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Alice Coltrane: Universal Consciousness

Alice Coltrane did what most women have to do when they lose their partners and have kids to raise: she went to work. Unlike most women, Coltrane had a thriving family business with a sterling brand name. But despite her tenure in John Coltrane’s last ensembles, she had to virtually start from scratch, having no prior opportunities to document her music on her own terms. Unsurprisingly, she initially took incremental steps to emerge from her husband’s long shadow on the four Impulse albums that preceded 1971’s Universal Consciousness: A Monastic Trio (1968), Huntington Ashram Monastery (1969), Ptah the El Daoud (1970) and Journey in Satchidananda (1970). The albums shared a penchant for modal themes and mid-tempo vamps, though her temperament was more meditative than ecstatic. More importantly, Coltrane shared her husband’s instincts in taking great artistic risks to pursue a spiritual quest. Subsequently, she took a page from his playbook and brought a second instrument to the foreground of her music. Like John’s first soaring soprano solos, the emergence of Alice’s cascading harp on her debut as a leader, A Monastic Trio, signaled a spiritual ascent. By the making of Journey In Satchidananda two years later, Alice Coltrane was central to the Indocentric jazz of the early ’70s, arguably the first instance of a female instrumentalist assuming a defining role in a jazz subgenre.

Coltrane trumped herself with Universal Consciousness. Her debut as an organist is stunning, and the instrument accentuates the Bud Powell-inspired chops occasionally referred to in contemporary commentary but rarely hinted at in previous recordings. Additionally, her sound was the polar opposite of Larry Young’s, favoring an almost nasal timbre seemingly inspired by Indian reed instruments. Of her contemporaries, Sun Ra’s Farfisa was closest in sound, but the two were light years apart in terms of technique and content, as Coltrane had immaculate articulation and a fastidious approach to theme and variation. The impact of the organ is compounded by the compelling materials for four violins on three of the album’s six tracks. Though she is credited with the arrangements, and Ornette Coleman only with the transcriptions, there is a harmolodic hue to the strings, even on the blissed-out “Hare Krishna” (not a surprise, given that the album was recorded less than a year before Coleman’s Skies of America). This is also Coltrane’s most rhythmically assertive album, with Jack DeJohnette creating a near-turbulent undercurrent on the two vigorous pieces with strings, and Rashied Ali triggering an intense duet, aptly titled “Battle at Armageddon.”

The coalescing of diverse elements and energies on Universal Consciousness make it an enduring album and arguably Alice Coltrane’s masterpiece.

Her mid-to-late-’70s output for Warner Brothers, licensed for reissued by the new Sepia Tone label, was even more of a mixed lot than her Impulse albums: Eternity (1976) and Transcendence (1977) span a reworking of “The Rite of Spring” and gospel-tinged takes on Indian chants, while the live 2-CD Transfiguration (1978) finds her triangulating with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Roy Haynes. Occasionally, Coltrane slips into a proto-new-age somnolence on the two studio albums, but overall her experiments are nearly as engaging as they are eclectic. Her selection and arrangement of materials from the Stravinsky piece on Eternity are erudite, even if the exercise is arguably inconsequential as it does not radically recast the classic. Underpinned by an almost funky electric piano, the chants on Transcendence have the earthy sturdiness more often associated with the black church than a Himalayan ashram. More importantly, the title track of Transcendence, featuring the Satori Quartet, has the same brand of string writing found on Universal Consciousness.

If nothing else, Transfiguration confirms Alice Coltrane’s stamina to be on a par with her husband’s. Clocking in at nearly 40 minutes, this version of John Coltrane’s “Leo” is unrelentingly intense and inventive. She spools out intricate variations of unorthodox scalar patterns at a treacherous pace, one that requires Haynes and Workman’s full resources to maintain. Her organ solos on “Leo” and elsewhere on the album possess a virtuosity that does find easy analogues among jazz musicians-except for John Coltrane-and are more easily compared to that of Indian classical musicians.

Transfiguration also serves the notable purpose of contrasting her linear organ solos with the thick chords and dramatic sweeps she favors at the piano, a reminder of the many facets of Alice Coltrane’s art.

Originally Published