Alice Coltrane ‘World Sprituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’ CD/2LP/DIG (Luaka Bop) 4/5

Spiritual jazz has its seminal influences and arguably Alice Coltrane is one of the key musicians to have influenced a new generation of jazz musicians who have taken on that mantle. This collection of audio cassette recordings is taken from the masters and it should be stated from the outset that this is not really a jazz release in the sense of the Impulse albums that Alice Coltrane recorded. Rather, it is devotional music that draws upon Indian classical and that of the African-American Baptist church with the use of idiosyncratic instrumentation. As a whole, one can convincingly argue that this is spiritual music in the literal sense with vocal chanting and repetitive riffs throughout, and as such worthy of attention in presenting a more panoramic collage of how jazz and spiritual music fit together.

Dating between 1982-1995, this music is about as far away from commercial considerations as one can possibly imagine and was only available on local audio cassettes. However, it does make for a cohesive whole, and thus provides a tantalising glimpse into what motivated Alice Coltrane as a human being, especially her deeply held religious beliefs and her role as a swami in Los Angeles where she served for over three decades and where the music contained within was recorded. The uplifting nature of the music is emphasized from the opening piece, ‘Om Rama’, with the use of synthesizer to add layered texture to proceedings, and with gospel inflections in the form of a call and response male lead that gels together beautifully. Coltrane was very much a product of a Baptist upbringing and her conversion to a more Eastern looking spiritual life did not discard some of her earlier influences. Of great interest to fans of her Impulse period is the radical re-working of, ‘Journey to Satchidananda’, that frankly sounds here as though it is an entirely new composition.

One can only speculate on how John Coltrane might have sounded had he lived on into the 1970s. Quite possibly, with the more commercial side of jazz coming to the fore with jazz-fusion, he might have retreated into a similar music environment. Alice Coltrane was pioneering in her use of instrumentation (Dorothy Ashby was another such musician on the harp), and here one hears her performing on a simple organ (not of the Hammond variety, though) and harmonium. It is pity that her piano skills are absent and even her harp playing is largely invisible. Combining those with spiritual sounds, as on some of the Impulse albums, was a thrilling listening experience. However, this release offers other options and the music is on less enticing for all that.

Luka Bop is to be commended for releasing this music, and it certainly makes a fascinating companion to the spiritual jazz sounds of John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Pharoah Sanders and others. This release will appeal as much to devotee of world roots music as it will to strictly jazz fans. It is to be hoped that this will inspire other companies to release interview and musical material by Alice Coltrane, most particularly the radio interview with Marion McPartland that was briefly released on CD. The musician passed away in January 2007 aged seventy.

Tim Stenhouse