The Coltrane name is familiar to people who know little – or even nothing – of jazz. Saxophonist/composer John Coltrane was one of the genre’s key figures, and his talismanic name, iconic reputation and stellar music has transcended the jazz idiom that bore him. But what the public at large probably don’t know is there are two significant Coltranes in the history of jazz. The other was John’s wife, Alice Coltrane, born on 27 August 1937.
Alice Coltrane’s career as a solo artist didn’t begin until her husband’s ended, when he died from cancer, aged 40, on 17 July 1967. Her first formal foray into music came the following year, with the 1968 album Cosmic Music, on which she was jointly credited with her late husband and added overdubbed orchestral arrangements to some of his studio performances. That may have upset the purists, but the album made it clear that Alice Coltrane – a classically-trained pianist originally from Detroit and who’d been in John’s band between 1965 and ’67 – vowed to carry on her husband’s mission of making music that was driven by an earnest quest to explore the intersection of human and divine love, as well as probe the spiritual mysticism of the orient.
Her first solo album proper, A Monastic Trio, also released in 1968 on her husband’s former label, Impulse!, showcased Alice playing harp as well as piano on a series of songs that melded hypnotic modal vamps with pronounced blues and gospel inflections. Over the course of seven highly-regarded albums for Impulse!, released between 1968 and 1973 – all of which were sonic voyages of self-discovery that explored new territory in spiritual jazz – Alice Coltrane emerged from under her husband’s giant shadow and established herself as a bona fide jazz recording artist in her own right.
Via her inspirational early 70s records such as Journey In Satchidananda (featuring Pharoah Sanders), World Galaxy and Lord Of Lords, Alice Coltrane patented a uniquely personal style that was defined by cascading harp glissandi, highly percussive piano playing, swirling clouds of organ and lush symphonic orchestral arrangements. This rich musical tapestry was underpinned and unified by a cosmic sense of vision and a passionate interest in spirituality and Eastern religion. These spiritual concerns would eventually lead Alice to leave the music business altogether, following a three-album stint at Warner Bros in the late 70s, to focus on living a devout life in a Californian Ashram, where she became a spiritual director of its Vedantic Center. Alice continued to make music during this time – under the name Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda – albeit on a sporadic basis.
Though Alice lived in quiet obscurity for many years, by the late 90s, hip-hop had brought her back into the public eye. Cypress Hill famously sampled her 1972 track ‘Galaxy In Olodumare’ on their 1993 hit ‘I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That’, and, throughout the decade, her music was also a source of inspiration for The Beatnuts and Sneaker Pimps.
To raise her profile even further and capitalise on her growing recognition by a new generation of music fans, 1999 saw the release of Astral Meditation: The Music Of Alice Coltrane, a compilation which drew on her Impulse! tenure. For those unfamiliar with Alice Coltrane’s work, it represents a fine introduction, though it’s hard to find now. 2006’s The Impulse! Story is, however, still in print, while for those who prefer their music on vinyl, a rare 1973 double-album compilation, Reflection On Creation And Space (A Five Year View), will reward those who are able to hunt it down.
A formidable musical legacy
In 2004, Alice was coaxed out of retirement to record a new album for Impulse!, Translinear Light, produced by her saxophone-playing son, Ravi Coltrane. Sadly, it proved to be her last. Three years later, on 12 January 2007, she passed away at the age of 69.
Since then, Alice Coltrane’s music has continued to grow in stature, with a steady stream of reissues confirming a growing public interest in her work. The samples have continued, too, with Flying Lotus, in particular, revealing himself to be a keen disciple by re-using snippets from her songs for his own records on three separate occasions, in 2005, 2008, and 2010, respectively. (Born Steven Ellison, the hip-hop producer and recording artist is Alice Coltrane’s grand-nephew.)
Alice Coltrane’s influence is not just restricted to record producers. Her music has permeated a new generation of jazz musicians with spiritual inclinations, including acclaimed US saxophonist Kamasi Washington and rising UK group Maisha, who both carry her musical DNA.
Even if you’ve never knowingly heard any of Alice Coltrane’s music, the chances are that you’ve been exposed to it at some point in your life. So, the next time you hear the name Coltrane, turn your attention to Alice. Her musical legacy is a formidable one that deserves wider recognition.
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