The musical journeys and spiritual quest of Alice Coltrane
"Music is the celestial sound. And it is sound that controls the whole universe, not atomic vibrations. Sound energy, sound power, is much greater than any other power in this world."
Swami Satchidananda addressing the audience at Woodstock, 1969
Each year, in addition to its roster of standard jazz players, the San Francisco Jazz Festival tucks a few cards up its sleeve. The past few years have seen performances by the likes of Caetano Veloso, Ravi Shankar, Orchestra Baobab, and João Gilberto, for example. This year promises to perhaps surpass even those when Alice Coltrane is joined by Charlie Haden, Roy Haynes, and her son, Ravi Coltrane, in a rare performance. It may just be one of the concerts of the year.
To some, Alice Coltrane may be overshadowed by her husband, the awe-inspiring John Coltrane, but don't let that fool you. After all, who among jazz players isn't in the shadow of the unrelenting, spiritually questing saxophonist, one of the 20th century's towering musical figures? To many, however, the pieces Alice created as a bandleader between 1968 and 1975 have become landmarks of their own — perhaps especially in recent years with the renaissance of interest in cosmic music of all kinds. In fact, they are some of the most elevated, incandescent recordings of the 1960s and ’70s — and of any time, really.
After studying classical and gospel music as a child in Detroit, Alice McLeod was turned on to jazz by her brother, bassist Ernie Farrow. She played sessions with guitarist Kenny Burrell and shared the stage with Terry Gibbs. That's when she and John Coltrane met. In 1966 they were married. It was the same year John would break up his classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones. With his new quintet, including Alice, Garrison, Rashied Ali, and Pharoah Sanders, John began his spiritual quest, which took him away from the modal jazz (improvisations based on scales, or modes, rather than chords) of his hits like "My Favorite Things" to the controversial outer regions of jazz on blistering free albums such as Meditations and Interstellar Space (both Impulse!, 1965 and 1967). Here, Alice's adventurous and spiritual musical story took flight.
Though all of the trappings of jazz are in her music — and certainly, with her surname, she will always be defined by the genre — Alice Coltrane's sound is something else.
"Well, we put labels on everything, don't we?" Alice, 69, suggests, speaking from her home near Los Angeles, where she runs the John Coltrane Foundation with her daughter Michelle, as well as her ashram, where she teaches as a minister. "And that's OK. I don't see any harm in it. It lets the people go to a location where they can say, 'OK, yeah, I understand what you're speaking.' But I know it's something else. It's much more than that. In music you hear experiences. You hear challenges."
John died in 1967, arguably at the peak of his powers. He'd been incorporating motifs from the East, reaching for something otherworldly in scope. Alice continued playing with his last group, including Garrison, Sanders, and Ali. After a trip to India in 1970 to follow guru Swami Satchidananda, her music began to evolve, finding an altogether unique spot between the not unrelated worlds of ecstatic jazz and classical Indian forms, even Western classical music (see her interpretation of Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird on Lord of Lords [Impulse!, 1973]). Pivotal albums like A Journey in Satchidananda, Universal Consciousness, and World Galaxy (all on Impulse!, 1970, 1971, and 1971) hold a rarefied place in the 20th-century canon. Playing harp, Wurlitzer organ, and piano, she created a style and sound that are impossible to forget — swirling harp arpeggios, long-held organ notes, and fluttering piano play among shimmering sleigh bells, tamboura, occasional tablas, and often large string sections. If it is jazz at all, it is astral jazz. Or perhaps it is what new age music, that most maligned of genres, should have been: challenging, all encompassing, ecstatic, ancient, timeless.
It's no surprise to find devotion is of such importance to Alice, whose song titles reference nearly all cultural myths and spiritual traditions. Unsurprisingly, you won't find dogma at the root of her devotion.
"We have our one sun in the universe," she muses. "How many different names is it known by — through all the different languages? But it's providing that heat and that power and energy to all of us here and throughout the rest of the universe.
"I feel that throughout our lives, if we know where to look, where to research, we will have discovery. We will find we are so much alike as humanity. We might try to focus on differences and cultural circumstances and boundaries and all these things, but as humanity, we are so close that really, we are basically one." SFBG
ALICE COLTRANE QUARTET
Sat/4, 8 p.m.
Nob Hill Masonic Center
1111 California, SF