Last week, I was transcribing an interview wherein my subject talked about music “that captured the joyous noise that the late Coltrane quartet was getting into, free but super soulful; there’s a groove to it that’s undeniable even though it’s totally free.” For whatever reason, such a comment triggered me to reach behind two stacks of discs and draw forth every single John Coltrane disc I had on the shelves. I hadn’t spent time with the man and his profound music in four, maybe five, years, even though he was the gateway not only into my jazz appreciation (fucked up as it sounds now, OM was the first jazz CD I ever bought) but into the spiritual undercurrents made manifest in this music, a trait that I subconsciously seek and listen for today, no matter the genre. Spending the better part of the three-day weekend blaring that ecstatic celebration of freedom and terrestrial divinity, my roommates were nonplussed, hearing only the din from behind my door.
Since I was already there, I drew forth my Alice Coltrane records as well, though I’ve proportionally spent far more time with her own singular music in the recent past. Having spent this past weekend in such a swoon, triggered by either his sheets of sounds or her whorls of harp, Monday’s news of Alice Coltrane’s passing struck me particularly hard. Not to suggest a cosmic connection by any means, but I felt a calming presence pervade each note of hers; such a passing only makes these now purposeful auditions of her catalog feel bittersweet.
The historical record will tell you that she stood in the Giant’s shadow and surely a few critics and fans view her as a Yoko Ono sort of figure, a femme catalyst to a beloved band’s (inevitable) break-up, taking the place of Quartet pianist McCoy Tyner on the bandstand near the end of Coltrane’s earthly life, his resultant music shading towards “noise” and an almost unbearable sound of true freedom. As Ben Ratliff notes in his insightful obituary in the New York Times, Mrs. Coltrane “wasn’t Mr. Tyner’s technical equal and lacked his percussive power…(but) she was fluid and energetic within the group’s freer new language.” Other obituaries merely peg Alice as “Coltrane’s widow,” as if she spent the rest of her days since his passing in 1967 either cashing in on Coltrane’s catalog or else raising his progeny. And while her earliest outings with Coltrane mainstays like Pharaoh Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, and Rashied Ali and the resonant modal music they crafted on albums such as A Monastic Trio, Ptah the El Daoud, and Journey in Satchidananda do bear traces of the man, she too took her late husband’s constant seeking to heart, each successive album reaching further and further out while simultaneously (and spiritually) looking within.
Her musical legacy will one day be regarded in the same pure light as his, but it’s not quite there yet, with her most crucial recordings from the early ‘70s available only in Japan. This generation comes closest to appreciating her gifts and vision, her fluid nature and her energy. I hear her most explicitly in the music made by people like Four Tet and Animal Collective, two artists that flash a direct lineage to some of her visions of a “universal music.” This music suggests something far beyond jazz: it draws on her spiritual studies of Hindu chants, as well as avant-garde compositions, all the while containing a deep blues root. The texture is most crucial, be it electric or acoustic, perhaps making her a touchstone for such forward-looking musicians. Hers is a reach for pure sound, based not on jazz tradition or idiom, but on enlightenment through vibration, all of it infused with a numinous though lubricious quality, impossible to separate and hold.
The two selections here are covers. “My Favorite Things” by Rogers and Hammerstein was redefined nightly by her husband, each time stretched apart so that the universe of sound might rush into its chord changes. What I love in this particular version from World Galaxy is that the rush isn’t imagined, but audible: you can hear spiraling orchestras and dizzying harp runs fill the void, coupled with a string section that almost rightfully returns it to a Disney-fied version of The Sound of Music.
In the gatefold to Lord of Lords, Alice Coltrane’s notes on “Excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird” recount a curious meeting with the masterful composer. It was Ohnedaruth (John Coltrane’s spiritual name) who hepped her to Stravinsky’s music, she tells, denoting him “a Universal musician and composer.” Now meeting this profound man in the flesh, Stravinsky mentions that he “voted” for her (?), mentions something cryptic about her grandmother (??), then produces some clear vial of “elixir” (???). She downs it and—as her music makes explicit—Alice is through the looking glass.