Alice Coltrane was raised in a musical household in Detroit, and learned the basics of her craft in the choir of her local church. She collaborated with her husband John Coltrane for about a year before his premature death due to liver cancer in 1967, and after that, made a series of bewitching and often staggeringly beautiful jazz albums between 1968 and 1975, leading a variety of ensembles on piano and harp. Her solo discography takes John’s freely spiritual approach to improvisation even further toward the cosmos, borrowing fluently from the instrumentation and harmonic precepts of Indian classical music and placing a special emphasis on shimmering textures and sonorites entirely of her own devising.
Alice’s mourning of John led her to begin practicing with Swami Satchidananda, the guru who is best known in America for introducing a generation of hippies to Indian religious thought. And in the mid-1970s, she began a simultaneous process of radically expanding her spiritual practice and simplifying her musical approach. She withdrew completely from the commercial recording industry, and in 1975 established a center for the hermetic study and practice of Vedic philosophy. While living at the ashram in the early ‘80s, Coltrane composed and performed new music for its community of followers, mixing traditional Vedic chant with the gospel of her Detroit upbringing and the ostensibly secular jazz she’d been making in the previous decades. These songs mostly eschewed the swirling atonality of albums like Universal Consciousness and World Galaxy, focusing instead on dense consonances, slow repetition, and ecstatic vocal runs—including, most notably, from Coltrane herself, who had never previously sang on record.
The ashram music was originally released in the ‘80s on a trilogy of extremely limited-run cassette tapes, intended for use in the religious practice of devotees. World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda collects highlights from these tapes and releases them to the wider listening public for the first time. The music has an elemental quality that makes it feel almost ancient, but also makes important concessions to modernity: both in its generous mix of American and Indian modalities, and in Coltrane’s use of the newly released Oberheim OB-8 analog synthesizer. She mostly used the synth to deliver sounds that shift continuously between one pitch and the next, eliding the arbitrary barriers between the 12 tones of the piano keyboard and reaching a high-tech apotheosis of her late husband’s famous “sheets of sound” saxophone technique, which involved blowing through scales so quickly and smoothly that they came to seem like singular glowing objects in the air.
The greatest gift of Ecstatic Music is Alice’s sweetly weathered voice, an instrument of remarkable self-possession and understated power. You won’t find a more moving expression of beatitude than the passage of singing that opens “Om Shanti,” the second track—that is, until Coltrane restates the same drifting theme on the album-closer “Keshava Murahara,” this time backed by a weeping string section instead of a solitary droning organ. The Coltranes spent their adult lives in search of a sound that would bring people to a plane beyond ordinary human experience. Whether or not you reach it while listening to the ashram songs is ultimately up to you, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else’s music bringing you closer. — ANDY CUSH
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