Alice Coltrane: Transcendence

Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane
Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, Charlie Haden, Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane
Ravi Coltrane

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It’s an early afternoon in February at Capitol Records’ Studio B in Hollywood. To many, this recording venue immediately swings with the memory of legendary sessions by Nat “King” Cole, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, famously appearing in its spacious, 1961 splendor on the cover of Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!! LP.

But for three generations of the jazz clan presently assembled, Studio B suggests different things entirely.

To Ravi Coltrane, wearing the twin hats of producer and performer-with one eye on the clock and the other seeking the attention of drummer Jack DeJohnette-the fabled studio is a second choice: “It’s slightly awkward and impersonal-if only the sight lines were better.”

To William Coltrane, Ravi’s four-year-old son, Studio B is about ample running space and numerous swivel chairs that need testing.

To the ever-placid Alice Coltrane, Ravi’s mother, William’s grandmother and 67-year-old widow of John, it is simply another room with another piano.

“Nervous-me? No. This is very comfortable,” she says softly, patiently noodling on a Steinway in an isolation booth, as a swarm of family, friends and fellow musicians are all to and fro. “But the men, I think, may have some issues….”

Those calm and accurate words are from a woman reentering the frenetic record business, preparing to create music for Translinear Light, her first commercial album in 26 years. Truth be told, Mrs. Coltrane (as she is most often addressed) is allowing, rather than actively instigating, her return to the spotlight. “Well I told my children I’m so happy to do this, but I’m not starting a second career!”

It’s a point entirely familiar to Ravi who, relieved that the drum kit has finally arrived, is the driving wheel for the project-a role requiring a tight fist and velvet gloves. “There’s the factor of working with someone who’s older,” he says. “She’s on a timetable. When she’s ready to go, she’s gone.”

Alice Coltrane has always been one to follow her own schedule. In 1962, at the age of 25, the soft-spoken Alice McLeod had already progressed from classical lessons in her hometown of Detroit to studying with Bud Powell in Paris to a regular gig in a group led by vibist Terry Gibbs. That year, she met her future husband in a New York club, a life-changing encounter she regards as preordained.

“Before I even met him and became part of the group and part of his life, there was something in me that knew that there is a spiritual, musical connection-a divine connection-with this person. Because there were things that he said to me, they weren’t spoken with the human voice. And once I got in the band, that was it.”

In a five-year flash, McLeod became John Coltrane’s wife, sideman and, in July of ’67, his 30-year-old widow with four children (her daughter by singer Kenny Hagood and three sons by Coltrane.) As the late ’60s respun the social fabric of the age, so she continued to transform herself. She simultaneously pursued her own inner spiritual growth, the path of motherhood and that of a top-billed jazz star who pushed at the limits of her genre, all while under a public, often critical eye drawn first to her last name.

In ’72, Coltrane relocated from New York City suburbia to southern California and founded a center for Vedantic studies. In the studio, she displayed a wide unpredictability that rivaled her late husband’s. She recorded with small jazz groups and lush orchestral backdrops. She composed soulful, swinging melodies and ethereal modal tunes, at times laced with chanting and Indian percussion. Her piano, organ and harp performances revealed how far she had ventured from the bebop enthusiasm of her youth.

Coltrane still credits her arpeggio-rich, democratic approach to the keyboard-first evidenced on albums recorded with her husband-to his direction. “He said, ‘You have all those keys. Why don’t you play all of them as completely as you can?’ So that’s why you always hear that sound. You will hear it forever, as long as I live, I tell you.”

Forever, even as employed by one as cosmically minded as Alice Coltrane, is a relative term.

Over the last few decades, her public appearances have slowed to a trickle, limited almost exclusively to California or New York. Her recording career as a leader lasted a mere 10 years, from A Monastic Trio (Impulse) in 1968 to Transfiguration (Warner Bros) in 1978-a surprisingly brief period relative to the enduring impact her music and legacy has had since.

It’s the afternoon following the first recording session. Mother and son sit on opposite sides of the dinner table in daughter Michelle’s home north of Los Angeles. Back and forth, on and off topic, they address the inevitable queries about the new album: the material, the sidemen, the studio. Why, finally, now?

One reason for Alice’s return is certainly the persistence of a fan base. Ravi reminds his mother of a moment in 2002 when she held court to a line of well-wishers after she sat in with his quartet at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. “You can remember easily the lines of people standing outside your dressing room just waiting to say hello or thank you after that concert.”

“My son’s been trying to tell me that for a while. I never considered myself to be so remembered like John Coltrane,” counters Alice. “But for myself, I’m sure there must be a few people.”

“She’s being modest,” shrugs Ravi, used to such humility. “But,” he quickly adds, “reaching all the Alice Coltrane fans is not even close to the primary motivation for me wanting to do these types of things with my mother.”

These “things” are the progressively infrequent, casual collaborations between mother and son, usually on stage and rarely in the studio. As Ravi recalls, it’s been her trend, even with her peers. “There were a few times in the ’80s where she would get a call for a job, and she would say, ‘OK, I’ll do the gig.’ The last gig she did like that I think was with George Coleman in Chicago [in] ’87 or ’88. Those days are long gone.”

Alice explains her conscious withdrawal from public performance.

“What [I have] achieved over many years is fine for me, because I feel already that something wonderful was accomplished-something in me is already fulfilled. This generation now of young musicians-I feel that this is their time.”

She confesses that in recent years, even at home, a spiritual priority has tamed the desire to compose or practice regularly. “I can definitely relate to the instrument, but I don’t seem to require it, knowing what’s here, that inner sound, that divine sound that is God. It’s with you always. So if an idea comes along musically, or an inspiration shows up musically, you have what you need.”

But it wasn’t always that way, Ravi relates.

“My earliest memories of her are her playing music, either playing piano or organ or harp, or playing recordings. I’d come home from school and she’d just be sitting at the organ, playing hymns and things. And it wasn’t like she was getting ready for a gig or something. It was like, you go home and your dad’s reading the paper or watching the television. That’s what music was for her. It was this sustenance that was a part of her daily existence.

“The fact that my mother hasn’t recorded a commercially released studio album in two decades doesn’t mean that she hasn’t been recording music. There’s piles and piles of tapes. Now this might stir up some controversy too, because people might say, ‘Well, what’s on these tapes?’ She’s always made music regardless if it was for commercial purposes or-“

“Spiritual purposes,” Alice finishes.

“Not to suggest that I want her to get back in the world and start making records every year and going out on the road,” Ravi continues. “That’s not really it so much. I understand that this is something that she’s doing for the benefit of people beyond herself.”

So, then, what is Ravi’s primary motivation to record with his mother?

“I always felt like there was a gap that was widening-any idea of us being two professional working musicians at the same time were just evaporating. I was getting deeper and deeper into music, and each year she would say she was more and more retired from music. I think about those times I had opportunities to play professionally with my mother, but I was new to it and not ready. I wanted some document that I’ll always be able to share with my kids. I don’t want to have a day of regret, saying, ‘I never did this with my mom.'”

In 2000, Ravi seized an opportunity, just as he departed from his record company.

“Initially [this album] was going to be my third BMG record. I don’t know if it was going to be mine as the leader, but it was going to be a Jack DeJohnette, Alice Coltrane, Ravi Coltrane record. My Ma wanted to do ‘Wade in the Water’ and another song like that came up. But I lost the deal with BMG. Fortunately they didn’t pay for the sessions so some of that music is likely to be a part of this Verve project,” he says. “Joe’s Pub was just the extra boost that we needed to get things off the ground.”

Alice smiles. “My son was so inspired for this to happen. We had presented the Love Supreme program in New York and following that there was some talk: ‘Mom, I’m suddenly interested in knowing if you would like to record.’ And I told him, ‘I believe so, that this is a good time, that it could be done now.'”

Back in the studio, Ravi is a blur. As the long afternoon turns into night, what was originally intended to be a one-session album is evolving into much more. Ultimately, Translinear Light will be culled from multiple studio visits: eight tracks recorded in spring 2004 and three from the 2000 BMG session. The album will present Alice in a variety of settings (duo, trio and quartet) and accompaniment, including Ravi on tenor and soprano sax and percussion, Alice’s youngest son, Oran, on alto, bassists Charlie Haden and James Genus, drummers DeJohnette and Jeff “Tain” Watts and the Sai Anantam Singers, a choir from her ashram.

With comfortable self-awareness, Ravi placed himself at the center of the creative storm: producing, playing, recruiting personnel and selling the idea to Verve Music Group, which has released it as a new title on Impulse, the Verve-owned imprint for which Alice first recorded.

“I’m trying to think and manage so many different things to be in this role with my mother, and also to be playing,” Ravi admits with a chuckle. “To be respectful, but to be purposeful, to be decisive, but to have flexibility-all these things at once.” Between duties filial and professional, he is quick to point out the prevailing role. “Mother and son will always win out. I have a good sense of my mom and where she’s at musically, and I have this sound in my head, and I know what she’s capable of doing. I know how generous and kind she is also. She’ll maybe do something out of courtesy for somebody else when I know that maybe she would rather go in this direction, do this. I would like to be able to be there to kind of shape things and guide her, because I’m hearing something that I know that she has within her.”

Was there a vision of the album’s musical direction before booking the studio?

“The first idea was that it wouldn’t be retro Alice Coltrane, this sort of nostalgic ’70s-sounding record. Scratch that. And obviously, you don’t want to have it sound like, ‘Let’s make it a hip-hop record.’ It still has to be an Alice Coltrane record-to balance that sort of forward-thinking, present-day sense, but also have a little bit of historical influence there.”

Son and mother agreed the fulcrum would be music of a spiritual thread. “Songs of praise,” Ravi says, “that would extend from the church music that she had played growing up, to Negro spirituals to John Coltrane’s music, and her spiritual music from the ’70s. It would also extend to some of the Eastern, Indian-influenced music she’s involved with today. Between all these areas, we found some nice, complementary pieces.”

Echoes Alice: “I felt that we wanted to pick nice pieces. Pieces people like to play and also to honor [John] as well. I couldn’t imagine not playing at least maybe two of his songs, because he’s the inspirer.”

Two John Coltrane pieces are tastefully reinterpreted on Translinear Light, “Crescent” and “Leo.” The album further balances revived Alice tunes (“Sita Ram,” “Blue Nile”) with new works (“The Hymn,” “Triloka” and the title track), traditional Indian numbers (“Jagadishwar,”) Hindu chants (“Satya Sai Isha”) and hymnal standards (“Walk With Me,” “This Train”).

Though Alice Coltrane chose to leave her pentatonically tuned harp behind (“My harp needs work. I’ve not been concertizing with it for years and years”), Translinear Light shines with her signature piano style and, on tunes like “This Train,” the distinctive sound of the Wurlitzer Centura organ she has owned since the ’70s. Accenting Alice’s penchant for Indian sonorities is an ululating effect, standard on her Wurlitzer, which she employs freely and frequently. “It’s a modulator. By pushing the key all the way down, you can make [the note] slide, go down or go up. Whatever you program it for….”

“I grew up listening to that organ sound,” says Oran Coltrane. “I’ll never get that out of my head. Just those two octaves, and it sounds like a full orchestra….”

At 36, Oran is Alice and John’s youngest son. He’s in the studio with alto saxophone in hand, sporting a black T-shirt proclaiming his heavy-metal band’s name in Gothic font: Oranyan. On Translinear Light, he makes his commercial recording debut assisting his mother on the alto sax and synthesizer duet “The Hymn.” Alice marvels at the degree to which their children have inherited her husband’s musical personality. “Who said, ‘You must make your alto sound like a tenor?’ It’s in the DNA, you hear it in his sound, even though he entered the music world later, being the last one born.”

The second son, Ravi, stands out as well on tenor and soprano. But to two of Ravi’s elders, his accomplishment is one of emergence, more than emulation. “He’s managed to play the instrument that his father played and maintain an individual voice,” Jack DeJohnette says. Charlie Haden adds: “I really admire his courage to play the tenor saxophone and be the son of John Coltrane. He’s playing so great.”

Both should know well of Ravi’s progress. Haden was one of his first instructors when Ravi entered the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1986, and DeJohnette says, “When he first came to New York he worked with me a little bit, and he had help from Rashied Ali. You know he’s grown a lot. Ravi’s wearing many hats these days-try and raise a family and help run the Coltrane estate and be a bandleader. He’s had to make those adjustments and try and keep a balance, and I think he’s managing to do that pretty well.”

If one track speaks to Ravi’s deepening confidence and personal vocabulary on saxophone, it’s his solo on “Crescent.” “That’s one piece that my Ma loves to play,” he remarks. “It’s like if we’re gonna do that, let’s find a different way to approach it. The idea I had-as opposed to going into the walking feel and the changes during the solo that are part of the original recording-was to use the harmonic structure and the feeling of the melody for the improvisations, so it basically turned into a ballad. It’s always nice to hear that approach, especially with energetic drummers like Jack, to hear him play with brushes in a softer kind of context.”

Ravi’s choice of musicians on Translinear Light consciously mixes generational teams of bass and drums (Genus and Watts, Haden and DeJohnette,) both complementary and familiar to his mother.

“All of them have played with my mother at some point in New York or back home. Jack and Charlie do have a connection to [Alice] historically. Charlie made a lot of recordings with her during the 70s. And Jack even played some of those gigs with my father’s last band. There was a week in Chicago [in 1966] where my father wanted two drummers, so Jack played with Rashied for a whole week. I thought that was necessary [to] try to get this balance between this connection of musicians that she’s had a relationship with in the past, but fine musicians that can have a forward, kind of progressive type of approach to making music today.”

Alice warmly speaks of her musical support, and of music itself as a process art. She focuses on the potential in younger players and the progress of older friends.

“They are all excellent, gifted musicians on this CD. Jeff and James certainly, and Charlie’s out here [in California] associated with the school up there, CalArts. And for Jack to come in, I thought it was nice because he’s very busy. Jack and Charlie, we go back to the ’70s, when everybody was young. The playing was great then; the playing is sooo great now. To me they just improve and improve and improve.”

A take of “This Train” winds down. A loud “Those are some beautiful chords you’re playing Alice, yessirree!” is heard from the studio.

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Haden,” answers Alice.

“We’re gonna adjust the road map, OK?” declares Ravi. “The head will be AABA-the first section-my mom will solo over the C minor section….”

“And in Canada that would be AABA, eh?” jokes the bassist.

“Alice of course is a genius at whatever she does,” Haden says later. “She has a touch on the piano-immediately you know that it’s her. And she has a touch on this Wurlitzer. I played a lot of concerts with her playing the organ. It’s very inspiring the way she plays the bass pedals and does all of the runs with her right hand and the chords. Really, really beautiful.”

DeJohnette agrees, recognizing the resonance of another genre-defying spirit.

“Particularly on this old Wurlitzer organ, she gets these sort of Sun Ra-type, kaleidoscopic kinds of melodic phrases, and rhythmic things. The way she improvises, I think she’s beyond the category of jazz, really. She’s a very spiritual woman. She does a lot of spiritual work, and that always carries over into her music. I can’t break it down because all those things are there: the blues, her bebop roots and then the spiritual roots. For me it’s not these separate entities-it’s all a complete energy. Whether she’s playing in tempo or out of time, multidimensional or directional time, it’s a conversation for me.”

He pauses, and adds, “I think she’s unclassifiable. She’s just a special entity herself.”

Jazz history certainly bears this out. Since Alice Coltrane’s ascendancy as a solo artist, her stature has been consistently self-defined. As Ravi readily admits, it’s from that singularity that both her artistic strength and the ambivalence of her public appraisal stem.

“She has a personal sound, a personal approach to what she does, and that’s rare-very rare today even with the greatest musicians. The hardest thing is to achieve that personal voice, that personal sound. That within itself is a very special thing. Maybe the jazz world-whatever the ‘jazz world’ means-wasn’t really up to speed with what she was doing. Maybe it was the fact that the John Coltrane thing was just so overshadowing. Or people had such a fondness for his first quartet, that when the second band came together it was like, ‘We don’t really hear it.’ When Alice Coltrane went on to do her own solo work, it still remained that way for some people. The fact that she’s been out of the working jazz world for 20 years, I don’t know how much controversy exists now. Obviously, a majority of people has a different feeling. They were really touched by the music that she made in the ’70s.”

This spiritual effect continues into the present, which Alice maintains is precisely her aim. “If people hear a sincere rendering of what I’m playing on this new CD, it will be more than just academic. It will go into the heart because it’s coming from the heart and from the spirit.”

Still waters run deep, and quietly. In 2004, Alice Coltrane’s life of semiretirement finds her home most often, focused on contemplation and inner growth. The commitment she made nearly 40 years ago, when an entire generation (and so many high-profile musicians) defined a brief wave of spiritual adventurousness, has proven to be uncommonly constant and sincere.

It’s in her music and in her words. Like a leaf loose in the wind, her conversation may float through material matters-albums, gigs, personal history, even family-but it repeatedly alights on the fundamental precept guiding her career, and urging her return to album-making: that music can be an inherently worshipful, divinely connected act.

“I feel that if God gives you any type of blessing or good fortune or gift, you have to share it. You have to share it, because it’s really not yours. It really is of the supreme. Like [the title] Translinear Light refers to a singular progression, or concentration, of light-focused upon an object or a goal, as it illumines the pathway to achievement. It is an emanation from the Divine. Sometimes I’ve heard music and I feel like I’ve already engaged in the praise of God. I feel it already in my soul, in my spirit.

“Once John and I were coming from a concert that he had played out here in California and it was late in the morning-we got out at daybreak. We heard a couple leaving, and the lady said, ‘I have to hurry home because I’m going to church.’ Her companion said, ‘Church? You’ve already been to church!'” JT

A Family Supreme

Whatever musical predisposition John and Alice may have passed on to their progeny, it seems both sides of the family tree are blessed with the music-making gene. Though their eldest son John Jr. never grew to prove himself musically, being the victim of a fatal car accident at age 18, all of Alice’s children and a few close relatives have been, at one time or another, in the biz. Her brother Ernie Farrow, for instance, played bass for Yusef Lateef, and we know about Ravi. Here are three others:

Michelle Coltrane Carbonell: A gifted vocalist, “Miki” Coltrane is the daughter of Alice and singer Kenny Hagood (best remembered for his vocal contributions on The Birth of the Cool sessions.) In 1997, Michelle recorded her own CD, I Think of You, still hosts a weekly jazz program on Los Angeles’ KPFK and performs annually as part of the family-produced John Coltrane Festival. She is married to the Havana-born timbalero and percussionist Jorge Carbonell, a founder of the L.A.-based group Otan Afro-Jazz.

Oran Coltrane: Like his older brother, Oran attended CalArts; he now divides his musical efforts between alto saxophone (which he took up at age 12) and electric guitar. He performs on saxophone as part of the annual Coltrane festival, has jammed with the likes of Carlos Santana, Reggie Workman, Jack DeJohnette and various family members, and continues to front the metal trio Oranyan.

Marilyn McLeod: For 15 years, Alice’s youngest sister (the McLeod family had four girls and two boys) was a staff songwriter for the Motown label, penning such R&B gems as “Love Hangover” (Diana Ross), “Walk In the Night” (Jr. Walker), “Same Ole Love” (Anita Baker, Billy Cobham), “You Cant Turn Me Off” (Millie Jackson) and others. She continues to compose and, with her niece Michelle, helps oversee the Coltrane family office, dealing with business relating to John Coltrane’s music and legacy and various projects initiated by her sister.