IN THE ARTS: ALICE COLTRANE: THE GRANDMOTHER OF SPIRITUAL JAZZ
By Darra Bunkasem
To those aware of the spiritual jazz genre/movement, the name that usually comes to mind is John Coltrane. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, jazz music was at a turning point and a full, free form of expression was on the rise to reflect the chaos and rapid changes of the times. John Coltrane was an integral part of this movement and with the release of his album, A Love Supreme (1965), a spiritual jazz masterpiece was born. Beta (2015) states that spiritual jazz reflected turmoil and innovation by not conceding to any of the boundaries of traditional jazz. From the chord changes, unorthodox screech-like tones from the tenor saxophone, and chaotic melodies and improvisational lines, there is no doubt that A Love Supreme, would prove to be one of John Coltrane’s greatest works. But what is spiritual jazz?
Terich and Blywiess (2017) describe the music belonging to this genre as “transcendent compositions that fused the intensity of free jazz with motifs from African and Indian music, creating sounds both passionate and tempered, meditative and primal.” Some notable spiritual jazz works from around the same time period are by two of his collaborators, Pharaoh Sanders (his protege) and Alice Coltrane (his wife). Karma by Pharaoh Sanders was released in 1969 and is seen by some as somewhat of a sequel to A Love Supreme, due to the leitmotif that plays at the beginning of the album and is prominent throughout. “The creator has a master plan, peace and happiness for every man” are lyrics from “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” a song on the Karma album. May (2017) uses these lyrics, the mantra-eqsue rhythmic pattern and the distinctive African yodeling to show that this album rightly falls under the genre of spiritual jazz.
After the passing of her husband in 1967, Alice Coltrane endured a period of deep pain and sorrow, causing her to lose a significant amount of weight and develop insomnia. Terich and Blywiess (2017) state that she sought spiritual guidance to aid her through this troubling time. She studied with an Indian guru, Swami Satchidananda. Alice Coltrane’s spiritual journey in India significantly impacted her musical path in the later years to come (Dazed, 2017). According to Beta (2017), “Anticipating a trip to accompany the Swami through India, Alice Coltrane entered the studio in 1970 to record what is arguably the most sumptuous spiritual jazz album of the era, Journey in Satchidananda.” The album features Pharaoh Sanders on the soprano saxophone, Cecil McBee on the bass, Vishnu Wood on the oud and Alice Coltrane on the harp. The enthralling classical Indian influences and sitar playing, intertwined with the hypnotic harp glissandi and virtuosic saxophone playing make for an intense, meditative, and psychedelic listen (Terich and Blywiess, 2017).
Alice Coltrane’s influence on spiritual jazz has transcended generations. Her work has been very influential to her children and grandchildren. According to her son Ravi Coltrane’s website, he is “a critically acclaimed Grammy-nominated saxophonist, bandleader, and composer… (that) has worked as a sideman to many, recorded noteworthy albums for himself and others and founded a prominent independent record label, RKM.” Her daughter, Michelle Coltrane, worked as a DJ in Japan, provided background vocals for many prominent artists, and has toured the United States and France as a solo artist (Coltrane, 2018). Her direct impact on her grandnephew’s art within the realms of film and music is very prominent. Although his styles are appreciated mainly as experimental production, Steven Ellison (a.k.a. Flying Lotus) takes major influences from Alice’s personal compositions. This is illustrated in his piece named Auntie’s Harp from his 2010 album, Cosmogramma in which he samples a melancholy, trance-like harp glissando snippet from her song, Galaxy in Turyia (1972) and in his song Zodiac Shit from the same album in which he samples a string section and harp playing from her song Illuminations (1974) with Carlos Santana. Something that can also be observed from FlyLo’s creations is that his incorporations of complex jazz undertones are reminiscent of the musical relationships she formed with her husband John Coltrane.
There is no doubt that Alice Coltrane was a huge contributor to the spiritual jazz movement. From her multifaceted collaborations to the masterful compositions she created on her own, she was truly an extraordinary musician, spiritual leader, mother, grandmother, and human being. She turned her grief and sorrow into a positive, transcendental energy that has withstood the test of time and influenced many generations. Although her husband’s work was phenomenal, I believe her work has been somewhat overshadowed by it. Alice Coltrane deserves more credit for her work and her impact.
Coltrane, M. (2018). Bio. Retrieved from http://michellecoltrane.com/bio/
Dayal, G. (2017, May 05). Higher state of consciousness: How Alice Coltrane finally got her dues. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/may/05/alice-coltrane-turiyasangitananda-higher-state-of-consciousness
Dazed. (2017, May 30). The agony and ecstasy of Alice Coltrane. Retrieved from http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/36120/1/alice-coltrane-devotional-music
Flying Lotus’s ‘Aunties Harp’ – Discover the Sample Source. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.whosampled.com/sample/211763/Flying-Lotus-Aunties-Harp-Alice-Coltrane-Galaxy-in-Turyia/
Flying Lotus’s ‘Zodiac Shit’ – Discover the Sample Source. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.whosampled.com/sample/197214/Flying-Lotus-Zodiac-Shit-Carlos-Santana-Alice-Coltrane-Illuminations/
May, C. (2017, July 25). Celestial impulses: The sound of Pharoah Sanders in 10 records. Retrieved from https://thevinylfactory.com/features/celestial-impulses-the-sound-of-pharoah-sanders-in-10-records/
Ravi Coltrane. (2017). Retrieved from http://ravicoltrane.com/index.php?id=biography
Terich, J., & Blyweiss, A. (2017, April 13). 10 Essential Spiritual Jazz Albums. Retrieved from http://www.treblezine.com/34726-10-essential-spiritual-jazz-albums/