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.
ONE FOR THE FATHER
Warner : 1978
PREVIOUS DEST:OUT POST WITH TRACKS FROM WORLD GALAXY
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
For directions: http://saiquest.com/html/contact.html
Also, the Big O blog out of Singapore has made a February 2006 AC concert available for download.