Alice Coltrane – World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda
With their latest compilation, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label shines light on a previously mysterious period of the late Alice Coltrane’s musical career.
Alice first gained prominence (and the scorn of certain jazz fans) when she replaced pianist McCoy Tyner in her husband John Coltrane’s band in the mid ‘60s, signaling the end of his Classic Quartet. She began releasing her own material on Impulse as a bandleader soon after, starting with 1968’s A Monastic Trio. Each subsequent release seemed to further explore her musical connection to her deep spirituality, all while merging Eastern and Western soundscapes, culminating with 1971’s Journey in Satchidananda. Later releases like Eternity and Transcendence even provided her takes on Hindu spirituals. Yet after 1978’s live double-album Transfiguration, she disappeared from performing and recording to focus on her ashram in Agoura Hills, Sai Anantam Ashram.
Until 2006’s Translinear Light, it didn’t look like she had been recording at all, but that wasn’t entirely true. During that period, she’d actually compiled four albums of devotional songs, releasing them on cassette through her tiny label, Avatar Book Institute, to other ashram adherents. In that sense, Luaka Bop is playing a Robin Hood role for the masses, crafting a compilation available in various formats that’s comprised of songs previously available on Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants, and Glorious Chants, all released between 1982 and 1995. If you’re a die-hard fan, you would’ve had to pay upwards of $400 for a copy on tape to hear these tunes until now.
Ecstatic Music boasts a few firsts. This is the first time you’ll hear Alice playing a synthesizer, which she expertly guides from brooding lull to cosmic crescendo depending on context. It’s also the first time you’ll get to hear her singing, low in register but completely present and vulnerable in delivery.
While there’s plenty of choir singing and synth swoons on the album, I’ve personally found myself drifting toward the quieter moments. Stand-outs for me include “Om Shanti,” which begins with Alice’s voice accompanying her delicate organ chords. The understated intro builds to a choir call and response, with each call from Alice eliciting a sweeping return. Like much of the record, this song finds its pocket and marinates in that space, circling back to repeated refrains that gain greater resonance through repetition, a well-executed emotional exercise of tension and release. “Er Ra” is another highlight.
Alice Coltrane may have been absent from the public eye for 25 years, but Ecstatic Music proves that music was still a centerpiece of her life during that time. Here, the focal point isn’t on virtuosic solos or a dense composition that draws attention to itself; rather, it’s in crafting moments that build emotional intensity through greater repetition, participation, and intention.
While this album may be a bit of a stretch for listeners unacquainted with her catalogue (for that, I’d point to Journey in Satchidananda or Ptah, the El Daoud), Ecstatic Music helps paint a more complete picture of a long-unsung musician who’s slowly being celebrated more each year for her musical accomplishments.
Brandon Roos – 2017