Alice Coltrane departed from her corporeal form in 2007, 40 years after the passing of her more famous husband and musical partner, John Coltrane. And the inevitable reassessment and enriched appreciation of her artistry is belatedly underway.
Even if Alice hadn’t been slandered in Yoko Ono-like fashion for supposedly catalyzing the breakup of the hallowed John Coltrane Quartet, most jazz fans and pundits would still have been woefully unprepared for her next act. Her husband’s (and her own) rapturous bent toward Eastern religious music to create an intoxicating mélange that included jazz, Euroclassical, funk, and, most prominently, chant-songs that melded Hindu devotional hymns with the gospel blues testimony of her Detroit roots.
Spiritual Eternal encompasses the three studio albums Coltrane made for Warner Brothers over a two-year period after leaving her husband’s label, Impulse!, in 1975. She was in the midst of an extraordinary transition, relocating across the country to California, receiving divine inspiration in 1976 to renounce secular life and become a Hindu swamini, and founding the Vedantic Center, which still stands today as the Sai Anantam Ashram. The collection underscores Coltrane’s most remarkable feat: She became a master musician and a spiritual guru in the same way, by presenting all her accumulated wisdom in a welcoming synthesis.
Thus, Eternity, recorded in the summer and fall of ’75 as the first Warners album on Spiritual Eternal, is a confounding pastiche, only partially grounded by the rhythm section of bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ben Riley. An opening blues in 12/8 (“Spiritual Eternal”), complete with orchestra, yields to the glissando harp of “Wisdom Eye,” followed by a 12-minute Afro-Cuban funk workout with Coltrane on Wurlitzer and an uncredited Carlos Santana on timbales (“Los Caballos”). “Om Supreme” is a disastrous early chant song; Coltrane learned later to deploy her students on such material, instead of using pro vocalists who proved to be too stiff for it. “Morning Worship” is free-form jazz anchored by the Eastern drone of a tamboura. And her original rearrangement of “Spring Rounds,” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, brings the orchestra back for a thrilling finale.
The other two albums, Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana and Transcendence, benefit from both the organizing clarity and pervasive ecstasy of her divine intervention. The former, recorded in August 1976, features incredibly happy songs fueled by sparkling keyboards and spirited vocals and handclaps (“Govinda Jai Jai” and “Hare Krishna”), some rare and beautiful acoustic piano from Coltrane on “Prema Muditha,” and better-than-you’d-imagine duets with her children. “Ganesha” finds her daughter Sita on tamboura while Coltrane plays harp. “Om Namah Sivaya” unfurls a wonderful 19-minute exchange between her Wurlitzer and drums by John Jr.
Transcendence, from May 1977, again sweeps the stylistic spectrum, but Coltrane’s musicianship elevates the music throughout, from her dreamy yet emotionally infused harp over a string quartet on the title song and “Radhe-Shyam” to organ lines that could have been copped from Booker T. during the call-and-response singalong on “Ghana Nila.” “Vrindavana Sanchara” is a solo opus with Coltrane on harp, chimes, tambourine, and tamboura.
The live album Transfiguration appeared on Warners in 1978, but for the next 26 years, new studio music from Alice was only available through the Vedantic Center. Now all of it is more widely available, and like much of Spiritual Eternal, it transcends the test of time by nourishing the soul, without judgment or preaching.