Songs of Faith and Devotion

Alice Coltrane's legacy boldly mingles the spiritual with the musical

Alice McLeod came from the church, but who would've thought that by the end of her life, she would be the church? When the late pianist and harpist died of respiratory failure in January at the age of 69, she was long known, by her followers at the Sai Anantam Ashram in the Santa Monica hills, as Swamini A. C. Turiyasangitananda.

Jazz devotees, of course, know her by another name. "I can't say enough about the genius of Alice Coltrane," says bassist Charlie Haden, who recorded with both Alice and her husband, John. "Her musical spontaneity was incredible. Alice was open—she didn't see music in categories. When you played music with her, you had the feeling of no category. You were just trying to find beauty. That's really what it's about."

But that beauty, for some, takes an entirely religious form. Alice was feted last month with an Ascension Day ceremony at St. John the Divine in Harlem—organized by her son, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, it included theologians such as JJ Hurtak (and, by proxy, Cornel West) joining followers and ashram bureaucrats in singing her praises, and not necessarily focusing on her music. The night featured performances from Coltrane compatriots both senior (Haden himself, as well as bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Jack De Johnette) and slightly junior (Ravi and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts), as well as those simply under her influence (pianist Geri Allen and harpist Brandee Younger). But Alice's musical acumen wasn't necessarily a priority.

Ravi sounds very earnest when he speaks about his mother. "I don't consider her a jazz musician," he stresses a few weeks later, echoing claims Alice made in her own interviews. "Her contribution was very broad, and roots have many things in them. The devotional aspect is what tied it together."

There is little doubting the devotion. Alice Coltrane is best known as the second wife of the saxophone polymath John Coltrane, a musician whose following—for a short, beatific period—tipped from adulation into worship. (An actual Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church still exists in San Francisco.) And while the deification that came with the Coltrane cult has abated somewhat (the original space for the John Coltrane church has since been replaced by the equally deified cult of condo development), he remains no less a figurehead—even, as is so often the case for seminal artists, as his greatest breakthroughs are ignored in favor of his more accessible works.

Where did this leave his widow? The general opinion is that the death of her husband deepened Alice's spiritual commitment: She claimed to speak regularly with JC. If Trane was sainted after his death in 1967, then his wife was anointed to priesthood. And there exists a parallel musical universe in which Alice is a greater figure than her husband. While John believed in a universal religion, Alice did not, and dedicated her life to spiritual specifics in the same way her husband did to mathematics, studying with the controversial Swami Satchidananda—leader of Yogaville, beloved by everyone from Rivers Cuomo to Donna Karan—and forming the Vedantic Center in the mid '70s, a role that eventually led to her withdrawal from public performance altogether. That's great for narrative, but terrible for discographies, although, like Ravi's ceremony, it did put a period on a Period.

The image of jazz has long seesawed in the public eye between sharp suits and African robes. John didn't live quite long enough to don a dashiki, and that contributes to the uncanniness of his appeal—the man whose instrument rattled chains through 1965's Ascension was dressed like a Reservoir Dog.

But the irony behind that contrast doesn't explain his music, nor Alice's. Her devotional image can mask her innovations. "I loved the way Alice played—she came up with a whole different way of playing the piano," notes drummer Rashied Ali, who shared the bandstand with Alice in John's late, fierce quartet, and performed during Alice's own posthumous Ascension. "Alice was dealing more with pedal tones, and she had a natural, calm sound, like running water. I'm sure living with Coltrane, you have to think of something different to play."

She did. For while she may have dedicated herself to the mysteries of the inner universe, one thing you could not call the sound of Alice Coltrane's playing is "centered." Sure, there was often a solid and slow ostinato bass to ground her flights of fancy (most famously provided by Cecil McBee on the title track to 1970's Journey in Satchidananda, her archetypical album, its cyclical and stately rise and decline mimicking the pathway of humankind), but the keening seesaw of her organ playing and the full glissando of her harp rarely suggested direction so much as a desire to hit as many directions as possible at once. Only Alice could make the Jan Hammer–y pitch shifts on her version of John's "Leo"—as heard on Translinear Light, her oh-were-you-gone-for-30-years? 2005 comeback and swan song—sound fervently soulful, less like show-offy blurts and more like leaps of faith.

Another way of looking at this is that her husband's early passing may have driven her a bit mad, or driven her general musician's madness into something specific and beautiful. And weird. Religion may be used to beatify, but Alice's was a weird religion, and this is weird, weird music. Harry Smith weird, with a similar jumbling of influences both high and low. It was the period of Kozmik hippie jazzmakers. Some were trendy, some were switching from narcotics to hallucinogens (why choose?), some believed in something deeper, and some probably shouldn't have. But while her fellow late-'60s jazzbos were delving into ersatz Africa, Coltrane was, like many of the rock artists of the time, more concerned with Eastern modalities. Mix in the Kozmik elements and that might explain why she, like Sun Ra (another jazz artist who used spiritual topography to materialize personal pain), remains highly important while having only a minor impact on jazz itself. Her influence should have been greater: The mixture of harp, organ, modernist strings, and modal avant-garde had never been approximated before, nor fully since.

Instead we see her legacy not in current jazz—even free jazz—but in the freak-folk underground, which is why you're more likely to see Alice's albums in Other Music than at the Blue Note. The nü-natural mannerisms of Devendra Banhart, (ornate harpist!) Joanna Newsom, repsychled rockers Comets on Fire, and urban primitivists Aa and Sunburned Hand of the Man all draw from Alice's outsider abstractions.

Not to suggest she's a fail-safe hipper-than-thou influence—just as John Fahey inspired a lot of Windham Hill coke-folk, so did Alice suffer with a new-age (and worse: acid-jazz) connotation for a period. Many artists now use tribal spirituality as a mask for boorish decadence. Spiritualisn't a sonic category, nor necessarily a positive. Wasn't Charles Manson a spiritual musician? The Jonestown cult released an album. L. Ron Hubbard's keyboard stylings are available on CD. But a personal cosmology is a deep well to draw on, even if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

"When you're young and presented with these ideals by your mother, you think, 'Man, I just want to ride my bike around,' " Ravi recalls. "Sacrifice and devotion: These things are hard to grasp." They are. But some did. There will be at least one more Alice Coltrane album released: one of devotional music.

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