I have often wondered why Alice Coltrane (1937-2007) never received the credit she was due as a musician. She was clearly considered a peer among some of the heaviest players in jazz, but I guess that was never enough. Most of us first heard her when she replaced pianist McCoy Tyner in the final incarnation of her husband John’s legendary ensemble. Her style of playing was a bit different than Tyner’s, a bit more “traditional,” to these ears at least. Along with the drums and percussion of Rashied Ali, I believe her playing would have played a major part in the next step in John Coltrane‘s music, had he lived longer than his 40 years.
Alice Coltrane played with a number of tremendous artists, both before and after the death of John in 1967. Some of these include Bud Powell, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haden, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, Rashied Ali, and Carlos Santana. It was her collaboration with Santana, titled Illuminations (1974) on which I first heard her outside of her former husband’s band. This is probably the least known release in Santana’s lengthy catalog, but the two of them created real magic in the studio.
As part of the Impulse 2-on-1 series of reissues, two long out-of-print Alice Coltrane albums have just been released. The disc contains Huntington Ashram Monastery (1969), which was recorded in a trio format with Carter (bass) and Ali (drums) supplementing Alice’s harp and piano. This is a unique album in that the majority of the tracks feature harp solos. It is a little strange hearing an instrument like the harp taking solos, especially when the majority of the numbers are what one might consider traditional jazz arrangements. There are a couple of exceptions to this though. For example, during “Via Sivanandagar” Carter takes a very cool bass solo, while “IHS” is almost an 8:45 solo piano piece from Alice.
World Galaxy is so unusual, it is unlike anything I have ever really heard before. In contrast to Huntington Ashram Monastery, Alice has assembled a huge cast of supporting players. A total of 22 musicians are credited, although not everyone appears on every track. There is much more of an overall concept to the album as well. It opens and closes with two very explicit John Coltrane-related cuts. Although he did not write “My Favorite Things” (from The Sound of Music), the song became one of his signature tunes. World Galaxy begins with a truly wild version of it, and is quite an introduction. The finale is a powerful take on the title track of A Love Supreme.
These two bookend Alice’s “Galaxy Around Olodumare,” “Galaxy In Turiya,” and “Galaxy In Satchidananda.” The overall flavor is very different than that of Huntington Ashram Monastery. Especially on her originals, there is a real dichotomy between some of the more “difficult” music her husband was famous for, and her very celestial sounding harp and string arrangements.
There are times during the 9:54-long “Galaxy In Turiya” where I was at a complete loss as to where she was heading, or for who the actual audience was intended to be. The dichotomy between chaos and melodic beauty is so pronounced that it is almost schizophrenic. I love that type of unpredictability, but it is not generally a recipe for big sales. It could be said that John Coltrane trod a similar path, but the swings in his music were never this extreme. Fascinating is one word for it. But it also takes a very serious artistic commitment to go this far. To switch from one might consider “free” jazz directly into angelic harps and strings reflects an extraordinary personal vision.
The thought that Alice Coltrane’s music was dismissed out of hand as just a case of her trading on her famous husband’s name is not easily dismissed. The obvious comparison is to that of Yoko Ono, who was pilloried as a musical pretender during the same period of time Alice was recording these albums. That reaction to Ono is at least somewhat understandable though, considering the fact that John Lennon wrote some of the catchiest pop hits of all time, while her music was (for lack of a better word) demanding.
Alice Coltrane came out of the same jazz tradition as her husband though. If one were to substitute his sax for her harp on much of Huntington Ashram Monastery, you would hear songs that have a great deal in common with his ’50s and early ’60s work. Nobody has ever been able to reproduce his later “sheets of sound” approach, although many have tried. Thankfully, Alice Coltrane seems to have never considered going down that road.
On the surface, World Galaxy could be seen as a way of exploiting the legacy of John Coltrane, what with the opening and closing tracks being so thoroughly identified with him. But I find it to be one of the most brilliantly realized albums I have ever heard. My sincere hope is that this new Impulse 2-on-1 series is successful, and will inspire the label to continue releasing these long-deleted records. If ever there was an artist whose music demands a reassessment, it is Alice Coltrane.