The Impulse! release of Translinear Light in 2004 was heralded as a re-emergence from self-imposed spiritual exile for Alice Coltrane, but that narrative only held true for those of us on the outside listening in. Though more than two decades had passed without a widely released album, Coltrane never stopped making music, even as she devoted herself to the Southern California ashram she founded in the mid-1970s. This new compilation released by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint is a revelatory collection of devotional music from four cassette-only private-press releases that Swamini Turiyasangitananda, as she was known to her followers, recorded between 1982 and 1995.
Spirituality and music were always intimately intertwined for Coltrane. Growing up in Detroit, Alice McLeod found her earliest musical experiences in the church; she met John Coltrane in 1963, as the saxophonist was focusing his explorations on his spiritual path. The couple shared a searching intensity, though after John’s death in 1967 Alice’s music became increasingly ecstatic and blissful. She seemed to find inspiration less in the urgency of her husband’s late-career questing and more in a sense of transcendent contemplation.
The albums that Coltrane released throughout the 1970s were a travelogue of her spiritual journey, evolving along with her religious investigations. As she pilgrimaged to India, studied with Swami Satchidananda and found her calling in Vedic philosophy, Coltrane absorbed the influences of Indian music and devotional chants into her music, arriving at a unique sound that presaged new-age music while never completely forsaking her jazz experimentation.
The four albums from which Luaka Bop’s collection draws—Turiya Sings (1982), Divine Songs (1987), Infinite Chants (1990) and Glorious Chants (1995)—were originally intended as an adjunct of worship for members of Coltrane’s Sai Anantam Ashram, many of whom can be heard singing and chanting throughout. As such, it would be easy to assume that these recordings were purely functional, basic documentations of incessantly droning group chants.
This is what makes World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda so essential: Coltrane’s entire spiritual and musical histories find expression through these 10 tracks, which at times veer from the celestial to the gospel, the communal to the introspective, the earthly to the otherworldly. Dramatic production techniques and (occasionally too-evident) tape editing also reveal that these recordings were meant to be more than archival.
“Om Rama” opens with Coltrane essentially comping for the chanting and percussion of the ashram members, her Oberheim OB-8 synth mostly swelling and diving, though it occasionally takes subtly intricate harmonic detours. Around the midpoint of the nearly 10-minute track, former Ray Charles back-up singer John Panduranga Henderson takes the lead, belting chants with gospel-influenced fervor over a stomping rhythm that evokes work songs.
“Om Shanti” brings Coltrane’s own voice to the fore, accompanied by beatific organ straight out of a church service. She engages herself in a hushed call and response that suggests a reflective inner dialogue before turning outward to the full chorus, which gradually becomes subsumed by a cavernous echo, an aural portrait of transcendence marching to a tabla beat. The drone of the tambura melds with psychedelic synths on the mesmerizing “Rama Rama,” while “Rama Guru” sets repetitive chants to cosmic washes and air-raid siren blasts that channel Coltrane’s fire-music past into a compelling tension.
Cecil McBee’s iconic bassline from “Journey in Satchidananda,” the title track from Alice Coltrane’s 1971 Impulse! release, is rendered in dramatic, monolithic organ chords, which form the basis for a hypnotic, filigreed rumination, then an elegiac mass before Tamil singer Sairam Iyer finally takes the song into the realm of the ecstatic. The nearly 12-minute “Ram Katha,” which closes the album, is essentially a blues devotional, while “Krishna Japaye” seems to float above a spiritual meeting, the collective voices heard from a distance while the listener floats on a sonic cloud.
The highlight of the album, though, is “Er Ra,” a wholly singular solo piece for harp and voice sung by Coltrane in an arcane Egyptian dialect. For those who consider her retreat to be an abandonment of her avant-garde leanings, this track is a severe corrective, a mystifying and radical exploration of the harp laced with tendril-like vocal lines. Whatever your beliefs, it’s clear that Coltrane continued to discover and innovate even as her path diverged from the limelight.