Has Alice Coltrane ever been more relevant? Maybe in the ’70s, when she set up on her own journey, practically inventing the harp as a jazz instrument, while creating her signature modal/spiritual jazz sound. Spiritual jazz is, of course, thse ‘sub-genre du jour’, at the moment, largely thanks to the unbelievable popularity of Kamasi Washington, who owes much to the Coltranes (and Pharoah Sanders) – although anybody interested in spiritual jazz should really listen to what Nat Birchall does in the UK.
But any DJ worth their turntables has been pointing to Alice Coltrane’s inspired recordings for the past decade or more, educating the non-jazz crowds about the worlds that exist in her intricate weavings and sonic textures.
I regretted the term “the Coltranes” the moment I typed it. It sounds unfair, reducing Alice to the role of John Coltrane’s wife, but the fact is that, although Alice McLeod might have easily created such wonderful works of art as ‘Journey in Satchidananda’, ‘Universal Consciousness’, ‘Transcendence’ or her swan song, ‘Translinear Light’, it was Alice Coltrane who did all that, after her work in John Coltrane’s later bands. In fact, Alice is an essential part of the Coltrane music of that era, almost as much as John Coltrane himself.
By the time she became part of her husband’s band, his sound was pure fire (and so was that of Pharoah Sanders) – which left her with the task of incarnating the other three elements: earth (mostly sharing the task with Rashied Ali), water and air.
She did it with the kind of devoted empathy that is testament of her high emotional intelligence, something that she continued to display throughout her long, fruitful career. And it doesn’t matter under which moniker she pursued this artistic – and in fact, spiritual – quest of hers.
Because since the late ’70s, she chose another name for herself, the third one: Swamini Turiyasangitananda. That’s how she was known in her Santa Monica retreat, the Sai Anantam Ashram. It was there that she spent her ‘silent years’ – or at least silent to the jazz community. The canon of Alice Coltrane’s recordings has a 30-year gap, between her 1978 album ‘Transfiguration’ and her 2004 comeback, ‘Translinear Light’. But Alice Coltrane had not come back because she never went away. She continued to compose and perform music, albeit of a different nature. Every Sunday at the Ashram she would sit on her organ – later on her analogue synthesiser – and lead a group of fellow devotees to a series of chants she had composed, following the Hindu song tradition of bhajans or kirtans – which she enriched with gospel and jazz elements. This body of work had been circulating for years in a series of cassettes, but it’s only this year that the recordings became officially part of the Alice Coltrane Canon, with the launch of ‘World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’, a compilation produced and released through David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label.
A tour ensued (making a stop at the Supersense Festival of the Ecstatic, taking place at the Arts Centre), featuring the Sai Anantam Ashram singers, led by musical director Surya Botofasina, who are determined to keep the spirit of the swamini alive. Of course, in their belief system, the spirit never dies.