Alice Coltrane’s Ashram Recordings Are Nearly Perfect Music for Our Current Moment
Alice Coltrane released A Monastic Trio, her first album as a bandleader, in 1968, one year after the death of her husband and collaborator John Coltrane. Over the next decade, working as a composer, pianist, and harpist, Coltrane produced a revelatory body of work at a rate of about an album a year, playing thick and exploratory modal jazz imbued with a sense of spiritual questing that was entirely her own. Then, after the release of the live double album Transfiguration in 1978, she disappeared from public life almost entirely, returning to recording only for her final album Translinear Light, just a few years before her own death in 2007.
In the intermediary, Coltrane devoted herself to religious pursuits. In 1975, she established the Vedantic Center, an organization for the study of the ancient Vedic religion of India and “spiritual wisdom and insight from all faiths.” She took the name Swamini Turiyasangitananda, which translates from Sanskrit as “the highest song of God.” In 1983, she relocated the center to a sprawling 48-acre complex in the Santa Monica Mountains outside Los Angeles, renaming it the Sai Anantam Ashram and inviting a group of followers to live and study there.
Coltrane didn’t cease her musical activities during this time, but redirected them toward the ashram community rather than the jazz-listening public at large. Under the Turiyasangitananda name, she recorded a series of cassettes that mix traditional Vedic chant with the American gospel Coltrane learned during her upbringing as a church organist in Detroit and the intense improvisation she’d spent the previous decades honing. She worked in collaboration with singers at the ashram, and released the tapes on a private press, distributing them exclusively to her religious followers.
World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, a new compilation from David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, collects highlights from Coltrane’s ashram period and releases them publicly for the first time. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the release: This is a major body of work from a master musician, previously unheard outside of a community of religious devotees and any lucky collectors who managed to secure copies of the original cassettes.
Listening to the music as an outsider to that community, you sometimes feel you’ve wandered into the ashram unbidden, a situation that might be discomfiting if it weren’t for the nearly overwhelming warmth and joy with which the performers perform their material. Luaka Bop clearly approached the question of releasing the compilation to an audience so divorced from its original context with careful consideration: The label worked with Coltrane’s children Ravi and Michelle and her longtime engineer Baker Bigsby to secure and remaster the original tapes, and the compilation’s liner notes include a lengthy interview with a musician and ashram resident alongside more purely musicological writing.
And frankly, the music inside World Spirituality Classics 1 deserves to be heard. The ashram tapes are the only known recordings on which Alice Coltrane used her singing voice, an instrument as restrained and plaintive as her harp and piano are wild and expressive. “Om Shanti,” the second track and the first to feature Coltrane the singer, is transfixing. Accompanied at first only by stand-up bass and her own organ, she sings a lilting bluesy tune, sounding almost amused at the beatific atmosphere she’s managed to conjure with just a few simple elements. Halfway through, the ashram singers join in wailing call-and-response, sounding like spirits beckoning Coltrane to join them in some nether realm. But the singer’s unflappable calm prevails: as the music around her becomes haunting and cavernous, her voice never rises above a conversational patter.
The compilation’s eight tracks run from between four and a half and eleven minutes in length, tending toward the longer end of that spectrum. Many of them are bifurcated in a manner similar to “Om Shanti.” One half might feature a vocal solo from Coltrane or another singer, the other hypnotically repetitious Vedic or gospel chanting. These chanting sections will be familiar to listeners of Rada-Krsna Nama Sankirtana, Coltrane’s 1975 album of devotional songs, but the addition of the compilation’s other most distinctive instrument gives them a new otherworldly glow. Coltrane frequently plays an Oberheim OB-8 synthesizer, a hefty piece of analog equipment that was state-of-the-art at the time. Her favorite mode of expression on the OB-8 is a huge, arcing glissando, sliding continuously from somewhere near the bottom of the keyboard’s range to somewhere near the top. These figures often loom behind the proceedings like futuristic monoliths. They recall Coltrane’s ability on the harp, like her husband’s on the soprano sax, to play shimmering arpeggiated lines so smoothly that the distinctions between pitches seem to break down entirely. Thanks to the electronic capabilities of the OB-8, they actually do.
There’s a renewed interest in Coltrane’s music and spiritual life among listeners, many of them coming from outside the orthodoxy of traditional jazz fandom. (The work of her nephew Steven Ellison a.k.a. Flying Lotus, a frequent childhood visitor to the ashram whose own interstellar musical explorations owe a great deal to the woman he calls “auntie,” surely has something to do with this revival.) Through curated reissue labels and musicians like Botany and Visible Cloaks, we’re also in the middle of a new age renaissance, with artists exploring the musical potential of sounds that were originally intended as aids for meditation and spiritual experience. And the tumultuous political climate has encouraged musicians and listeners alike to view music as a balm against wounds inflicted in the outside world. Though the music on World Spirituality Classics 1 was recorded decades ago, 2017 is a felicitous moment for the compilation’s release.
Luaka Bop has done a remarkable job of collecting recordings that were originally scattered across multiple releases and giving them the feeling of a consistent whole. The insistent rhythm of “Rama Guru” is particularly invigorating in the wake of the slow and exploratory “Rama Rama”; the melody of the choral centerpiece “Journey to Satchidananda” finds a rippled but recognizable reflection in the harp motif that opens “Er Ra.” The most affecting of these thematic restatements comes during the 10-minute closer “Keshava Murahara,” whose pensive strings and vocals soon swell toward the tune of “Om Shanti” with an ecstasy that was only hinted at previously. Three quarters of the way through of the song, the small orchestra has settled down. Coltrane’s voice is back in the sparse setting where we heard it first, weary but unwavering, ready to begin the next journey.