Alice Coltrane, R.I.P.*

alice-coltrane.jpgIt doesn’t feel good to realize that the last time I paid much attention to the great musician and bandleader Alice Coltrane, I was in high school.  Of all the bop figures of the 1960s, Alice Coltrane did the most to unite the freedom, spontaneity and individualism of jazz with the timeless, egoless sounds and feelings of Indian meditation– a combination that ties together two ends of a long string.

The album I remember listening to over and over was Journey in Satchidananda, on which she plays harp and Pharoah Sanders is prominent on sax.  A number of jazz heroes of the 70s — “Mahavishnu” John McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea — were also known for prayerful, other-wordly improvisations that seemed as if the music was being dictated from somewhere beyond, but my impression that this territory was first explored by Alice.   It was not too far from that style to New Age music, at first mostly performed by jazz-trained players, seemingly designed to accompany meditation.

But in Alice Coltrane’s gifted hands, the blend of Hindu mysticism and hard bop gave birth to music that wasn’t meant to accompany a spiritual or inward journey — it was the journey, and she was quite serious about it.   She established a commune in Agoura Hills for the study of Vedanta, a Hindu school of philosophy, and taught there after retiring from music in the late 1970s.

Alice Coltrane was, of course, the widow of jazz immortal John Coltrane, who died in 1967.  She was also the pianist in his band for the last two years of his musical career, which ended with his death from liver cancer at age 40.  Now, she has joined him. She died at West Hills Hospital a week ago of respiratory failure.

journey-in-satchidananda.jpgI heard about her passing this evening as I drove away from LAX after my flight home from New Orleans.  I stumbled across Tavis Smiley’s radio program, where he replayed a priceless interview with Coltrane taped when she was promoting a comeback album in 2004, Translinear Light.  She was unexpectedly funny, especially about her early years in Detroit, growing up in a highly religious family.  I don’t know if Smiley streams his show on the Internet; I’m too tired to investigate now, but I’ll update this post if I can find it. (See below.)

Meantime, I’m going to start looking for a copy of Journey in Satchidananda, and see whether it moves me now the way it did when I was 16.

*Update:  A stream of Tavis Smiley’s interview with Alice Coltrane is here, for the next week at least.  Really, even if jazz doesn’t interest you, listen to it.  She’s so utterly charming.  The aforementioned album and much else of her work is available here on Rhapsody.  (The link is to the music service’s Internet site, but to play it you have to download the player. I’m a fan of Rhapsody, so if this gets you to join the service, all to the good.)  You can hear samples on Impulse! site, and on that thing Apple runs, oh yeah, iTunes.

Writer Deanne Stillman has a lovely brief tribute to Alice Coltrane here on Huffington Post, and so does RJ Eskow, here, in a combined tribute to Coltrane and saxophonist Michael Brecker, who also passed away last week.


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