Sorise for Sore Ears: Journey In Satchidananda

Aug 29, 2006 at 7:22 pm

Journey In Satchidananda
Alice Coltrane
reissue: 1970

Many will speak of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane as one of the greatest and most innovative jazz musicians who ever lived. Coltrane’s preeminence is rarely disputed, but less attention is paid to his wife and musical collaborator Alice Coltrane. She was in many ways his musical and spiritual counterpart, both before his death and after, and her album Journey in Satchidananda is an oft-overlooked masterpiece of spiritual jazz.

Born in Detroit in 1937, Alice McLeod studied classical music in her primary years. In her late teens and 20s, she became a student of the great jazz pianist Bud Powell. She played jazz professionally in Detroit, with her own trio and as a duo with vibraphonist Terry Pollard. During her tenure on the Detroit club circuit, McLeod expanded her instrumental repertoire from piano and organ to include the harp, and she remains one of a very small handful of jazz harpists, along with another Detroiter, Dorothy Ashby.

Alice was playing with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’ quartet in 1963 when she met John Coltrane. She played piano with his group from 1965-67. They were married in 1966, one year before his death.

Alice Coltrane recorded her debut album, A Monastic Trio, in 1968, as a tribute to her late husband. On the harp Coltrane’s style was free, spiritual yet refined — always holding back, as if still in search of something greater. As poet and activist Amiri Baraka wrote in the album’s liner notes, “Monastic and spun solitarily in a string cosmos/universe inhabited by memory, of event and emotional circumstance. But they are all loneliness mentioned, sung about.”

Coltrane went on to compose Huntington Ashram Monastery in 1969, and Ptah, the El Daoud and Journey in Satchidananda in 1970, all the while compiling a stellar line-up of musicians from her late husband’s final ensembles: Pharoah Sanders on saxophones; Ron Carter, Cecil McBee and Charlie Haden rotated on bass; and Ben Riley and Rashid Ali on drums. Focused on spiritual sound and eschewing frantic extended improvisation, the group favored a tame and subtle groove. With each recording, Coltrane and company examined and expanded the music’s consciousness.

In the 1960s, Coltrane devoted herself to Hinduism, and in 1970 she dedicated Journey in Satchidananda to her “beloved spiritual preceptor, Swami Satchidananda.” The recording is ethereal and enlightening, much different from the elongated tones and emotional timbre of A Monastic Trio. A musical awakening, Journey begins with McBee’s indestructible strolling bass line that induces a meditative response. Tulsi creates drones on the Tamboura, an Indian instrument, reminiscent of warming electrical currents. Offbeat trickles of bells and a slow flurry of Coltrane’s harp strings stir the listener from a slumber as Sanders takes the tune’s melody to another world. The amazing listening pleasure of the recording’s opening and title track is its repetition and openness; McBee’s bass line never changes from the opening sequence. Sanders’ contribution calls to mind the devotional energy of John Coltrane tracks such as “Naima” and “Alabama.”

As a whole, Journey  plays out much like a palindrome, beginning and ending with the calm and meditative themes of Coltrane’s spiritual and musical quest, built around a swirling and emotional core. Yet, considering the chaotic tendencies of these performers, even the middle of the album is surprisingly balanced. Each of her recordings invokes and pays homage to her late husband. Perhaps Sanders, who played with John Coltrane on his later, free jazz recordings, helped Alice engineer her sound. As she writes in the liner notes of Journey, the recording is “a form of meditation and a spiritual awakening for those who listen with their inner ear.” A true treasure of spiritual jazz — highly recommended.

Kim Sorise writes monthly on great listens for LEO, and spins them every Friday at the North End Café. Contact her at [email protected]