Sunday, January 14, 2007

RIP: Alice Coltrane

If not for Arcturus (hat tip to Nanette, btw) I would have completely missed this one - that's just how busy life has been lately. I've been a fan of hers for a while now - about the time I really got tuned in to the free jazz vibe I discovered her album Journey in Satchidananda. I was never the same.

Some clips from the LAT obituary:
Coltrane died Friday at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center in West Hills, according to an announcement from the family's publicist. She had been in frail health for some time and died of respiratory failure.

Though known to many for her contributions to jazz and early New Age music, Coltrane, a convert to Hinduism, was also a significant spiritual leader and founded the Vedantic Center, a spiritual commune now located in Agoura Hills. A guru of growing repute, she also served as the swami of the San Fernando Valley's first Hindu temple, in Chatsworth.

For much of the last nearly 40 years, she was also the keeper of her husband's musical legacy, managing his archive and estate. Her husband, one of the pivotal figures in the history of jazz, died of liver disease July 17, 1967, at the age of 40.

A pianist and organist, Alice Coltrane was noted for her astral compositions and for bringing the harp onto the jazz bandstand. Her last performances came in the fall, when she participated in an abbreviated tour that included stops in New York and San Francisco, playing with her saxophonist son, Ravi.

She was born Alice McLeod in Detroit on Aug. 27, 1937, into a family with deep musical roots. Anna, her mother, sang and played piano in the Baptist church choir. Alice's half brother Ernie Farrow was a bassist who played professionally with groups led by saxophonist Yusef Lateef and vibes player Terry Gibbs.


She met her future husband in 1963 while playing an engagement with Gibbs' group at Birdland in New York City.

"He saw something in her that was beautiful," Gibbs, who has often taken credit for introducing the two, told The Times on Saturday. "They were both very shy in a way. It was beautiful to see them fall in love."

Gibbs called her "the nicest person I ever worked with. She was a real lady."

She left Gibbs' band to marry Coltrane and began performing with his band in the mid-1960s, replacing pianist McCoy Tyner. She developed a style noted for its power and freedom and played tour dates with Coltrane's group in San Francisco, New York and Tokyo.

She would say her husband's musical impact was enormous.

"John showed me how to play fully," she told interviewer Pauline Rivelli and Robert Levin in comments published in "The Black Giants."

"In other words, he'd teach me not to stay in one spot and play in one chord pattern. 'Branch out, open up … play your instrument entirely.' … John not only taught me how to explore, but to play thoroughly and completely."

After his death, she devoted herself to raising their children. Musically, she continued to play within his creative vision, surrounding herself with such like-minded performers as saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson.

Early albums under her name, including "A Monastic Trio," and "Ptah the El Daoud," were greeted with critical praise for her compositions and playing. "Ptah the El Daoud" featured her sweeping harp flourishes, a sound not commonly heard in jazz recordings. Her last recording, "Translinear Light," came in 2004. It was her first jazz album in 26 years.

Through the 1970s, she continued to explore Eastern religions, traveling to India to study with Swami Satchidananda, the founder of the Integral Yoga Institute.

Upon her return she started a store-front ashram in San Francisco but soon moved it to Woodland Hills in 1975. Located in the Santa Monica Mountains since the early 1980s, the ashram is a 48-acre compound where devotees concentrate on prayer and meditation.

Known within her religious community by her Sanskrit name, Turiyasangitananda, Coltrane focused for much of the last 25 years on composing and recording devotional music such as Hindu chants, hymns and melodies for meditation. She also wrote books, including "Monumental Ethernal," a kind of spiritual biography, and "Endless Wisdom," which she once told a Times reporter contained hundreds of scriptures divinely revealed to her.

In 2001 she helped found the John Coltrane Foundation to encourage jazz performances and award scholarships to young musicians.

In addition to Ravi, she is survived by another son, Oren, who plays guitar and alto sax; a daughter, Michelle, who is a singer; and five grandchildren. Her son John Coltrane Jr. died in an automobile accident in 1982.
A description of Alice I wrote almost three years ago:
Alice was John Coltrane's second wife, whom he married in the early 1960s and who was a regular member of his band during the last year and a half of his life. She made a name for herself as a hardbop pianist, but she also was an accomplished harpist. This latter instrument became a prominent feature on her solo recordings and gigs after John's untimely death. Her first solo recordings (1968-1970) fit in nicely with the avant-garde scene of the time, and she and her bandmates demonstrate that they can swing and skronk with the best of them. It's with Journey in Satchidananda that Alice really begins to shine as a unique voice in jazz. That album not only featured the harp prominently, but also introduced a fair amount of Indian (tabla, sitar) and Mediterranean (oud) instrumentation. The pieces begin to move more slowly and seem intended to induce a calm meditative trance. As the 1970s progressed, Alice began to add strings to the mix, creating a pastiche of sound that draws on jazz, Indian classical, and 19th & 20th Century Impressionism. After recording for Impulse!, she moved to Warner Bros. for her final albums (1975-1978). I can only imagine what must have gone through the minds of WB execs when they heard her recording sessions, as she moved increasingly away from jazz and increasingly toward traditional Hindu musical meditations. She must have been an absolute nightmare for the marketing types. If she had to leave the jazz world, she at least left on a high note, with a live piano trio album that was released in 1978. After that, she essentially retired from the jazz scene and concentrated her energies exclusively on her Vedanta Center in California, where she has gone by the name of Swamini Turiyasangitananda.

Most of her recorded work is currently in print, with the exception of several Impulse! recordings (which may or may not see the light of day depending on the whim of the conglomerate that now owns the Impulse! catalog, Vivendi-Universal). Albums I especially dig: P'tah the El Daoud, Journey in Satchidinanda, Universal Consciousness, and Eternity (I especially dig the first two on this list). World Galaxy is also pretty strong, and features her interpretation of her late husband's classic "A Love Supreme." I haven't picked up Transfiguration yet, although from what I read it appears to be a strong recording that nicely synthesizes her hardbop and free jazz roots and her Indian musical sensibilities in the context of a piano trio.
Since that writing, I've managed to pick up Transfiguration (well-worth getting) and her other WB albums (which definitely are much more "New Age" if that's the right term than jazz). I especially loved her ability to do free improv on the harp - absolutely stunning. A few words I penned about her last album, Translinear Light (2004, Impulse!):
About the new Alice Coltrane cd, I'll say this: it's great. Alice's piano, organ, and synthesizer work is showcased in a number of different contexts, from her standard keyboard trio, to duos with her son Oran Coltrane (who plays synthesizer on one piece) and Charlie Haden (the legendary bassist of Ornette Coleman and Old & New Dreams fame), as well as some quartet pieces featuring her son Ravi on sax. About a third of the album is devoted to traditional Hindu and African American spirituals. She also tackles a couple of her late husband's tunes (Crescent and Leo), and performs a few of her originals (including a blast from 1970's Ptah the El Daoud, Blue Nile). It's a gentler recording than the workouts she cut back in the 1970s, but the spiritual intensity that characterizes all of her back catalog shines through. My only complaint, and it's relatively minor: she's a wonderful harpist, and I was a bit disappointed that she didn't play that wonderful instrument this time around. Definitely recommended for fans, and if you've never experienced her work before, it's a pretty decent introduction to what she's about - though I'd very strongly recommend subsequently checking out her classic 1970s Impulse! outings, such as Ptah the El Daoud and Journey in Satchidananda (In fact it was those two albums that turned me into a fan several years ago). Beautiful music from a genuinely beautiful soul. It is so good that the jazz world has not lost her voice.
Sadly, as of Friday, her voice was lost. We'll give thanks for the legacy she leaves as a musician, composer, author, spiritual leader, and human being.


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