JT Notes: Celebrating Alice Coltrane

Editor Evan Haga on an Alice Coltrane tribute concert in Queens

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An all-star jazz band and Alice Coltrane’s ashram singers celebrate her legacy (photo by Cary Huws/Red Bull Content Pool)

Despite its reputation for wallowing in nostalgia, jazz always tends to mirror its time. The manic optimism of America in the 1920s yielded hot jazz; the conservatism of the Reagan era bolstered the history-minded Young Lions; today, globalization has granted the music an international aesthetic few could have imagined in the ’50s. In the 1960s and ’70s, political upheaval and the spirit of psychedelia inspired musicians in rock and jazz to look for contexts far removed from what they’d been given. Many, including John and Alice Coltrane, looked East, toward Indian religions that offered the promise of inner tranquility and universal oneness.

After John died in 1967, Alice found an everlasting salve in Hinduism, and until her death in 2007, she made music that matched the African-American traditions whence she came with the spiritual sounds that reflected where she was going. A brilliant program, organized by the Red Bull Music Academy and held in May, in a cavernous renovated factory space in Queens, celebrated Alice’s two eras of elated music-making. First was a set of her original devotional music, sung by members of her Sai Anantam Ashram, which she founded in 1983 but whose roots reach back to the mid-’70s. Driven via a rhythm section featuring John (and Alice) Coltrane alum Reggie Workman on bass, this music presented a fascinating cross-cultural proposition; keenly, it understood how to fuse the power of repetition inherent in the collective melodies of Hindu music with the gospel-derived grooves of R&B and soul-jazz. In the evening’s second half—after concertgoers were allowed to put their shoes on—a band led by John and Alice’s son, saxophonist Ravi, and including Workman, harpist Brandee Younger, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, cornetist Graham Haynes and keyboardists David Virelles and Courtney Bryan, paid pretty faithful homage to Alice’s work as a lodestar of spiritual-jazz. “Journey in Satchidananda,” the genre-defining set opener, sounded just as it should, with a meditative swing and sitar-and-harp scrim that conjured up the requisite atmosphere. And so it went through “Translinear Light,” “Blue Nile” and others, all adding up to the kind of striking musical time-trip that audiophiles spend their lives pursuing.