I can’t remember exactly when I first heard of Alice Coltrane, but it’s over 45 years ago. But I do remember the first album I got – her collaboration with Carlos Santana, called Illuminations. This is, possibly, the very best Santana playing put to tape/vinyl/digits. I recently played it for a musical partner who is convinced of this – it’s even better than Welcome, sez my friend.
So you should hear it; it’s pretty great. And that’s sort of the topic for the day, but not really. Illuminations features Coltrane on harp, piano and Wurlitzer organ and Santana on electric guitar, backed by Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and others. But the real topic for the day is an album called The Ecstatic Music Of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (Luaka Bop LBOP0087). Here’s a link to the album: https://luakabop.com/catalog/world-spirituality-classics-1-the-ecstatic-music-of-alice-coltrane-turiyasangitananda/. (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/may/03/the-ecstatic-music-of-alice-coltrane-turiyasangitanada-review-truly-numinous-energy). On Qobuz it’s listed as World Spirituality Classics: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane.
I’m very hard-pressed to describe this music to you, but fortunately, if you have Qobuz, you can hear it right now – this is one of the great things about the moment we are in (while simultaneously being devastating to my bottom line). A cross between sort-of hypnotic rhythms, chanting, singing, droning, and big synthesizer sweeps – all captured on tape and delivered to the faithful on cassettes before Luaka Bop saw fit to give it an allegedly wider release. (A perusal of Qobuz will give you an overview of Coltrane’s oeuvre – titles such as “Journey in Stachidananda” and “Translinear Light.” (Those titles may suggest whether you’ll be interested or not.)
Here’s a link to some of the music:
So why did I choose to write about Coltrane, and this album in particular? Well, I’d love to turn you on. And again, it’s also hard to describe – but I have, for many, many years, been drawn to what we might call music of ecstasy. I realize that the description should really be suitable for literally all music, depending upon what makes one ecstatic. So let’s qualify it a little bit:
By music of ecstasy, I mean, at least for this discussion, music in which the performer is in a state of ecstasy. The very best example I can think of is Mahalia Jackson, with Aretha Franklin drawing a close second place. When you hear Jackson sing “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in My Song,” there’s little doubt as to what’s going on inside the singer.
There are all sorts of ecstatic vocal music – Indian is, I suppose, my number one choice of listening, along with gospel music (and I note with absolutely no trace of irony whatsoever that Leon Russell and Delaney Bramlett brought the feel of gospel into rock and roll, and made it way more appealing to me – although I didn’t know that until I saw Leon live, and luckily I saw him about six months after I took up bass). But it’s to be found literally everywhere, from villages to cathedrals; from “folk” music to Bach and Monteverdi and Beethoven; even them Fabs. And so…
This album is ecstatic music, even the calmer pieces, and it draws me deeply in. I suppose one term for it might be meditative, although that’s a cliché that, again, can apply to almost any kind of music, even punk. Some of the vocals are semi-mass choir, some are Coltrane, some are a man (presumably John Paduranga Henderson). Are the vocals the point of the music? Sure – as is everything else. And I have no idea what’s being said. My Sanskrit, if that’s what this is, is virtually nil. Does it matter? Not to me – I think I’ve written before that I have what Brian Eno many years ago told me he had: “meaning myopia.” (I listen to a lot of music sung in Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit.)
I’ve tried to find out how The Ecstatic Music Of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda was recorded, but no luck. Most of the record sounds like it was recorded on a pair of incidental mics in live in the room in a service, but I don’t really know. Some of it was also obviously done in a home studio – it’s a mixture, and it doesn’t really matter. You also get quite a bit of Coltrane’s organ pedals.
But what I can tell you is that if this has piqued your interest, hear it.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Meylan France