Near the end of his life, John Coltrane decided to buy a harp. The visionary saxophonist and bandleader hoped that having one in his home studio would help him rethink his approach to harmony and texture. The harp he ordered took months to build and wasn’t delivered until after his death, of liver cancer, in July, 1967. It sat in the house in Dix Hills, Long Island, where he and his wife, Alice, were bringing up their young children. If the windows were open, Alice later recalled, a strong breeze would make the strings hum, as though some invisible force were strumming them.
Alice and John met in the early sixties in New York City, when she was gigging and he was already a star. She was born in Detroit in 1937, and, like many contemporaries, received her most formative musical education through the church. She studied the piano, mastering the classical repertoire as well as bebop, and she began touring and recording in her early twenties. She played with John’s ensembles, but by the time of his death she had largely stepped back from music.
Those who knew Alice and John described them as kind, gentle introverts who understood each other on an instinctive level. Though they had both grown up in strict Christian households, in the sixties they began immersing themselves in other faiths. They weren’t the only ones seeking new forms of transcendence in the pages of the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and books about Zen Buddhism. In 1966, the cover of Time famously asked, “Is God Dead?” The seekers thought that maybe people had been taught to look in the wrong place. For black artists, especially, pursuing other systems of belief became a way of rethinking one’s relationship with America.
John’s death set Alice adrift. She wouldn’t eat or sleep; she suffered from hallucinations. Though many people around her worried about whether her emaciated frame was the result of devotional fasting or severe depression, she later described this period as transformational, thanks largely to an encounter with the Swami Satchidananda, an Indian religious leader who toured America in the late sixties and appeared at Woodstock, where he opened the festival. In Alice’s mind, Hindu traditions could accommodate the kind of universalist ethos that she and John had imagined at the end of his life. The Swami’s teachings appealed to Alice’s sense that the Holy Spirit was everywhere, that we were merely the flesh-and-blood manifestations of an infinite life force.
Alice taught herself how to play the harp, which can sound wondrous and mystical even in amateur hands. Her style was impressionistic, effervescent. Her notes sparkled and then dissolved in the air around her. What better way to express one’s relationship to the larger world? In 1968, Alice began releasing albums as a bandleader. During this time, especially in the experimental circles that had grown around her husband, opportunities for women to lead their own ensembles were rare. The music she made was initially criticized as derivative of John’s. In the case of his posthumous album “Infinity” (1972), purists attacked Alice’s decision to dub her own string arrangements over some of his previously unreleased works.
Alice’s music was solemn and heavy, filled with stormy passages that felt like nervous attempts at purification—a struggling kind of transcendence. Like much of the more forward-thinking jazz of this era, it was music that felt in a hurry to get somewhere. Every now and then, though, a glistening sweep of harp would cut through the dirge, sounding the possibility of glory in the wreckage. John’s death was a theme, but so was a desire to surrender her ego, and to offer herself to something greater. In the ten years that followed, she released about a dozen albums on Impulse! and Warner Bros., many of them masterpieces that imagine a meeting point between jazz and psychedelic rock, gospel traditions and Indian devotional music. And then, after the release of “Transfiguration,” in 1978, she seemed to disappear.
In the sleeve notes for “A Monastic Trio” (1968), Alice’s first album as a bandleader, the poet and critic Amiri Baraka called her “one earth bound projection of John’s spirit.” She had no problem with being defined in terms of her husband’s legacy, for some of the most radical music he made was an attempt to translate their private world for the masses. It was the “earth bound” part that she resisted.
On Alice’s album covers, she often wore a look of dreamy preoccupation, and their titles—“World Galaxy,” “Universal Consciousness”—easily aligned her with many of her outer-space-obsessed peers. For artists like Sun Ra or Herbie Hancock, outer-space futurism offered a potent metaphor—a way of illustrating a sense of alienation, and a dream of shuttling someplace where black people might be free. But Alice was looking elsewhere.
In 1972, Alice and her children moved to San Francisco, where she devoted herself to Vedic practice. She established the Vedantic Center in her home, and, a few years later, moved it, along with her family, to Woodland Hills, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. She took the name Turiyasangitananda—Sanskrit for “the bliss of God’s highest song”—and attracted a diverse congregation of worshippers. (Among her youngest acolytes was her great-nephew Steven Ellison, who now draws on her sense of scale and ambition in his brilliant work as the electronic producer Flying Lotus.) She came to believe that bliss was close at hand—it was inside you. The universe wasn’t a range of options and futures that were light-years away; it was an idea you couldn’t quite grasp, and in the struggle to try to imagine infinity’s sprawl all you could do was just try and align yourself with it. In the early eighties, after the death of her son John, Jr., she bought forty-eight acres in nearby Agoura Hills and built an ashram.
“World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda” will be released on Luaka Bop next month, a little more than ten years after her death. It is the first collection to highlight the music she made during this time. Her children had encouraged her to visit a local music shop to see all the fancy things that the new modular synthesizers could do. While initially reluctant, she became fascinated with the way that these keyboards allowed her to bend or stretch notes at will. She began making her own devotional music, overlaying surging, swelling ambient soundscapes with Sanskrit chants. Residents at the ashram recall Alice waking them up before dawn, so that they could listen to her newest compositions. Many of them, including her children, had never heard her sing.
“Ecstatic Music” draws from four cassettes that Alice released between 1982 and 1995 on a tiny local label devoted to Vedic teachings. The music is astounding. “Om Rama” feels as if you’ve walked into the middle of a daylong ritual—it’s all handclaps, tambourines, and blissful chants chasing after the occasional erratic whoosh of a synthesizer. It stays at a frenzied peak for a few minutes, until a wailing, ascending note sweeps everything away, slowing the song to a stately procession. Through the haze comes Alice’s creaky church organ, which sounds as if it had been transplanted from a gospel record.
On “Rama Rama,” a sitar’s thrum is matched with gentle waves of synthesizer, the kind of juxtaposition between old and new that gives much of this music an uncanny feel. For Alice, synthesizers and organs were simply a new way of humming along with the universe, as she had previously tried to do playing the harp. “Journey to Satchidananda” revisits the melody from one of her masterpieces, “Journey in Satchidananda,” released in 1970. Here the original’s insistent rhythm is unravelled, slowed down to a swirl of chants and tranquil synthesizer tones.
Record collecting offers a strange approach to historical thinking: yesterday’s undervalued commodities often become tomorrow’s fetish objects. No genre, style, or level of professionalism is beyond redemption. Still, the renewal of interest in New Age music is surprising. Some of the most exciting labels today, such as New York’s RVNG Intl. and Los Angeles’s Leaving Records, mix avant-garde dance music with reissues of old meditation or relaxation music. The pianist and zitherist Laraaji, who, following his “discovery” by the producer Brian Eno, released some twenty albums in the eighties, is arguably more popular than ever. (He is also still selling tickets to his famed “laughter meditation” sessions.)
Perhaps it’s because we live at a time when notions of wellness and personal care are mainstream that the idea of ambient music with a purpose holds a special appeal. And a lot of people listen to music as an alternative to organized worship; for years, in the Bay Area, there has been a church devoted to John Coltrane. For some, “Ecstatic Music” will be perfect for zoning out, couched as it is in a religiosity that is welcoming, nonjudgmental. But one of the reasons that albums like this have remained obscure is that they were recorded with a specific pursuit in mind: they were for the ashram, devotional songs for fellow-worshippers.
I first encountered this music on a blog specializing in obscure “celestial” music. (I love anything that dares to try to describe the wholeness of the universe, and I’m a sucker for harps.) When I listened to “Rama Katha,” which is included on the vinyl version of this album, I was startled by its quiet and its patience. It was so intimate and honest that I almost felt that I shouldn’t be listening. I couldn’t tell if its ambient drones were the result of the poor digitization of a hissing cassette or part of the music itself. Alice was backed only by her keyboard, which flickered and whirred from a comfortable distance. Her voice—never the instrument she was famous for—resounded with untroubled confidence. This wasn’t music that was pushing its makers and listeners to a higher plane. Alice was already there. ♦