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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.”

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