Journey in Metaphysics
Alice Coltrane's last album delves deep into the spiritual
by Kevin Le Gendre
In today’s troubled times, the uplifting music of Alice Coltrane is more welcome than ever. In a rare interview, she talks to Kevin Le Gendre about spirituality, “second touch,” and her late husband, jazz legend John Coltrane.
Many artists — from pop royals Prince and Michael Jackson to jazz statesmen Wynton Marsalis and Abram Wilson, both sons of New Orleans — organized benefit concerts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina last year. It could be argued that the hard-done-by Big Easy needed much more than solidarity songs, and Dr. John, another iconic Crescent City native, duly delivered a wholesale indictment of the Bush administration on the album Sippiana Hericane.
Shortly after Katrina, Alice Coltrane performed a concert in Paris. The pianist, organist, harp player, and widow of John Coltrane — the saintly figure who along with the somewhat less saintly Miles Davis is the jazz artist most likely to be found in rock record collections — played more with compassion than anger, prompting listeners to hear her music as a form of prayer, a soothing balm, not just for New Orleans but for war-torn Iraq, tsunami-scarred Asia, and AIDS-wrecked Africa. Many were touched by the medicinal sounds of that precious public appearance.
“Well, I believe music heals,” Coltrane tells me on the phone from her home in California, echoing both the philosophy of avant-garde jazz legend Albert Ayler and her late husband. “The mind is really the ruler; it controls everything that we do. We have to appreciate the power of the mind and know that it can do greater things than just the external things that we perceive. If the mind will embrace music in a pure way, it can heal.”
It would be easy to dismiss these beliefs if they weren”t held by a woman whose existence has been steeped in music that has brought great solace to people”s lives. So touched was Reverend Franzo King by the music of Alice Coltrane”s late husband that he founded a church in his name in San Francisco. Worshippers regularly attend services where jazz becomes gospel.
Alice Coltrane”s life also revolves around a house of worship, the Vedantic Center. She founded this ashram in 1975 and plays and chants there every day in order to facilitate meditation, yoga, spiritual study, and healing. She has essentially withdrawn from the jazz world.
And that has been a disappointment to those who recognize Ms. Coltrane as both an important member of the last group led by her husband in the late ’60s and an intriguing solo artist who made some highly influential music in the decade that followed.Excitement was thus at fever pitch when she ended an absence from the studio of some 26 years by recording Translinear Light in 2004. Produced by her son Ravi, who, like his late father, is also a saxophonist, the album shows that 67-year-old Alice Coltrane has lost none of her musical finesse over the years. The sessions were anything but intimidating.
“Recording again was a beautiful experience,” states Coltrane spontaneously. “It didn”t feel like a long, long time had passed. I didn”t have that feeling of emptiness or something being unusual.” That”s because music has remained a pivotal part of her life. “In the spiritual quest there is always musicÉ always. You may go away from the studio but you don”t go away from sound.”
Translinear Light picks up directly from Alice Coltrane”s string of classic ’70s recordings such as Universal Consciousness, Ptah the El Daoud, and Journey in Satchidananda, works that embraced her husband”s modal improvisation techniques (fewer chords, more ingenuity with scales, more hypnotic soundscapes) but also brought vivid Indian resonances and a Stravinskyesque grandeur into play.
There was never going to be a need for Alice Coltrane to radically overhaul this template. The ancestral yet futuristic quality of her writing and diaphanous, entrancing arrangements have made her, along with Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, and her late husband, a touchstone for contemporary artists seeking to broaden the horizons of electronica or rock.
If the Cinematic Orchestra acknowledges Alice Coltrane”s significance implicitly, then Radiohead does so explicitly. They”ve opened concerts with a rendition of her majestic 34-year-old composition “Blue Nile.”
Beyond her gift for noble, celestial melodies, it is Alice Coltrane”s touch on the keyboard that makes her such a fascinating figure to both listeners and fellow musicians. The instantly recognizable way she plays the organ has given her the ultimate musical credential: a sound of her own.
Unlike the majority of jazz organists who favor a Hammond B-3, Coltrane plays a Wurlitzer and uses a dramatic pitch-bending technique to produce piercing, shrill sounds not unlike those of the Indian double reed instrument, the shenai.
“I think my relationship with it really comes from my spirit,” she says of the keyboard. “I suppose I use a lot of pitch bending because you bring it closer to the human spirit that way, with that cry.
“When I recorded with many violinists I always thought that I could hear their spirit in the way they would leap through some notes. I suppose I always had that in mind when I play, and using the modulators on the instrument brought me closer to that feeling. You can use something called “second touch” to bend the pitch.
“You play your note then give it a second touch with the modulator up and the second sound will come in. I”ve always thought that was a nice effect. It”s almost a natural reflection of our lives unfolding.
“We don”t move on straight lines, on a flat line. I mean, even in our breathing we have different rhythms; it”s that ebb and flow of the life we”re going through when I”m playing. With certain lines, I can hear the projection of sound moving out into the atmosphere, some moving at different levels of consciousness.”
Like many jazz and R&B musicians, Alice Coltrane”s roots lie in the church. Before studying classical music and bebop with the meteoric yet tragic Bud Powell, she played piano in a Sunday school ensemble in her hometown of Detroit before joining Terry Gibbs”s ensemble.
Music was more than a creative pursuit though; the world of sound would gradually take on a metaphysical dimension for young Alice McCleod. She came to an important conclusion during adolescence.
“I must have been about fourteen years old when I realized that music is really a way into a higher realm of awareness and consciousness. Together with whatever you religion is and your spirituality, music can affect you.
“I couldn”t really explain it to anyone. But I saw that connection…the fact that it happened so young was very significant, I feel. It made a lot of things clear to me.” Similar words may have been exchanged between Alice Coltrane and her late husband John. When they met in the early ’60s, their bond was exponentially strengthened by common spiritual and philosophical proclivities.
The teachings of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, whose favorite mantra “Sita Ram” is reprised on Translinear Light, and the ancient maxims of the Bhagavad Gita pulled the couple closer together. Alice became Turiya Santaganidad; John, Ohnedaruth.
A Love Supreme, his 1964 chef d”oeuvre, is essentially a declaration of love to both mankind and God. Coltrane went through a traumatic drug and alcohol addiction in the years preceding the work, which ultimately stands as a testimony to the redemptive power of faith.
Although it chimed with ’60s flower-child idealism, A Love Supreme wasn”t defined by it. The statement had a cast-iron emotional core, a compellingly real humanity that has transcended passing fads for mysticism to strike a chord with all manner of listeners in a similar way to Bob Marley”s tributes to Jah or Mahalia Jackson”s praise of Jesus.
When Alice Coltrane made her debut as an artist in her own right with A Monastic Trio in 1968, a year after John”s death, her music was inhabited, illuminated, by his spirit, his compassion.
“I think he wanted to give so much to the world, to do whatever he could for spiritual triumph,” she says of her late husband. “John was very interested in exploring the realm of metaphysics and spiritual study; he was involved with that on a deep level. He had very definite ideas about what his music was and what messages he wanted to put out. He is basically saying “I want my music to be a force for good.”"
Yet for the reverence Alice Coltrane willingly shows her late husband, she has never contented herself to be a simple imitator; God knows there have been enough of those. Her real achievement is the assertion of her own idiosyncrasies within an aesthetic framework shaped by his work.
John Coltrane proclaimed the ideal of a “universal sound,” music that would unite people of all belief systems. Alice Coltrane brings her own powerful personality to bear on that principle with Translinear Light, an album where songs feel like hymns.
Whether she is improvising on the classic gospel piece “This Train” or the timeless mantra “Sita Ram,” Coltrane infuses her performances with a harmonious, healing spirit. The East-West divide is irrelevant.
“When I play “Sita Ram,” I don”t feel any different than I do when I play “This Train,”" she comments. “They”re both very strong expressions of spirituality where the feeling colors the sound. It”s music, it”s spirituality; they”re really one and the same to me.”