Tuesday, January 16, 2007

An Appreciation of Alice Coltrane

I don't normally post tributes or obituaries on here (not even for pivotal figures such as James Brown), yet somehow I feel compelled to write something about Alice Coltrane. I think this is mainly because she spent most of her life condemned by critics either, entirely unjustly, as a Yoko Ono figure trading incomprehensible work on the legacy of her late husband or simply as an inferior musician worthlessly attempting to continue propagating his concerns. That she was in fact neither of these things has been asserted by a handful of excellent writers, perhaps most notably David Toop, who has written perceptively about her masterpiece, 1972's 'Universal Consciousness'. It has really only been during the past couple of years, with the reissue of her Impulse and Atlantic albums, a fascinating interview in The Wire magazine (one of the magazine's finest issues) and with the 2004 comeback 'Translinear Light', that her own outstanding contribution has really been recognised.

Alice McLeod actually began her musical training remarkably early, at the age of seven, and had become an able, expressive bepop pianist in the manner of Bud Powell well before she met John Coltrane. She performed with Terry Gibbs, Kenny Burrell and, perhaps most significantly, Yusuf Lateef in the early 60s. Her personal and professional union with Coltrane would completely revolutionise her style, however, as she followed her husband creatively into fiery, free-form territory. Yet her playing style was always informed by earlier developments, particularly the modal techniques pioneered by Bill Evans and extended in Coltrane's earlier works. Although there are doubters who understimate her contribution to Coltrane's later music (she doesn't appear on significant studio works such as 'Ascencion'), it's worth emphasising that 'The Olatunji Concert', now readily available on Impulse CD, is considered one of the finest live recordings of free improvisation in the history of the music.

Following John Coltrane's tragically premature death, she produced a series of albums for the Impulse label ('A Montastic Trio', 'Huntinton Ashram Monastery', 'Ptah The El Daoud', 'Journey In Satchidananda', 'Universal Consciousness', 'World Galaxy' and 'Lord Of Lords') that showed her consistent imagination and inspiration, but which mostly baffled the critics of the time. This extraordinary, visionary and exciting music was informed by a vast array of influences, not purely musical but also spiritual. The connection with gospel and the blues ran deep, and as a result the music sounded intense and fervent. Yet Coltrane also admired the Eastern religions, particularly the acts of meditation and spiritual contemplation. The earlier albums have a fiery, furious swing, frequently dominated by the juxtaposition of Rashied Ali's relentless drumming with Coltrane's full, powerful chord voicings on the piano. Where Pharoah Sanders also featured, the results were even more muscular. It was a superb ensemble, revelling in the energy and joy of musical discovery. She had already begun to push herself further in intriguing new directions though, and the deployment of the harp was more than mere novelty - in her hands it became as expressive an improvisatory medium as the piano.

By 'Universal Consciousness', she had moved well away from conventional compositional structure and had begun to explore looser, mostly free styles of playing. Yet the music on this great achievement is neither confounding nor indulgent, but rather characterised by a constant conflict between turblulence and tranquility. The notion that there was a 'universal consciousness' common to all spiritual belief is an idealistic but appealing notion which Coltrane portrayed with quiet dignity through a purely musical language. She would continue to investigate these ideas to their full extent across the next two records, increasingly incorporating strings (still a feature entirely alien to most jazz of the period) to expand the textures. 'Lord Of Lords' (still criminally unavailable on CD - I've seen original vinyl copies on sale for £70+ with that value sure to increase now) even contained her interpretation Stravinsky's 'The Firebird', prefiguring the closer relations between jazz and strict composition that would develop further during the 70s and 80s, especially in Europe. The version of 'A Love Supreme' on 'World Galaxy' neatly encapsulates the complexity of her musical relationship with her husband's legacy - it was a radical re-interpretation, retaining the spirit of the original recording, but with a substance entirely of her own making.

The Atlantic albums of the 70s are less consistent, and frequently more challenging, but they are worth pursuing as they show her reluctance to stand still. Mostly abandoning the piano in favour of a variety of organs, she continued to investigate devotional concerns through her music, and a passionate intensity remained intact. Founding her own religious centre in 1975, much of the rest of her life would be devoted largely to spiritual works and personal retreat.

She continued to perform, albeit infrequently, and judging by the standard of 2004's excellent comeback 'Translinear Light', had lost none of her dynamism or energy. Beginning to perform more regularly last year, and mid-way through recording what appeared to be an intensely serious and significant new work, her passing was unexpected and unbearably badly timed. I plan to listen to all these albums again this week, and it shall no doubt be poignant, but they are the kind of works which intimate new facets and dimensions with every play, so the experience will also be edifying and inspirational. The combination of the spiritual and the musical is difficult to achieve without becoming vulnerable to accusations of pretension, and Coltrane suffered from this during her career. Yet pretension means pretending to be something you are not - my sense of Alice Coltrane is that she was genuinely serious-minded, committed and, yes, perhaps divinely inspired.

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