Transcribing the Infinite:
ALICE COLTRANE (1937-2007)


Alice Coltrane
Lord of Lords
Impulse : 1973

AC, piano, harp; Charlie Haden, bass; Ben Riley, drums; plus: Nathan Kaproff, Lou Klass, William Henderson, Ronald Folsom, Leonard Malarsky, Gordon Marron, Janice Gower, Gerald Vinci, Sidney Sharp, James Getzoff and Bernard Kundell, violins; Myra Kestenbaum, Rollice Dale, Leonard Selic, David Schwartz, Samuel Boghosian and Marilyn Baker, violas; Jesse Ehrlich, Jerry Kessler, Jan Kelly, Anne Goodman, Edgar Lustgarten, Ray Kelley and Raphael Kramer, cellos.

Alice Coltrane
Warner : 1978

AC, piano.


We’re deeply saddened by the unexpected passing of Alice Coltrane. She had recently returned after a long retirement with the solid and frequently impressive Translinear Light, was playing concerts, and was in the process of recording an ambitious and promising new work. Hers was a renewed presence in the jazz world. She’s gone all too soon.

We’d been planning a post on Alice Coltrane’s magnificent Lord of Lords album for some time. It’s sad to share these tracks under the circumstances, but they’ll have to suffice as part of our tribute to a truly great jazz artist.

Coming from a musical family, Alice McLeod began studying classical music at age seven. She was also involved in the church and spent time in Paris studying with Bud Powell. For an excellent account of her early career, be sure to visit The Bad Plus site. They detail her little-known work as a bebop pianist before she met John Coltrane, as well as her crucial contributions to her husband’s late-period music.

That was an important phase of her career, but we want to focus on the magnificent and often misunderstood series of solo recordings Alice Coltrane made after her husband’s death. As we said in our earlier post about World Galaxy, she was often derided as the Yoko Ono of jazz. In other words, the widow of a legendary figure who had the temerity to pursue her own peculiar and powerful artistic vision.

Her excellent early albums like Ptah the El Daoud, A Monastic Trio, and especially Journey to Satchidananda found fresh ways to mesh modal jazz, gospel fervor, Eastern grooves and textures, and free sensibilities. But it was her later work where she really went for broke. Here is David Toop’s perceptive assessment of 1972’s Universal Consciousness:

The album clearly connects to other traditions – the organ trio, the soloists with strings – yet volleys them into outer space, ancient Egypt, the Ganges, the great beyond. The production is astounding, the quality of improvisation is riveting, the string arrangements are apocalyptic rather than saccharine, the balance of turbulence and calm a genuine dialectic that later mystic/exotic jazz copped out of pursuing. Her lack of constraint was dimly regarded by adherents of 70s jazz and its masculine orthodoxies, yet Alice deserved better credit for her virtuosity, originality, and the sheer will power needed to realize her vision.

Her “lack of constraint” was exactly what caused critics and fellow musicians to roll their eyes. Dave Douglas has referred to the Crazy Experimental Freedom of 60s free jazz and while he’s probably referring mainly to the aleatory blowouts on ESP and BYG, the tag certainly fits Alice Coltrane’s work. On World Galaxy and Lord of Lords, her mash-up of string orchestras, Stravinsky, gospelized grooves, psychedelic organ, jazz interplay and much more is beyond bold and over-the-top.

And here’s the important thing: Alice was never afraid to look foolish. Some of her choices like, say, letting her guru chant over her rendition of “A Love Supreme,” could make even her staunchest supporters blush. But that was part of the vision, too. She was pushing herself – both musically and spiritually – as far as she could, trusting her wild muse. Many of today’s artists are far too fucking tasteful, afraid to go out on a limb for fear of it snapping under them, and end up settling for work that’s simply pedestrian. It’s that old saw: Good taste is the enemy of art.

Douglas has also suggested that today’s jazz musicians have found ways to channel the worthwhile parts of yesterday’s CEF and transform it into something more focused. That’s an admirable goal. But sometimes we wish that more of the brightest lights on the scene would go for the full-on, gonzo, undiluted, overreaching jazz that Alice Coltrane created. In these deeply conservative and crushingly consumerist times, we need art that offers new visions and radical possibilities, artists that dream larger than everyone says they should dare.

Toop is particularly insightful to note there’s something feminine about Alice Coltrane’s music and aesthetic that went against the grain of the deeply male jazz world of the 1970s. Maybe that’s one reason why it’s taken her music so long to gain acceptance. Not that jazz critics and musicians at the time were necessarily sexist, but maybe they couldn’t hear what was remarkable about her music because it implicitly challenged entrenched notions of jazz, how it should be structured, the mix of careful composition and naked spirituality, the dominant role of strings and other “feminine” instruments like the harp, etc. While jazz folks hemmed and hawed, it was critics like Toop and rock bands like Radiohead who first championed her music.

Interestingly, the closest modern parallel to Alice Coltrane’s work isn’t found in jazz — but in the recent music of singer-songwriter and fellow harpist Joanna Newsom. Her latest album Ys unfurls five songs over fifty minutes, complex and winding poetic narratives that are scored for voice, harp, bass, and an orchestra scored by Van Dyke Parks. Newsom shares Coltrane’s spirit – her towering ambition, cosmic lyricism, and virtuoso ability to realize unwieldy visions. And there’s something about the way she structures her songs that you don’t find in the work of her male contemporaries. But where Lord of Lords was either laughed at or ignored, Ys has (rightfully) been topping Best of the Year lists. Which either says we’ve come a long way, baby – or that 00s rock listeners are more open-minded than your average 70s jazz fan.

But ultimately great music is great music, period. So let’s end this tribute-cum-manifesto with the spotlight where it belongs – on Alice Coltrane’s music.

Coltrane described Lord of Lords as being “like a meditation,” and that transcendent energy ripples throughout the tunes. Her version of an excerpt from Stravinsky’s “Firebird” is almost hallucinatory, an untethered and incandescent mix of jazz organ, percussion, harp, and hypnotic strings. The tender reading of the traditional African-American spiritual “Going Home” is particularly poignant in the context of her recent death. It’s an example of how her music remained rooted in core emotions even as it evoked a higher consciousness.

Then there’s Coltrane’s solo piano version of “One for the Father,” a song played live and dedicated to her husband, whose legacy she faithfully guarded and nourished in the years after his death. For all our talk of her ability to reach cosmic spaces by combining far-flung modes and instruments, let’s not forget that Alice Coltrane was also a great pianist. This tune from Transfiguration is dramatic and emotionally direct. An overwhelming performance. Although written for another, its mix of gospel, Messaien, and cascading jazz dynamics could not have been conjured by anyone else. It’s a fitting epitaph.

& & & & & & & & &


–Daniel King of the SF Chronicle sat down with Coltrane back in November, and wrote this fine article.
–King also filed his interview with her as a podcast, including comments from Ornette Coleman and McCoy Tyner.
–The NY Times finally got around to posting Ben Ratliff’s authoritative obit.
–Durutti has a wonderfully comprehensive and sensitive post, with Alice music, new and old.
–Rod at Wordandmusic links to some AC YouTube action, and hosts a classic mp3.
–Carl Wilson has a very complete list of relevant blog posts and other Internet notices.
–Song with Orange has a well-wrought obit up, plus some new (to us) links, including a recent Wire interview and an NPR exchange with Tavis Smiley.

Durutti’s piece makes note of the Coltrane family’s wishes regarding donations:

In lieu of flowers, the Coltrane family asks that you please send donations to the following charities:
–The John Coltrane Foundation – 21777 Ventura Blvd., Suite 253; Woodland Hills, CA 91367.
St Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
MusiCare Foundation – 156 W. 56th St. Suite 1701; New York, NY 10019.
Habitat for Humanity.

The press release also notes that a public memorial service will be announced at a later date. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to Coltrane’s extended family.

FURTHER (17 Jan):
Memorial service details, via press release:

Elevation Service for Alice Coltrane (Turiyasangitananda)
Saturday, January 27th, 2007 at 1pm (PST)
Location: Sai Anantam Ashram Center
Address: 3528 North Triunfo Canyon Rd., Agoura, California 91301
Phone: 818-865-0409
For directions:

Also, the Big O blog out of Singapore has made a February 2006 AC concert available for download.

Category Alice Coltrane, tributes

37 Responses to Transcribing the Infinite:
ALICE COLTRANE (1937-2007)

  1. a true Queen. all the best to her. the greatest of sympathy for her family. bye Mrs Coltrane!

  2. click the link on the right for the Evan Parker riffing on Coltrane thang. very good!

  3. Was the passing “unexpected” because she was “great”?! Denis

  4. As of last month, she was in fine health – playing concerts and in the midst of recording an ambitious new album. We assumed she had a good stretch in front of her. Thus the unexpected passing.

  5. Like many people, I imagine, I originally dismissed Alice Coltrane as merely “that other (sorta flaky) pianist who played with (and happened to be married to) Trane after the “Classic Quartet” broke up.” I figured that was all I needed to know about her.

    Then, on a whim, I checked out “Journey in Satchidananda”. Amazing what happens when you actually listen to the music instead of the “established conventional wisdom.”

    R.I.P., Alice…

  6. What a beautiful spirit; she will truly be missed.

    (Just out of curiousity, did you guys set up my anti-spam word to be “trane”?)

  7. First musicians I ever heard citing her as a major influence (equally with that other Coltrane) were the Siberian Trio… my initial reaction was sort of like Funk’s (plus I knew her from her very strange “Music and Meditation with Alice Coltrane” TV show – doesn’t anybody have any clips for Youtube?), then I heard some of her best stuff as a leader on some compilations. Nice that she was finally receiving her due at the end.

  8. BTW, I thought Ethan was right in his comment today that she fit in better with John’s late, freer music than McCoy.

  9. Gone much too soon, especially since she just returned to recording a couple years ago following her extended hiatus. At least we have The Sacred Language of Ascension to look forward to later this year. Quite a shock that it will be a posthumous release. r.i.p. Alice.

  10. Fare Forward Noble Voyager. It’s as if she was just around the corner from her husband. She had the sound answers he needed to take his voice past the confines of the Quartet when the pianist and drummer were getting overwhelmed.

    And as for the jazz scribblers. I’d buy the lps as a teen kid and nearly always found the liner notes to be sub par and the critics to be arrogant pests, even Giddins. They were and still are pro amateurs behaving like media mutts, wagging tails at things they like or barking at things they don’t.

    Just compare a scholar like Lewis Porter and the profound care he puts into his research so it conveys something to the far more popular but glib shill, Ashley Kahn who is all about tail waggery.

  11. Such a shame… her profile was really on the rise with a widely covered concert in Newark and a new CD in the works. She was a unique stilist on three instruments but her work on electric organ was my favorite, she created a conception that was totally original.

  12. Sorry, oops again, I meant the Ganelin trio…

  13. Peace, Mrs. Coltrane. Nice tributes, all, to someone whose music I and many others only learned to start to love recently. As an aside, once again it’s a surprise to me (maybe it shouldn’t be?) to see that all of her Impulse and Warners records are available on iTunes. With the World Galaxy and Lord of Lords posts here as inspiration, I can see I (and probably much of the world) have some pleasurable catching up to do…

    P.S. Joe Henderson and Alice Coltrane, The Elements, with Charlie Haden (1973) is also there, and on eMusic as well. I’m playing it now, and it sounds quite fine.

  14. hey- thanks for this. For those who don’t have it, Transfiguration also includes some absolutely ripping “cosmic free bop” trio playing with Reggie Workman and Roy Haynes (both of whom are absolutely on fire). Coltrane’s organ lines in the right hand are fierce and angular, and she uses the pitch bender brilliantly.

    Is her album with Santana an oddity? oh yeah. Is it worth revisiting? In many ways, especially Angel of Sunlight on side two.

    The Times article included a quote from Don Heckman expressing the fantasy/wish that Alice Coltrane might have played bop more, or again, or whatever. Maybe it was the mood I was in but I found thhat absolutely hilarious…


  15. You make an excellent point about Alice being unafraid to “let it all hang out.”

    Who today would dare attempt jazz-classical-world-gospel-psych-fusion? And even those who flirt with such things, such as Uri Caine and John Zorn, do so with a postmodern wink and/or smirk.

    But Alice was just following her own unique artistic vision. “There will never be another you…”

    In listening to my AC collection yesterday, I was particularly struck by the track “Om Supreme” from the “Eternity” album… resolves into such a serene coda, quite unlike anything else she’s recorded.

    As far as “Illuminations”, I agree: definitely worth a re-revisit (Bill Laswell’s “Divine Light” “remix/reconstruction” was a worthy attempt)… striking how it is very much an Alice Coltrane album with special guest Carlos Santana, rather than vice versa. Strings are particularly massive and awe-inspiring…

  16. Ok, sorry… one last thing…

    Wouldn’t it be a classy gesture for Impulse/Verve/GRP/whoever owns that label these days to reissue Alice’s albums “Huntington Ashram Monastery”, “World Galaxy”, and “Lord of Lords” as a nifty mid-price double CD box set, complete with outtakes, bonus tracks, etc? Too bad it will never happen…

    Oh well — At least we have the good folks at Destination: OUT! Thanks guys!

  17. thanks to everyone for the thoughts on alice.

    matt – hopefully alice’s sacred language album was far enough along that it can be released without too much tampering/touch-ups. the project sounded amazing and right up her alley.

    mark – had no idea that her music had been added to iTunes. Must have happened recently. a wonderful development. of course like Stephen I’m also dreaming about a box that collects those missing impulse albums. would be perfect for that new mosaic select series… but i’m heading over to iTunes in the meantime. and yeah, the elements is quite good, another maligned recording in its day.

    peter – hey. thanks for noting that Alice/Santana album. haven’t heard it in ages but will try and dig out my copy. think i never really gave it the time it deserved and looking forward to revisiting on your recommend.

    stephen -Â your description of illuminations as an alice work with santana guesting makes it sound that much more appealing. but i’m probably not being fair to carlos.

    her work on mccoy tyner’s extensions is really excellent as well. any fans of that one? Â

    and anyone not familiar with newsom, you can download her albums from eMusic. just a tip. it’s an acquired taste but truly cosmic stuff.

  18. There are several musicians using the Harp in creative music beyond a some flavor of the month the Wire is trying to shove down it’s reader’s throats.
    Rhodri Davies, Anne LeBaron, Zeena Parkins and others. Not to mention all the great pianists who work in many of the same areas as Alice.
    I think at the very least Newsom needs more time before being called the “the closest modern parallel to Alice Coltraneâ??s work”.
    It just does not do any service to anyone involved.

    Beyond that complaint “A Monastic Trio” has been a great listen the last few days, as well as “transfiguration”. The Santana Lp is a good one.

  19. Duly noted, Damon, and while the Newsom comparison might be a little bit of a stretch given their relative careers, we’re just trying to bridge gaps and interact with other communities, not slight Parkins et al. Thanks for highlighting other worthy harpists.

  20. i’d also add that the newsom comparison has far less to do with the fact they both play harp and more to do with the scope, breadth, lyricism, and architecture of the songs on YS.

  21. I understand, but Parkins in particular plays harp for Bjork and Matmos, has a long career in improvised and composed music and (I know it is not PC & has nothing to do with music but I only mention it since it is an angle Newsom is obviously working) still looks just fine on the cover of the Wire.
    The Newsom comparison just comes off as a product of her recent media blitz and not careful consideration.
    Anyway, Great site my ipod is enjoying the mp3s.

  22. i love parkins – she’s a great player and has been involved in much excellent music. i just don’t see her musical concerns intersecting that much with alice coltrane’s beyond the harp angle. but perhaps time will prove me wrong on that count. or maybe there’s some work of hers i’ve missed that would change my mind?

    and i’ve been listening to YS for many months now – and the spirit of alice coltrane’s music came to mind on early spins and has stuck around so i thought i’d share it – you’re free to disagree or dismiss it, but i can assure you that it was carefully considered.

    anyhow, thanks for visiting for the site and for the shout-outs about the other wonderful harpists.

  23. “iâ??d also add that the newsom comparison has far less to do with the fact they both play harp and more to do with the scope, breadth, lyricism, and architecture of the songs on YS.”

    Nice try. I went ahead and A/B’ed some of her MP3s online with tracks from “A Monastic trio” and none of them held up.
    I heard cutesy, quirky indie pop that was played well enough, but besides being a woman who plays harp I did not hear anything that was even remotely trying to deal with any of what Alice did.
    So like I said it does not do a service to either. They are working on entirely different concepts.
    I’d compare Alice to other great masters who came after her, Fred Van Hove, Irene Schwiezer, Marilyn Crispel, Dave Burrell, maybe even Muhal Richard Abrahms, etc.

  24. you are welcome to your opinions. but your tone is getting downright snarky.

  25. “Many of todayâ??s artists are far too fucking tasteful, afraid to go out on a limb for fear of it snapping under them, and end up settling for work thatâ??s simply pedestrian.” Well put. Let’s hope for some new explorations from today’s staid jazz musicians.

  26. check Laura Nyro LP ”christmas and the beads of sweat” . it has Alice Coltrane, richard davis, duane allman [?], etcetera. Real good stuff man. Laura also sadly gets not much recognition for her brilliance, merging of tin pan alley with the modern music of her time, etc. .
    the Alice Coltrane backup [harp] on the above mentioned lp is quite prominent. and Mr Davis’s bass playing is superb.
    i wonder if all the jazz guys know about the Pentangle [the group] ?
    the merging of Mingus with Robert Burns.
    check youtube.


    if you really want to know where ZEENA Parkins is coming from, get to ”larynx” by the Elliot Sharp group CARBON. you will see the Alice Coltrane connection, in terms of stamina as a group in keeping a seamless maelstrom swirling with cooperation and subtlety in a torrential hail of musical tones. i saw Zeena and her sisters in various settings in the 80s and she has some serious depth.
    CJC/ Drew-
    gimme your address please [?!] , i will send you the Santana/Alice/Laswell , CD, plus the other cool music i said i would send you guys [MODS]. i am looking to be generous here. i have 5 sealed i got for $1 each.

    eh hem… as far as Joanna NEWSOM goes: check into ”Nurse With Wound list” at google, her first? band was N.W.W. . you will eat your words snarky Damon.

    Pauline Oliveros is quite similar to Alice C. as well, and once again, sadly unknown, and wrongly considered by the critical establishment. she is MUCH more free jazz than you have heard.

  27. to Happy.
    ”Letâ??s hope for some new explorations from todayâ??s staid jazz musicians.”
    ya just gotta look the right places. the staid musicians just dont have their heart in it. they are like politicians living a lie as a legend and acting powerful when really having no power at all except to swindle the consumer. there are plenty plenty adventurous and adept musicians, at all times , working it out. you can’t teach [insert name here] to play like Alice Coltrane. his heart was never in it enough, so he rides on this legend status, never having to consider artistry. too many tales of jazz guys going broke by expressing themselves, so he loses faith in himself and the art ,and capitulates to the mainstream.
    Roscoe Mitchell is a great example of one who could sell out tickets all the time while never giving in to commerce. never. it can never hurt to, for even just a few months, research jazz while COMPLETELY ignoring and purposefully shunning recordings with ”known ” jazz musicians. dig for treasure, find treasure.
    you will begin to loath the critics as they peddle twaddle and pablum as jazz. you will wonder how some guys are lauded as they are, and other guys ignored. there’s lots of good stuff out there. it is just not famous.
    if the Record companies get everyone trained to listen to simple crap, then their jobs are easier, and the musicians are more exploitable and disposable. a very old , long term plan. it gets people saying things, even in this forum, like ”no one took the music further out than Miles”. oh yeah. Alice Soars Past him Big Time. as do/did many others

  28. lee – email us at the address under “who?” sidebar and we’ll send you a mailing address. appreciate the offer of the music. thanks for the tip on CARBON, too.

  29. I am not saying Joanna Newsom is bad, I just think she is already over-rated and lacks the depth that Alice Coltrane had. I don’t think it is a slight on her at age 24 or 25 to say that. I don’t really care what list she is on. As far as indie pop goes she is clearly doing some interesting things, but let’s not go over board.

    I have seen Pauline really play before. If you check out the “Space Between” releases on 482 with different bassists you can really hear it. She is a fantastic improvisor.

  30. Damon says: So like I said it does not do a service to either. They are working on entirely different concepts.

    Lee says: eh hemâ?¦ as far as Joanna NEWSOM goes: check into â??â??Nurse With Wound list’â?? at google, her first? band was N.W.W. . you will eat your words snarky Damon

    I says: We are talking about the same Alice Coltrane who played piano on John Coltrane’s “Live In Japan” no? As I have not heard Ms. NEWSOM’s ‘N.W.W.’ nor ‘Y’s’ I’m (innocently) asking: does Ms. NEWSOM play any instrument like Alice Coltrane played the piano? Does any of Ms. NEWSOM’s output approximate “the scope, breadth, lyricism, and architecture” of Alice Coltrane’s contribution on (John) Coltrane’s “Live In Japan” or does the comparison only hold when Alice is on the harp?

    If one can believe anything one reads on that internet thing, one is given to understand (as mentioned above) that Ms. NEWSOM’s debt is to Van Dyke Parks (who doesn’t remind me of Alice Coltrane at all.)

    MORE IMPORTANTLY (more interestingly, anyhow), how is the “trying to bridge gaps and interact with other communities” going? Has electing Ms. NEWSOM as Alice Coltrane’s “closest modern parallel” based upon Ms. NEWSOM’s “towering ambition, cosmic lyricism, and virtuoso ability to realize unwieldy visions” brought *any* ‘communities’ any closer together?

    Which ‘communities’ need bridging? Once ‘bridged’–then what? Economic equity in the arts? Even glossier magazines? More corporate sponsorship? Dancing in the streets? World peace?

    Great site. Great music. Thanks!

  31. Hey, sjz, thanks for stopping by, and for the very close read of the foregoing. We’re setting our sights somewhat lower than world peace. This is a jazz blog. We’re always interested in getting non-jazz heads to tune in, and vice versa. But that’s pretty much it. Don’t know how it’s going, but it does seem to generate a good amount of comment.

  32. i was wrong re: Joanna in NWW. look at the list anyway. ”lux and ivory” have a good list too

  33. on Joanna Newsome’s Wikipedia page:

    “Many are struck by Newsom’s unusual voice, which has shadings of folk and Appalachian pitch and phrasing, and has also been interpreted as weathered and, to some ears, child-like (at least one critic has compared it to Lisa Simpson’s). Newsom has expressed disappointment at the child-like comparison.”

    Now here’s where my head gets into some strange territory: the parallel between Alice Coltrane and Newsome perhaps has the most resonance around a distinction between affectation on the one hand and legitimate, original style on the other. Maybe this is just another way of reflecting on the “good taste is the enemy of art” aesthetic. I can’t listen to some of Alice Coltrane’s music without chuckling at the affectation of it. So far, the only Newsome I’ve heard is Milk-Eyed Mender, and this too made me chortle. These are (I like to think) not the snarky dismissive laughs of an evil patriarch. Just a gut reaction. I don’t have this reaction to Indian classical music nor to Appalachian folk songs performed by Appalachians (in both cases, it’s more frequently awe). Anyway, I look forward to giving Ys a hearing.

    Bridging worlds: my housemate’s iTunes library has 48.7 days of music. His favorite improvised performance so far is Brotzmann’s Nipples. And he’s got 48.6999 other days of every conceivable genre, style, age and epoch of recorded music in there. This is not only because he is a denizen of the interwebs. It’s also because he is willing, if not eager, to trade off “loyalty” to a particular genre for “open mindedness.” He has a natural appreciation for just about everything in his library. This would have been impossible for me when I was in my late 20s, as he is. It seems that identity is construed differently from the way it used to be for many of the younger people I’ve met and worked with. A side effect is a strange lukewarm (generally positive) reaction to just about everything, at least outwardly.


  34. peace upon all of you. still coming to terms with the passing of Turiyasangitananda. would love to study and practise her music a little more deeply. is there sheet music or transcriptions available of any of her piano music, or of the music from Ptah the el Daoud, particularly “Turiya and Ramakrishna”? thanks to all for sharing your thoughts and feelings about this great teacher

  35. Lawrence, appreciate the respect you express in your comments on Sri Turiyasangitananda. The trully great magnitude of her musical and spiritual offerings are enormous and mostly unappreciated by the world . Hopefully in time, many will come to know the priceless treasures she left for posterity in the Divinely received scriptures she transcribed, as well as musical offerings. “to those who have ears to hear, let them hear”…
    Write to for your request Lawrence. You may also try

    Aum Shanti Aum

  36. Thought you might enjoy this – a download of the Ravi Coltrane Quintet with Alice from Town Hall in 1998:

  37. More Passing Away | etnobofin