The Divine Music of Alice Coltra

The Divine Music of Alice Coltra


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As the widow of Trane, many of us assume some of Coltrane simply rubbed off

on her and that her music was reductively a branch of the John Coltrane baobab.

 her work is often overlooked or dismissed as spiritual “new age” noodling



Albums by Alice Coltrane

Journey in Satchidananda  / Translinear Light  /  Ptah the El Daoud  / A Monastic Trio / Transfiguration

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The Divine Music of Alice Coltrane

Music Reviews by Mtume ya Salaam & Kalamu ya Salaam

–from Breath of Life


Divine music is one of the highest mercies extended to us by God.  It is as powerful as prayer itself.  The potency of sacred music has in certain instances superceded the curative properties of medicine, mantra, and affirmations.  This is due to the heart’s principle of love, purity, and innate receptivity.  Often, the mind that knows the use of recitation and affirmations, at times has found that little value results when it exhaustedly abandons the constant repetition.

Divine music is a curative virtue; it is a gift from God that brings healing and comfort to the soul.  This music can uplift one’s spirit up to a higher dimension of being that is filled with peace and joy.  Divine music is the sound of true life, wisdom, and bliss.  This music transcends geographical boundaries, language barriers, age factors; and whether educated or uneducated, it reaches deep into the heart and soul, sacred and holy, like an Infinite sound of glory entering the Lord’s sanctuary.—Turiyasangitananda


ALICE COLTRANE / “Journey in Satchidananda”

Asante sana. Thank you very much. For your music. Your spiritual life. The good and beauty you created. Asante sana.

Alice Lucille McLeod Coltrane was born in Detroit, Michigan to Solon and Anne McLeod. Her half-brother Ernie Farrow was a noted bass player who recorded with Yusef Lateef and Terry Gibbs. Alice began seriously studying piano at age seven and subsequently continued her music studies throughout high school and beyond. Her advanced studies included the music of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Tschaikovsky. In the official biography on her website, Alice Coltrane notes “Classical music for me, was an extensive, technical study for many years.  At that time, I discovered it to be a truly profound music with a highly intellectual ambiance.  I will always appreciate it with a kind remembrance and great esteem.”  Of the difference between classical music and jazz, the path she chose to take, Alice Coltrane said, “The classical artist must respectfully recreate the composer’s meaning.  Although, with jazz music, you are allowed to develop your own creativity, improvisation and expression. This greatly inspires me.” Alice studied at the Detroit Institute of Technology. In her early twenties she lived in Paris where she studied with pianist Bud Powell. While in Paris she was briefly married to singer Kenny “Pancho” Hagood and they had a daughter together, Michelle. She returned to Detroit and around 1962 moved to New York, where she met John Coltrane a year or so later. At that time she was the pianist in the Terry Gibbs band. Alice and John Coltrane were married in 1965. They had three sons: John Jr., who died in a 1982 automobile accident; Ravi, who is a jazz saxophonist and recording artist, and Oran, who plays alto saxophone. In 1966 Alice Coltrane became the regular pianist in John Coltrane’s band after the departure of McCoy Tyner. Alice would later appear as a harpist on Tyner’s album Expansions. In 1967 when Coltrane died, Alice took a vow of celibacy and began her solo career as a recording artist. After recording over ten albums for Impulse and Warner Bros records, Alice Coltrane withdrew from commercial recording and devoted herself to her spiritual work and to managing the musical legacy of John Coltrane. In 1970 she studied under Swami Satchidananda and later under Sathya Sai Baba.  She founded the Vedanta Center in San Francisco and later moved the ashram to Agoura Hills, outside of Los Angeles. For retired from the music industry for twenty-eight years but returned in 2004 with Translinear Light, a recording produced Ravi Coltrane. Sacred Language of Ascension, a new recording is forthcoming shortly.

Instead of being known mainly as John Coltrane’s wife, if Alice Coltrane had been a man, she would have been celebrated as one of the true visionaries of 20th century music. As the widow of Trane, many of us assume some of Coltrane simply rubbed off on her and that her music was reductively a branch of the John Coltrane baobab. As a female, one of only a numerically small group of instrumentalists in jazz, her work is often overlooked or dismissed as spiritual “new age” noodling. Yet when her work is examined and compared to her contemporaries, the musical evidence demonstrates that the breadth of her work is phenomenal. I have chosen four tracks but could easily have chosen eight or twelve others of equal merit. She started as a Bud Powell/bebop disciple and then became Trane’s chosen helpmate in the last period of Coltrane’s recording career. The third incarnation of Alice Coltrane was as a solo recording artist. The fourth period was as a private spiritual musician. The fifth and final period was a return to jazz concerts and recordings.

The opening track is  “Journey in Satchidananda,” a classic cut from a classic album. This is the album on which Alice Coltrane successfully manages to extend the John Coltrane musical legacy and simultaneously mark out her own directions. I choose this track specifically for the harp playing. The line up is Alice Coltrane on harp, Pharoah Sanders on sax, Cecil McBee on bass, Rashied Ali on drums, and Majid Shabazz on bells and tambourine.

“Turiya And Ramakrishna” is an example of Alice Coltrane’s deep piano work. I love the way Alice plays piano. Love how she merges intelligence with emotion. How she acquired the ability to play “out” and simultaneously sound “in” (i.e. accessible). Her Detroit childhood church background is foregrounded in how she voices her chords. It is interesting to note that Alice does fascinating chord alterations on piano, while on organ she takes a more harp/Bud Powell-like approach with the rippling arpeggios. Notice also the dynamics of her touch, a soft note played next to a more percussive struck note, the tremolos in the block chords, the rubato flow of her improvisations. Her playing moves with the grace of a massive current assaying a fifty-degree bend in the river. This track is from another classic Alice Coltrane jazz combo album, Ptah, The El-Daoud. Alice’s supporting bandmates are Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson on saxophones and flutes, Ron Carter on bass and Ben Riley on drums.

fell out laughing when I first heard “Ghana Nila.” This is some negroidal music. It would take one of us to merge black church music with Hindu spiritual songs/chants. I bet both devote Christians and devote Hindus are probably a little taken aback by this unicorn of sound. Alice is on organ and electric piano (the organ/piano duo is a mainstay of black church instrumentation), lining out the song like an old-time choir master. Check the ending with the voices stretching out.

“Bliss: The Eternal Now” and “Bliss: The Eternal Now – Return” are actually remixes from Carlos Santana’s Divine Light: Reconstruction & Mix Translation: Bill Laswell, an album that combines and remixes selections from two Santana albums, Illumination, which featured Alice Coltrane, and a second album that featured English guitarist John “Mahavishnu” McLaughlin. I listen to this remix album more than anything else by Santana. This piece is a good example of Alice’s meditative sound. The “Eternal Now” version is awash with Alice’s string arrangements. Her use of strings is a major element in her sonic repertoire. Although I am appreciative of Alice’s string work, I am more attuned to the jazz combo sound, hence I prefer “Return.” This is a slight musical introduction to the vast body of Alice Coltrane’s music.

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For those interested in knowing more I recommend that you visit Alice Coltrane’s official website. Also check out Zoilus, this website offers links to Alice Coltrane write-ups on the web some of which include mp3 recordings. An important interview with Alice Coltrane is here. I want to publicly thank everyone on the web who has written about Alice Coltrane. It is important to share as much information and insights as is humanly possible.—Kalamu ya Salaam


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“Journey In Satchidananda” is beautiful. I love the drone sound throughout. The layering of instruments creates a tapestry of textures that sound like a good massage feels. You can feel this music vibrating inside of you. The bassline is excellent as well: the way it interacts with the drone and drums and the chimes (whatever they are) is perfect. Great track. “Turiya.” Another very good track. The blues feel in Alice’s playing is unexpected and very affecting. I say unexpected because I’d already gotten used to the kind of ‘out’ / Eastern / extemporaneous feel that she plays with on the other tracks. This one sounds like she could be playing in a blues club. Well, almost. I like it. It’s not often that I hear a known artist’s music and am completely surprised by it. I’ve heard so much music—especially black American music—and I’ve read so much about music, that I always feel like I have at least a vague idea of what an established artist’s music will sound like, even if I’ve never heard it. In this case, I’m completely taken aback. I wouldn’t have been surprised by any one of these pieces, but I am very surprised by the breadth of them. By the variety. The piece I’m listening to now is “Ghana Nila.” If it weren’t for the Hare Krishna-sounding bells and the chant, I’d think it was a classic Soul Jazz record. The music is very loose and funky—it makes you want to clap and chant along with them. Just imagine if the bells were tambourines and the chant was something about hanging out in Detroit. Interesting.

—Mtume ya Salaam

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Not too many years from now, when I am sixty-nine, I want to be able to create art as hip as this.

Alice Coltrane is so deep that when she stood in New York and wiggled her toes, they felt seismic shocks on the other side of the world in China. I saw her present her music once. It was like a hushed moment in church when everyone is silently praying, sincerely praying, and something comes over you, you close your eyes and water your cheeks with tears of thanks to the creator for being alive.   Instantly, even if you don’t particularly care for her music, nevertheless, instantly you know this is some other kind of stuff, you know Alice Coltrane is operating on a different plane from most folks. There are two albums I cherish by Alice Coltrane. One is Journey In Satchidananda and the other is Transfiguration, a documentation of a April 16, 1978 concert in UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall. That concert featured a 36-minute version of John Coltrane’s late-period composition, “Leo.” Alice Coltrane played organ, Reggie Workman was on bass, and Roy Haynes was the drummer. Other than her solo on “Ogunde” from Coltrane’s The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording, which is so far out there you need to be a musical astronomer with a state-of-the-art telescope just to catch sight of that music, but other than that solo (which is light years ahead of any other piano solo she recorded) the Transfiguration version of “Leo” is the most intensely fiery of all of her recorded music. It’s mindblowing that the version of “Leo” from the 2006 UCLA concert ain’t too far behind the 1978 version, even though it occurred approximately twenty-eight years later. That’s a lot of water under the bridge to still be blazing so brightly. An audience member recorded this and shared it on the internet, so the sound is far from great, but who cares. The line-up is Alice Coltrane on organ, her son, Ravi Coltrane on saxophone, Reggie Workman on bass, and Trevor Lawrence on drums. There are moments when folk start literally screaming and hollering. This is not ecstasy of the flesh, but rather the much more profound pleasure of spirits elevating. Many will find this music difficult to deal with. I ask you to listen to the whole track at least once. You can even let it play in the background while you check your email, but, please, hear it. At least once. I don’t know if Alice Coltrane was consciously trying to recapture what she did almost thirty years earlier, but I do know that Reggie Workman blazes as a bass player and that Trevor Lawrence, who was a last minute substitute, turns in a monster solo.

I do know that this is the most “Trane-like” solo that Ravi has recorded, even though Ravi never loses his own identity. (You won’t mistake him for his father or for Pharoah or for any of the other horn men of that period.) I do know that Alice pulls out all the stops on her organ and becomes a human flame thrower shooting off incendiary keyboard runs.

Both bassist Reggie Workman, who was a major cohort of John Coltrane, and Alice Coltrane were in their late sixties when this was recorded. Late sixties. Undoubtedly they prove that it’s never too late. Ready or not, like it or not, this is some music every human needs to experience at least once in life.—Kalamu ya Salaam


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A little ‘out-ness’       

Above, Kalamu mentions that many people will find this music “difficult to deal with.” Go ahead and include me in that number. Late-period Trane—whether it’s directly from the original Impulse albums or, as in this case, some of the original players recreating it—is notoriously hard to listen to for all but the must dedicated Trane fanatics. It’s not just the wildness of the playing and the almost completely improvised nature of the song structure, it’s also the length. I dig a little ‘out-ness’ here and there, but twenty minutes of it without a break? That’s a little rough. 

I do like Alice’s style though. She has a very odd way of playing. Clusters of notes followed by brief silences and then more clusters. She plays like some people, usually highly-educated people, talk: in rapid bursts of phrases. But what is that instrument? Kalamu says it’s an organ, and I assume he’s correct, but it almost sounds like a stringed instrument. It sounds like there’s a vibrating quality to the notes that you don’t usually hear in a keyboard. And, right near the end of her solo, Alice starts doing something to bend the notes. How the hell can you do that with an organ?—Mtume ya Salaam


More info at this link Alice Coltrane


posted 21 January 2007


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posted 2 November 2007 




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