Spiritual jazz is music that tries to invoke ecstatic, higher states of consciousness, whether it accesses them through religion or spirituality or in the music itself. People like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders got to these deep meditative states and higher realms by improvising within the structures they imposed on themselves. I find that all the deepest improvised music does that same thing. The higher states of improvising are themselves a higher state of consciousness. These people were looking for something more.
Thembi (Impulse!, 1971)
This was the first track from this genre that I heard and was inspired by. The whole record, Thembi, was a game-changer for me. It was one of the first electric-jazz records I heard. Free jazz was living right next to these groove feels. To me, that was a complete notion of what an improvised-music record could be. The prominent percussion, along with the meditative calm of this piece, transports the listener to a path toward a higher state of consciousness.
Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (Impulse!, 1966)
This version of “Naima” is an apex moment. Coltrane explodes the notion of how you deal with composed music and transforms one of his harmonic masterpieces with complete freedom; an open flow, adhering less strictly to the harmonic motion of the piece, yields new pathways. We never leave the harmonic world of “Naima”—the melody is always present, with important tonic stations—but the pace is now dictated by the improvisation.
“TURIYA AND RAMAKRISHNA”
Ptah, the El Daoud (Impulse!, 1970)
An amazing record. This track is a church hymn. It’s a very deep, focused piece of music. The acoustic piano-trio setting brings a classic tone and combines with the trancelike feel of the piece to create an alternate reality of sorts, transforming the past into something uniquely new.
Albert Ayler Trio
Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk’, 1965)
“Ghosts” sounds like a hymn filtered through free jazz. It was always a clarion call to my ears. It woke me from my normal patterns and demanded something greater. Ayler always pushed his music into unknown realms and trusted in the transformative powers of improvisation.
Lanquidity (Philly Jazz, 1978)
Sun Ra was certainly about astral traveling in a sense similar to what Pharoah was talking about: altering your state of mind within music. This title track, with its incredible melody, has a really creamy Fender Rhodes with some organ and puts him into a more electric zone. It really appeals to me as a keyboard player. “Lanquidity” is very onomatopoetic; it recalls a particular spiritual flow. This music is constantly searching, seeking deeper forms and new modes of thinking.
Pharoah (India Navigation, 1977)
No drums, just guitar, bass, saxophone and hand percussion. Two chords repeated over and over for 20 minutes. Long tones, deep soul and spiritual transformation are all in play here. Intimate and refreshing.
Infant Eyes (Black Jazz, 1971)
He takes this Horace Silver tune and brings out the more ecstatic side of it. It’s classic early ’70s inner-seeking electric jazz, with Fender Rhodes. His wife, Jean Carn, is the singer on it.
[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]
Listen to a Spotify playlist with several of the songs from this Artist’s Choice playlist by Jamie Saft on “Spiritual Jazz”: