Feel the divine
A new compilation celebrates the devotional music of jazz legend Alice Coltrane
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Between 1982 and 1995, one of America’s foremost jazz musicians recorded a series of albums that were only ever made available on cassette tape. To obtain one you had to send away by mail order – that or drive through Southern California to the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, where the Sai Anantam Ashram sat amid nearly 50 acres of rural land. The ashram’s founder and spiritual leader, know to the congregation as Swamini Turiyasangitananda, was also its musical director, and the four cassette albums that she made – Turiya Sings (1982), Divine Songs (1987), Infinite Chants (1990) and Glorious Chants (1995) – were intended as a record of, and a guide to, the devotional services that took place there. Before she founded an ashram, Swamini Turiyasangitananda was a jazz pianist, harpist and bandleader named Alice Coltrane; between 1965 and 1967 she was also married to the jazz composer and saxophonist John Coltrane, and played in his band. And before that, she was Alice McLeod, a bebop musician from Detroit.
The ashram tapes of Alice Coltrane make for unusual listening. Sai Anantam Ashram was dedicated to the study of the ancient Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas, but the music that Coltrane created is not strictly interchangeable with the bhajans or kirtans (religious songs) of Indian tradition. These interpretations of Sanskrit chants also bear traces of gospel music, and of improvisational jazz, though one could hardly describe them as jazz. And with prominence given to a thick, swirling synthesiser, played by Coltrane, they sit oddly adjacent to electronic pop music, too. Coltrane died in 2007. After years of the ashram tapes circulating in bootleg form, a selection of songs from them has been made officially available as The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, released this month by the world music label Luaka Bop.
The compilation opens with ‘Om Rama’, taken from Infinite Chants. You hear a rustle of shakers and tambourines, a hand-clapping beat, and an assortment of voices, male and female, singing in loose but distinct harmony. Singers fade in and out of proximity to the microphone, as if they were dancing while they sang, which they may well have been. Though all of Coltrane’s ashram tapes were recorded in Californian studios, they nevertheless convey a strong impression of how these musical services would have sounded in situ.
Three or four minutes into the song there is a shift. The tempo slows, the clapping falls more heavily upon the offbeat, and Coltrane begins to play a series of bluesy chords on her synthesiser. In a word, the whole thing gets groovy, while a beautiful, fervent male voice rises up to lead the singing. This is John Henderson; like Coltrane he was a trained musician, and once played in Ray Charles’ band. The sense of gospel music is sudden but unmistakable, like a clearing inside a great forest – then just as suddenly it’s gone. The pace increases, voices and percussion crowding in anew, until Coltrane bends the pitch of her synthesiser down, up, then down again, dragging the music to a halt. In nearly ten minutes we’ve been to the ashram, to the church, and to somewhere altogether otherworldly.
Alice McLeod was born in Detroit in 1937, the fifth of six children in a musical, working-class, churchgoing family. Her father, Solon, was a truck driver; her mother, Ann, played piano and sang in the choir of the Mount Olive Baptist Church. Though there was no piano in the family home, Alice began receiving private lessons at the age of seven from a neighbour, and would accompany the Mount Olive choir during services. Her talents were eventually sought at other Detroit churches, including the independent Mack Avenue Church of God in Christ. Its choir was led by David “Pop” and Delores “Mom” Winans, the first of a multi-generational gospel recording family.
In a 2001 interview with ethnomusicologist Franya Berkman, Coltrane recalled her visits to the Mack Avenue church as “the gospel experience, musically, of my life”. She described a “God feeling” that swept through the congregation, with singers overcome and carried out fainting, the whole service “filled with the spirit of the Lord”. Throughout her life, Coltrane would continue to pursue this joint state of musical and spiritual transcendence.
As a young woman she played piano in jazz and gospel bands around Detroit, her style influenced by bebop pianists like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Like Powell, she spent some time gigging in Paris, but after a brief marriage there she returned to Detroit, accompanied by her daughter. In 1963, while playing in New York, she met John Coltrane, another jazz musician of Christian background, who had taken up his own, wide-ranging spiritual quest. That same year John and Alice began living together; late in 1964 John recorded his most celebrated album, A Love Supreme, which was released in 1965.
According to John Coltrane’s own liner notes, A Love Supreme was “a humble offering” to God. It was also the hinge upon which his music began to swing towards the radical and often mystical practices of free jazz. His saxophone playing got squallier, his arrangements more abstract. With Alice, he took up the study of Hindu scriptures, and in 1965 made Om, a recording of chants from the Bhagavad Gita. During that same year Coltrane overhauled his band, and Alice became his pianist. They can be heard playing together on the 1966 recording Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, which features one of Coltrane’s lengthy deconstructions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard ‘My Favourite Things’. Against a hurly-burly of duelling saxophone played by Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, and frenetic percussion from Rashied Ali and Emanuel Rahim, Alice’s piano is a harmonic anchor, the calm at the centre of the storm.
John Coltrane died in 1967 at the age of 40, from liver cancer, leaving Alice a widow with four young children, including her three sons by John. Her first recording as a bandleader, A Monastic Trio, was released in 1968. The original six-song album (reissues have included additional tracks) formed a succinct elegy for her late husband; it was “dedicated to the mystic, Ohnedaruth, known as John Coltrane”. The first three songs were piano-based, including a muscular blues called ‘Gospel Trane’, while the later ones gave prominence to Alice’s newly acquired harp, which was soon to become central to her music.
Coltrane taught herself how to play the harp, and her rapid glissandos on the instrument are like a sonic translation of sunlight rippling the surface of water. She cherished “the quietness, the peacefulness” of the instrument. Her music remained lucid even as her spiritual investigations grew more esoteric; her best-known recording, Journey in Satchidananda (1970), fused her compositional skills with her interest in Indian culture, resulting in an experimental music that is also accessible, even to the novice jazz listener. The songs are grounded in Cecil McBee’s purposeful bass lines, with Coltrane’s harp and the droning sound of an Indian tanpura (also known as a tambura) adding harmony and texture, while Pharoah Sanders’ saxophone carves out gorgeous, curling lead melodies, quite different from the dissonant solos that he had played with John Coltrane.
In part because she continued to collaborate with John’s band members, including Sanders, Rashied Ali on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass, Alice Coltrane’s musical career was consistently overshadowed by her late husband’s. But she also deferred to him. “I don’t think that I have the talent of my husband,” she said, in a magazine interview reprinted inside the cover of A Monastic Trio. “I don’t have the genius of John, but I will try to elevate the music as much as I possibly can.”
This elevation would reach its pinnacle on her ashram tapes. Coltrane first became involved in ashram life during the 1970s; her eldest child, Michelle, remembers that “when she became a Swami, she put her [new] name on the refrigerator to help remind us [of it]”. In 1983, Coltrane bought the property that would house Sai Anantam Ashram, and though the congregation’s Sunday services were, theoretically, open to the public, in practice not many people from outside the ashram would ever witness them.
It is lucky, then, that we have the tapes. Infinite Chants and Glorious Chants emphasised the sound of the congregation, while Turiya Sings and Divine Songs were focused on Coltrane’s own singing and playing. Five songs from the latter album – ‘Om Shanti’, ‘Rama Rama’, ‘Hari Narayan’, ‘Er Ra’ and ‘Keshava Murahara’ – are included on the Ecstatic Music compilation, and they represent her most singular musical creations.
Coltrane’s own voice (she had never sung on record before making her ashram tapes) is deep and mellow, and her phrasing idiosyncratic, as if the chants arose from her own spontaneous feeling as much from any religious text. ‘Rama Rama’ once again features the drone of a tanpura, while ‘Keshava Murahara’ folds in a silken string arrangement. Time assumes strange qualities in these divine songs; the tempo is slow enough to feel laggard, and yet one has the sense that each instrument is moving irrevocably forwards, and upwards, into the atmosphere. This isn’t background music, for it will alter the room and your consciousness, as it was designed to. Open your mind and step in.
Anwen Crawford is the Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.