tune to someone parading down a palatial staircase in a silken gown (AKA the perfect soundtrack for waltzing down your own stairs in a dressing gown). What swing! What elegance!

Further reading

Enduring Love: Alice Coltrane, by Edwin Pouncey

In 2002 Edwin Pouncey interviewed Coltrane for Wire magazine at her California ashram, which burned down in the 2018 wildfires. Pouncey’s portrait (with beautiful photography by Jake Walters) places her in a historical context while illuminating her uniqueness and awe-inspiring presence. His statement that “the music of Alice Coltrane is more relevant today than when it was first recorded between 1968-78” is followed by speculation that “perhaps the need for spiritual salvation is that much greater in a world apparently bent on self destruction” – a sentiment that rings as true today.

Monument Eternal, by Alice Coltrane-Turiyasangitananda

There is a wealth of great reading about Coltrane, but she also wrote about her spiritual life herself, including this small pamphlet recounting the revelations and trials she underwent in the late 60s. Monument Eternal is not an autobiography, but a hallucinatory, esoteric text that she introduces as “a book about my true spiritual experiences and spiritual suffering which has never ceased even unto this present day”.

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.

• What’s your favourite Alice Coltrane album? Let us know in the comments.

Contributor

Jennifer Lucy Allan

The GuardianTramp

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