Much like jazz music, spirituality is – more often than not – an experience that alters from one mind to another. Jazz blends tradition with modernity, dissonance with harmony, to create something that is uniquely an outward manifestation of a musician, something he or she can believe in and create from.
Such was the case with the spiritual journey of Alice Coltrane. Influenced by her late husband John Coltrane’s fascination with spirituality and its intersections with music, Alice found herself drawn to Eastern spiritual tradition, specifically Hinduism and the Vedas. Rather than a passing, new-age affectation of spirituality, Coltrane devoted much of her life to this myriad set of beliefs, studying under my grandfather’s own guru, Sathya Sai Baba, and ultimately founding the Vedantic Centre in California in 1975. Moving the Centre to larger grounds in 1983, under the new name of the Sai Anantam Ashram, here Coltrane founded a community of spiritualists, following her teaching under the Sanskrit title of Swamini Turiyasangitananda.
Music has always been tied to Coltrane’s spirituality. Beginning with her first solo albums, 1968’s A Monastic Trio and 1969’s Huntingdon Ashram Monastery, Coltrane’s career has been largely defined by her spiritual journey, documented on wax as both a and personal record. During the 1990s, however, Coltrane retreated from the spotlight and stopped releasing music, devoting her time to the Ashram. There were rumours though of recordings created by Coltrane for its members. These were devotional compositions where Coltrane sang Vedic bhajan chants. They were recorded to tape and released in limited numbers. These rare sessions are now presented to the public for the first time on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label as The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda.
Much like the open-minded, accessible nature of the Ashram – which operated without doctrine or liturgy – these are not traditional devotional recordings. Instead, Coltrane takes the Sanskrit bhajans – comprised of chants sung to evoke the power and spirit of God – and places them within the context of her own musical background. The Oberheim OB-8 synthesiser is therefore present on almost all of the tracks, providing a rousing swell or Wurlitzer-like siren that disorients or lifts the melody. Tracks like Rama Rama and Rama Guru perfectly illustrate this mix of acoustic and synthetic, showcasing Coltrane’s own voice, never before recorded. On more contemplative songs such as Om Shanti and Ram Katha, Coltrane’s low-register vocalisations beautifully accompany chord progressions that demonstrate a lifetime of jazz training.
Other tracks like opener Om Rama and Krishna Japaye pair chants with a subtle tambourine backbeat and bass line reminiscent of Gospel choirs – something Coltrane was familiar with, being raised in the church – as well as evoking the Motown sound, founded in her hometown of Detroit. She further blurs musical boundaries, featuring the powerful soul voice of John Panduranga Henderson on Om Rama, as well as the Tamil-born Sai Ram Iyer on the second half of Journey in Satchidananda.
Ultimately, in yoking together these varied references, Coltrane bridges the gap between the church, jazz, and the temple. It is testament to the power of her music that she can hold such conflicting influences together to create a unified whole. Although some might feel uneasy at the commercialisation of a work of spiritual devotion, it is a small price to pay to ensure that as many people as possible can experience this moving and important record.
[This piece was published in EZH Magazine on 04/05/17]