In the years after her husband John’s 1967 death, Alice Coltrane, newly widowed with four children as she entered her thirties, suffered through a harrowing period of severe weight loss, hallucinations, and self-inflicted wounds that included burns where blackened skin fell off her hands. In her 1977 memoir Monument Eternal, Coltrane refers to this ordeal as tapas, a crucial time of trial, tribulation, and transition designed to cleanse and enhance her spirit. Emerging from it, she embraced the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, moved herself and her family to California, and founded the Vedantic Center in 1972. Nearly a decade later, having received revelations to abandon the secular life and become a teacher in the Hindu tradition, she fully focused her music on her spiritual journey, making it available exclusively to her students via cassettes sold at the ashram she had built in 1983. The first of these, Turiya Sings, has Coltrane sing-chanting devotional songs in Sanskrit amid her Wurlitzer organ, synthesizer, strings, and sound effects. It is the most peaceful, soothing album of her career.
In 2004, Alice’s son Ravi discovered mixes of Turiya Sings from 1981, stripped down to just his mother’s voice and organ. Many years later, believing that “this new clarity brings these chants to an even higher place,” he convinced Impulse! to release this version as Kirtan: Turiya Sings, and make his mother’s explicitly spiritual material widely available to the public for the first time.
As might be expected, shearing the strings and synths removes some of the original’s richness. But Ravi Coltrane is right about the tangible immediacy of these tracks. Alice’s voice is invested with the commanding purity of faith, of someone who has been tempered by the travails of tragedy and emerged transcendent. Nor does the bare-bones mix deprive us of the essence of Coltrane’s artistry. The slow shifts of her organ chords contain the gentle sway of the gospel church, and the subtle emphasis changes in her phrasing bring the blues into the ashram. Her countenance was rarely “as cool as the moon,” the way the “merciful god” in “Charanam” is described in the translation from the Sanskrit. But within the soothing hum of the chants and the omnipresent drone of the organ, the part of her raised on “Lord, have mercy!” never disappeared.