As part of the 2021 Alice Coltrane release Kirtan: Turiya Sings, Ravi Coltrane, the son of Alice Coltrane and producer of the project put together a note to be included in the album. uDiscover is proud to present the note, which explains the thinking behind its unique sound.
In 1981, Alice Coltrane, aka “Turiya,” recorded nine devotional songs and privately released them on cassette tape. This offering of spiritual music was made primarily for the students of her ashram. She entitled the work Turiya Sings. It has this title because it was the first time my mother had actually recorded her own voice – the first time she ever sang in the studio. I remember being 16 at the time hearing it and asking, “Mom, is that you?”
For most of the 1970s, while keeping up the full-time schedule of a recording and touring artist, and raising four children on her own, Alice Coltrane was studying and seeking out spiritual mentors, advisors, and gurus. She became more immersed in Eastern philosophies, particularly those from India and their Vedic religious practices, music, and mythologies. She traveled several times a year to India and would often stay for many weeks at a time. She learned many traditional bhajans (devotional songs) and soon began to compose her own songs to be sung in Sanskrit. The English translations were derived from her meditations. My mother would ultimately become a guru and a spiritual teacher herself and form a small community of students under the banner of The Vedantic Center. By 1980, freed from record company obligations, she began to make music exclusively for this community.
The original release of Turiya Sings was a multi-layered orchestration of voice, organ, string arrangements, synthesizers, and even some sound effects. As all of her previous major-label albums showcased, my mother always arranged her recordings utilizing a grand musical vision.
While producing her last Impulse release, Translinear Light, I came across some mixes of tracks from Turiya Sings that did not include the overdubbed material and only featured Alice’s voice and her accompaniment on Wurlitzer organ. As dynamic and bold as the original version is, hearing my mother sing and play in this stripped-down, intimate setting revealed the true heart and soul of these songs. In this form, I could hear every nuance and inflection in her vocal performance and feel the weight of her rock-solid pulse and timing and (dare I say it) groove on the Wurlitzer. And, most importantly, in this setting, I felt the greatest sense of her passion, devotion, and exaltation in singing these songs in praise of the Supreme.
In that moment, I knew people needed to hear Turiya Sings in this context.
It is always difficult to make a creative decision that is counter to what the artist originally chose for their work. It’s always a delicate matter. But as her son, growing up hearing her play these songs and songs like them every day, on the very same Wurlitzer you hear on this recording, I recognize this choice maintains the purity and essence of Alice’s musical and spiritual vision. In many ways, this new clarity brings these chants to an even higher place. I believe the listener can hear my mother sing and perform and receive these songs in the same way as you would have if you attended a kirtan service she led back in the day. In fact, if you close your eyes and listen – particularly on a good pair of speakers – it’s a very similar experience to being in the room with her and the Wurlitzer.
The music on Kirtan: Turiya Sings is not jazz and there are no improvisations. At their foundation, the compositions have the feeling of the hymns and spirituals my mother, as a teenager, would perform as the organist of her church in Detroit in the mid-1950s. Of course, a few years later she was living in Paris, playing bebop piano in the style of her hero Bud Powell. And a few years later, she was moving past the mainstream and accompanying my father John Coltrane on and off the bandstand, the two exploring the furthest of musical and creative heights and making music in service of the highest power. And a few years later, after the loss of John and a spiritual awakening, she would cultivate a new and unique sonic world of her very own.
By 1981, Alice had her own sound. A definitive musical voice like no other. On this album, your ear will be turned toward the sound of the blues, to gospel, to the Black American church, often combined with the Carnatic singing style of southern India. You will hear beautiful harmonies influenced by Alice’s Detroit/Motown roots, her bebop roots, John Coltrane’s impact, and her absorption of European classical music, particularly that of her favorite: Igor Stravinsky. Yet, at the same time, this is functional music. Its purpose is, with light and love, to praise the names of the Supreme. On this album, your heart and spirit will be turned toward divine inspiration and appreciation.
One of my mother’s students asked me to describe Kirtan: Turiya Sings not as religious music but spiritual music. Functional music that seeks not to project one religion’s doctrines but to promote the universality in all divine music. Read the Sanskrit words. Read my mother’s translations and you’ll find the themes are quite universal. Find a quiet moment, put this album on, sit still and listen. Meditate. Or chant along. Sing along with Turiya and let these ethereal songs elevate your spirit. That is the truest function of this music and Alice Coltrane’s devotional gift to us all.
I invite you all to listen with open ears and an open heart to these blissful and joyous songs.
– Ravi Coltrane, 2021
Check out the Alice Coltrane CD and vinyl collection from the Jazz Center Stage store here.